The launch of a new console comes with a demand for shiny, exciting games to help hawk the system before the first-party studios can make the most of it. Killzone: Shadow Fall, much like Killzone 2 for the PlayStation 3, is acting as the opening salvo for the PlayStation 4 in this new console war, and this sci-fi shooter looks fantastic while doing so.
Enough of the franchise’s solid gameplay mechanics have made the leap to this new generation, and it all adds up to an experience that is definitely worth playing. But the call for “next-gen visuals” demanded a sacrifice in other areas that should definitely give players pause before paying full price.
What you’ll like
Everything has that next-gen shine
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Like most set-piece-based shooters released over the past five years, Shadow Fall knows exactly how gorgeous it can be. Guerrilla Games’ in-house Umbra3 engine is put to some serious stress tests here, with a story packed with explosions and scenic vistas. NPCs shout orders at you next to the open side of a military aircraft flying over the pristine metropolises of Vetka, star Lucas Kellan’s home planet, just as they deliver impassioned speeches on rising cargo lifts conveniently astride the most gorgeously devastated portions of Helghan, former home of the enemy Helghast army.
The early levels burst with lighting dancing through treetops and rushing rivers, placing most of the action near a skybox or massive overlook of a city to emphasize the effect. The combination can be truly stunning most of the time. Areas are cluttered almost to the point of interfering with gunfight visibility, and loose papers and crates flutter and scoot along the floor with a believable weight. The filtered lighting effects in both indoor and outdoor environments, the strong and solid shadows, and the glimmer of wet roads or grated walkways sell the idea of “next-gen visuals” better than any press release has before.
The sound is also a high point, with background noise ranging from muffled conversations to explosions with equal depth. Rain effects can go from barely audible to nonexistent depending on the scene, but mechanical groans and shattering glass produce an admirable effect. The voice acting ranges from passionate and precise from the lead cast and audio logs to disingenuous and stunted in background conversations. The audio design’s flaws are minimal and often hidden well enough to the side, leaving a prominent, booming orchestra of destruction at the forefront.
A showcase for Killzone’s technical strengths
While the first half of the campaign is a collection of straightforward shootouts, it’s not too long before more varied level layouts and less straight-forward enemies bring back the level of polish that has come to be expected of the Killzone series. Enemy A.I. remains competent if not particularly clever, and mercifully, they are still the least prone to grenade spamming than the baddies from comparable shooters. Movement in and out of cover is as smooth as ever as well. The expected arsenal of rifles, shotguns, handguns, and explosives returns, with the hyped assault/sniper rifle hybrid being more useful as a crowd-control weapon you can’t swap out for other guns (too bad it’s not more versatile).
Multitiered missions objectives are more a method to showcase the size of the various areas and levels than anything else, although you will spend a pleasurable half hour early on finding higher and higher places from which to use your zip line. Brief exploratory segments in zero gravity also refreshingly changes up the pace between gunfights.
Enlisting as Shadow Marshall Kellan also equips players with an OWL droid, a utility bot controlled largely through the PS4 controller’s touchpad. Swiping along the four primary directions turns the droid into a zip-line, a one-way shield, an attack decoy, or an EMP blast, and this is by far Shadow Fall’s most interesting addition to the Killzone’s single-player campaign. Far more responsive than I expected, the OWL droid becomes an excuse to add a bit more strategy to all of the running and gunning. It throws a bit of a screwball against the rather standard difficulty curve, but it remains an optional accessory throughout most of the game, beyond a few mandatory zip-lines.
A slick, solid multiplayer
Multiplayer is definitely Shadow Fall’s chief attraction, and it has the balance and variety to back that up. Map variety is good enough to last most players through to the first batch of DLC, and the wide and empty maps are as much an asset in group play as they are a detriment in single-player. Post-respawn jaunts to most mission objectives can quickly become dull in The Park and The Penthouse maps, but it’s not too long before players need to start shooting in any given scenario.
The consumer-mandated spread of defending territory, capturing beacons, and death matches are all accounted for, and all run with the frantic energy necessary for such tug-of-war objectives. Chaining modes – even those less popular – into a lengthy 8-on-8 campaign is the most fun that can be had with Shadow Fall, single-player or multiplayer, as long as you aren’t entirely devoted to what’s new. Starting out with every gun available is an excellent boon to any player skeptical about spending hours unlocking everything, although it does mute the appeal of what can be unlocked through perks and challenges a little, at least for the first dozen or so.
Character advancement is smooth, and the perks flow regularly throughout any match type or class choice. It doesn’t quite allow the advanced player profile specialization as promised, with not enough class or play-style specific challenges between the incredibly easy or insanely difficult to accommodate the majority of players. Despite not living up to the hype, the stat and perk meta-game in Shadow Fall still has that addictive potential that demands just one more match, and encourages trying every available play style.
Class and arsenal overall balance fit together well, with each of the Assault, Scout and Support classes offering a unique blend of weaponry and special abilities to provide for both experimentation and effectiveness. Both the crowd control arsenal of the assault class and the scout’s array of sniper rifles feel a little underpowered compared to the shotguns of the support class, but not enough so to throw off every encounter. As with all modern shooters, guns feel and sound lighter than what would truly satisfy, but targeting and recoil are solid across all gun types.
