Killzone: Shadow Fall
It’s been 30 years since the planet Helghan was rendered inhabitable by the Petrusite detonation now known as “the Terracide”. A dubious agreement with the ISA has allowed the remaining Helghast survivors to take refuge on the planet Vekta – well, half the planet anyway. A massive fortification called “The Wall” separates the two deeply conflicted cultures, but you knew it was only a matter of time before the resentment over the previous war boiled over into a new conflict, this one in the form of a Cold War. This is Killzone: Shadow Fall.
I’ve always been intrigued by the lore of the Killzone series. Despite the depiction of the Helghast as “Space Nazis” – their glowing red eyes a clear indicator of their evil nature – the Vektans are by no means saints themselves. In fact, I’d argue the Vektans are equally villainous, but that’s a debate for another day. In Shadow Fall, you play as Lucas Kellen, a Shadow Marshal for the Vektan Security Agency (VSA). During a series of covert operations, Kellen learns that the ISA has been researching and testing a bio-weapon capable of rendering the Helghast extinct. The VSA fear that the head scientist behind the project may be trying to defect, and thus begins the race to locate Dr. Hilary Massar and the bio-weapon before it falls into the wrong hands.
I applaud Guerilla Games for taking a more mature approach to the story – that of a political thriller. As the narrative progresses and you get to witness the remnants of the Cold War from both sides, a moral gray area begins to grow as the game hammers home the question, “Who are the bad guys?” But I have a better question, “Who are the good guys?” I’m starting to wonder if the regular citizens – Vektan and Helghast alike – might actually co-exist peacefully if it weren’t for their political and military leaders, all of whom are complete assholes. Killzone fans are familiar with how the Helghast leaders have been portrayed throughout the series, but it’s Kellen’s boss and mentor, Thomas Sinclair – director of the Shadow Marshals and head of the VSA – who attempts to wrestle The Biggest Douche in the Universe award away from the reigning champion Rico. I don’t know if they’re doing it on purpose, but Guerilla Games has a habit of creating the most unlikeable protagonists.
I also have to tip my hat to the refined combat in Shadow Fall. Larger battlefields and a new OWL Drone offer more tactical freedom for players. Accompanying Kellen throughout most of the campaign, the OWL has several modes of operation that can be activated by swiping on the DualShock 4’s touch pad. Options include a stun mode, a shock blast that stuns enemies and disrupts electronics; an attack mode, in which the OWL attacks nearby enemies or targets a specific enemy; a shield mode, which creates a one-way energy shield in front of you; and a zipline mode, which allows you to quickly reach lower areas. Not only useful in combat, the OWL is imperative to defeat the game’s more challenging enemies, some of which wear energy-based armor that must be disrupted before they can take any damage. My only gripe with the OWL is its zipline – a far too fussy of a tool. In one of the earlier missions, you have to use the zipline to get across large gaps in a structure, but where you’re allowed to cross is too arbitrary. I must have fired that zipline a couple dozen times before I finally found the one spot the developers intended. Don’t be surprised to see the message “invalid target” when using the zipline, and eventually dismissing its usefulness altogether except when absolutely necessary to progress.
Shadow Fall starts out well enough – with its provocative storyline and new tactical combat elements – but at about the midway point of the campaign it begins a downward spiral that it’s unable to recover from, culminating in one of the worst endings that I’ve seen in a long time. The gameplay isn’t well paced for starters, with long breaks between firefights for sequences involving stealth, platforming and exploration – elements the Killzone series is neither known for nor pulls off particularly well – but the second half of Shadow Fall is a downright slog. A scene where Kellen finally encounters Dr. Massar face-to-face is especially awkward in how it’s scripted, and a sequence where Kellen free falls to the surface of Helghan is terribly frustrating in how it controls.
While the single-player campaign is a bit of a letdown, Shadow Fall’s multiplayer is excellent. It’s a much more accessible experience than the likes of Call of Duty: Ghosts or Battlefield 4 for a few reasons. First, all of the weapons are unlocked from the get go so you won’t feel at too much of a disadvantage against players who have already logged dozens of hours in the multiplayer arena. Second is Botzone, an offline multiplayer mode where you can play solo against a number of AI-controller opponents. Not only does it provide the opportunity to improve your shooting skills, but also learn the maps and test the different weapons at your disposal. Last but not least, a “ New Recruits” server has been set up specifically for those new to Shadow Fall multiplayer. If you feel intimidated or frustrated competing against veteran players, you can always fall back to this server.
There are now only three classes in multiplayer – Scout, Assault and Support – and while all weapons are unlocked from the start, completing upwards of fifteen-hundred varying challenges will allow players to unlock class-specific secondary abilities and weapon attachments. A total of ten maps play home to 24-player Warzone, the hallmark of the Killzone multiplayer experience. Warzone offers a rotation of up to five mission modes that change as the match unfolds, all without having to reload the map. For example, you might start with Capture and Hold, then switch to Search and Destroy, and finish with Team Deathmatch. Guerilla Games has pre-set Warzone servers ready to join, but players are free to create their own Warzone and customize rules such as map rotation, number of respawns, allowing or disallowing specific weapons and abilities, etc. If all you want to do is join a 24-player Team Deathmatch or Search and Destroy, servers have been set up specifically for those game modes as well. The only major miscue in multiplayer is the lack of voice chat. You can’t communicate with your team members unless you start a party chat and invite them in – a tedious process to say the least.
One area the Killzone series has always dazzled is visuals, and Shadow Fall is no exception. It’s a gorgeous looking game and a great showcase for the graphical prowess of the PlayStation 4. The volumetric lighting is worth the price of admission alone, but just about everything from character models to particle and weather effects is stunning. If anything, character animations could be a little more fluid. Jumping and climbing in particular feels very robotic. The stark contrast between the lush Vekta City and the decrepit slums of New Helghan really helps drive the narrative, and there are moments in Shadow Fall that are truly worthy of being called “next-gen”. And to think, this is just a first generation game – it’s only going to get better from here.
Sound design has its ups and downs. While the soundtrack is memorable – especially the main theme – and the weapon and sound effects are solid, it felt like ambient sounds were lacking in various scenes. The voice acting isn’t especially strong either. I don’t know if it’s the corny dialogue or poor delivery – probably a combination of the two – but some of the performances could have been better. On a positive note, Guerilla Games very cleverly uses the DualShock 4’s built-in speakers to play audio logs found throughout each mission – a design choice that I’m sure we’ll see copied by other developers.
Like every other shooter this holiday season, Killzone: Shadow Fall presents a much better multiplayer experience than it does a single-player one. It’s hard not to be disappointed by that. The narrative and increased emphasis on tactical combat show promise early on, but are ultimately squandered when the campaign falls apart midway through. On the strength of its incredible visuals and excellent multiplayer I would recommend Shadow Fall to Killzone fans, but early adopters of the PlayStation 4 looking for a good single-player experience would do better to look elsewhere.
Reviewed By: Stephen Riach
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
This review is based on a retail copy of Killzone: Shadow Fall for the PlayStation 4 provided by Sony Computer Entertainment.