What you won’t like
That next-gen polish comes with a wait
Even with all of the god rays and water effects, Killzone: Shadow Fall is not a perfect visual package. Dust particles flow charmingly through the air up close, but from a distance look like a hive of buzzing insects. And I did notice a few occurrences of texture pop in and clipping, with silent (thick, white) rain falling inside more than a few storage containers. Most NPC extras are on the wrong side of the uncanny valley, with Kellan’s father in the prologue looking particularly like a spooky meat puppet. Thankfully, both creepy NPCs and the occasional lip-sync gaps fade from memory once Shadow Fall hits its stride toward the six-hour mark.
More problematic, however, is how these shiny vistas and garish lighting effects come at the cost of multiple, obvious loading gates within each level. The rendering portions of a stage are frequently locked behind computer panels that need to be hacked or prolonged introductory segments that you can’t skip for the first half of their runtime. Combined across the average 10-hour playthrough and you’ve got a decent chunk of hang time.
The story is a step back
With the name Killzone comes the expectation of more engaged narratives than most in the action or sci-fi shooter genre. Beyond the inherently empathetic plight of the Helghast (a homeless race of once-proud warriors backed into a corner), previous entries have cast memorable (if not likeable) protagonists into blockbuster conflicts. Shadow Fall’s role in this saga is a bit rushed by comparison.
Set 30 years after Killzone 3, Shadow Fall’s intent to depict a nuanced theater of war is readily apparent, just not effectively executed. Largely concerning the resettling of Helghan refugees on the planet of Vetka (separated by a Berlin Wall allegory that’s practically ignored) and a subsequent cold war, the grand machinations of war are underwritten in favor of overwritten characters.
Part of it is the problem inherent with delivering story through game segments that prioritize visual flair over plot coherence. Kellan is completely ineffective as a lead or audience stand-in (a point even brought up in a taunting villain monologue), and few characters endear themselves at all. Audio logs and dossiers provide a consistent ground level perspective on the conflict, but they amount only to scattered testimonials or overly dark memoirs to a war players are never drawn into.
Aside from falling back into the drudgery of portraying conflicted soldiers acting out orders from fatally stubborn and/or corrupt commanding officers, the story is simply set-piece fodder. Terrorists enact grandiose plots on the most camera-worthy city infrastructure, so supporting characters can reveal they were not as good as we thought by using grotesque weaponry we didn’t know they had. Stock revelations lead to obvious red-herrings, and the whole ship comes crashing down with half-hearted war poetry on the nature of strength and culture. A few characters make a minority of cutscenes worth watching, but most of you should just keep waiting until the next level loads so they can skip to it.
Gratuitous stealth, free-fall mechanics
Shadow Fall is not built for stealth; the level layout and complete lack of an indicator for the enemy’s field of vision makes the occasional quiet sections frustrating. At any point in which you’re not pacing around waiting for a narrative beat to finish, you can scan for hostile activity. It acts more like an advanced radar than, say, Batman: Arkham series’ Detective Mode; holding right on the D-pad for too long will overload the scan with feedback loud enough to alert everyone in the room. It’s a nice balance to try to keep, but don’t expect to be able to fight more than a couple Helghast before having to find cover.
And then we have the few free fall segments. The area in which you plummet through the air are so cluttered that you’ll spend most of the time spent racing downward spamming the air brake to avoid another collision on the pixel-wide edge of a piece of debris. There are little more than two scene changes, but the stubborn controls make for a frustrating and wholly gratuitous bit of gameplay filler.
Shaky additions to multiplayer suite
What is new in Shadow Fall’s multiplayer is either problematic or dependent on player creation. The Capture and Connect mode, for example, demands that a team take hold of a majority of five points on the map, each starting out with two. Without the ability to capture points out of sequence (ranked A–E, with C up for dispute at the start), the balance of the match seems to perpetually favor those first to capture the midpoint.
Featured warzones, Shadow Fall’s most hyped multiplayer addition, looks to add a cyclical replayability by enabling players to customize maps and matches in hopes of being selected for prominent display by the developers. Players have full control over the field conditions — think things like classes, weapons, and player health or which mission objectives and victory measurements are in effect. I played two maps from Guerrilla Games: a slower, sniper-based affair, and the other being 16 players with shotguns and a 1-second spawn time.
The appeal of these modes, assessed prior to community engagement, feels limited. While there is a lot of fun to be had in re-creating Goldeneye 64’s The Man with the Golden Gun Mode with Killzone assets, there is an inevitable shelf date to player-creativity when there is no control over in-game assets or weather conditions. Swapping out arsenal allowances and spawn times will provide a sizable amount of extra value, especially to creators experienced in creating balanced campaigns, but it won’t take long for the available options to feel like window-dressing. Surfing static menus for the optimal combination of rules and conditions, however brief the process can be, will likely not hold up long either. For players just looking to take part in the labors of others, there is considerably more potential.
Killzone: Shadow Fall is a pretty game, gorgeous even. But the demand for moments to punctuate trailers or demos forced a sacrifice of story that it never quite recovers from. The OWL will find its place in history as one of the few controller-based mechanics to actually entertain, while the time spent in free fall may make players actually consider a plummet-related death. You find a stride in the minute-to-minute gameplay before drudgery sets in, and the multiplayer suite remains solid, if with a few new tenuous bells and whistles.
The end result is a game that is worth playing, but hardly a seller of systems: an average soldier in an above average unit.
Killzone: Shadow Fall is a launch exclusive to the PlayStation 4 that releases Nov. 15, 2013. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a digital copy of the game for the purpose of this review.
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