[Disclosure: This review is based on a copy of the game provided by the publisher]
Thirty years have passed since the planet Helghan was all but destroyed by the ISA, forcing a broken people to flee their homes and live like refugees behind a wall bordering the beautiful Vekta City. In Killzone: Shadow Fall, the series' long-running tradition of evolution is alive and well in both the single player and multiplayer campaigns. While not everything Guerrilla Games tries to accomplish in this latest shooter for the PlayStation 4 is a resounding success, you have to at least appreciate the effort to shake things up. And while some of those big alterations fall flat, there are just as many moments where this PS4 FPS truly soars.
I've never quite understood what appears to be an overarching air of dismissal from the majority of gaming press concerning the Killzone series. While it's possible that touting the first game in the series (and easily the weakest) as a “Halo killer” way back in the day may have been a poor judgment call, I can't for the life of me understand why some good old fashioned marketing chest beating from the PS2 era still seems to have an affect on how many gamers perceive the series.
If nothing else, the original Killzone tried to offer something new to the genre; including a dark and mature Sci-Fi universe and multiple playable characters with their own sets of skills. From there, each game in the series continued to evolve, adding its own trademark mechanics, gameplay and a continuation of the evolving lore. Even the PSP and Vita Killzone offerings march to their own beat, meaning that no two games in the series plays exactly like the others.
In short, Guerrila Games has at least bothered to try to give players a little something different to experience each time they step boot on the battlegrounds of the Killzone series, something other genre staples would do well to pay attention to.
PlayStation 4 launch title Killzone: Shadow Fall is perhaps the most daring in this long line of constantly evolving shooters, offering up a world, story and mechanics that are so far detached from the previous games that it's sometimes easy to forget that this is still technically the same war I've been fighting for over a decade. It all starts with the visuals, which are by far some of the best I've ever seen in a video game. Period. From sweeping landscapes and lush forests to tight, poorly-lit corridors and a crumbling cityscape, everything on display here is an absolute feast for the eyes. There's a bit of pop in from time to time, but that's a small price to pay when I find myself exploring every nook and cranny of the environments just to see what lies around the next corner.
And that exploration is rewarded, too, either with various bits of collectables that flesh out the game's back story, additional gear and, my personal favorite, audio log's that play instantly through the DuelShock 4's imbedded speaker.
Much of the game world is wide open, which turns out to be something of a double-edged sword. It's fun exploring these big landscapes and figuring out where I'm supposed to go next on my own terms, but it was occasionally to get utterly lost or turned around, circling back time and time again until I finally figured out what buttons I was supposed to push or where I was supposed to stand in order to make the next piece of story unfold.
As I said at the start, a big 30 years have passed since the events which took place in Killzone 2 and, as a result, everything from the look of the characters to their firearms has evolved. Like everything else in Shadow Fall, there is definitely a distinct Killzone flavor to all of the bits and pieces, but I kind of miss the weapons and distinct Helghan growl I've grown used to over the years.
Taking the unexpected stealth missions of Killzone 2 a big step forward, there's quite a bit of wiggle room concerning how you can approach the game's various levels. Thanks to your handy Owl robot and a large number of alternate routes, its possible to go in guns a-blazing or sneak in quietly no matter what the situation. I'd frequently clear an area of enemies thinking there was no way to go other than up the middle only to discover all sorts of ladders, air ducts and alternate routes peppered across the landscape upon further investigation.
And speaking of the owl, that hovering companion boasts a lot of good ideas all rolled into one. Its zipline feature lets you move between elevations with ease while his shield feature allows you to protect yourself when the firefight gets a bit too hairy. It can stun enemies (which doubles as an EMP for disarming shields) and can also just be sent in to shoot anything that moves. The best feature, though, is an ability to heal the player after being overwhelmed so long as you have an adrenaline pack on-hand. Said adrenaline also slows down time when you're aiming down the sights, making for some pretty epic, movie-quality firefights.
But like I said earlier on, it isn't all sunshine and rainbows in the world of Shadow Fall. For every clever set piece and intense firefight, there are moments of confusion where objectives are unclear or just downright dull. I'm all for pacing, but spending an entire level basically hauling energy containers from one part of a ship to another with minimal shooting throughout isn't exactly my idea of a good time. If you're going to make me put my gun aside (Which, I assure you, I'm all for.), I need more compelling reasons to do so.
Guerilla is also a bit too love with their lighting engine in Shadow Fall. While all of those cool effects certainly look lovely, I found myself frequently unable to see what the heck was going on because bright lights and killer sunbeams were obliterating my field of view. It ups the difficulty, sure, but not in a way that I'm very fond of. If I can't see what I'm supposed to be shooting at, I'm not having a good time.
Finally, there's that dark and gritty story Shadow Fall has been touting since its initial reveal earlier this year. Certain unexpected moments give a brief glimpse into the Helghast way of life we've never been privy to before, which I thought was pretty cool. And the Helghast operative Echo is also a nice addition to the cast (A capable female character whose idea of armor isn't metal pasties? You don't say!), her history and motivations are never fully explored, leaving me wondering who, exactly, she really is.
Otherwise, we're still basically left with the same old retread of every other shooter to come down the line. The bad guys aren't necessarily all evil. The good guys aren't necessarily all saints. War is hell. Yadda-yadda-yadda. I found myself unsure of what, exactly, my mission was from time to time and, sadly, the yarn being spun wasn't strong enough to make me really care about that fact.
Finally, despite running on a more powerful machine, something about Killzone: Shadow Fall feels utterly subdued. It's a smaller experience in a lot of ways. The campaign weighs in at around 10 hours and the environments are big, sure, but the vast majority of action takes place on a much smaller scale. You'll kill a few Higs here and there and move on. The soundtrack is nice and all, but I miss the raging battlefields of Helghan, with armies squaring off right in front of me as explosions shook the ground and pullets streaked past. I won't fault the developers for choosing to tell this type of story rather than retread familiar ground, but I also can't deny that I spent much of Shadow Fall thinking “that was pretty cool, but man, that remember that one time in Killzone 2 when those tanks were rolling in and dozens of baddies were pushing through our defenses?”
All of this, from the quieter game play to the beautiful, multi-tiered environments, bleeds over into Shadow Fall's multiplayer campaign. While I similarly miss the epic firefights of previous installments, I also feel like the changes made in this PS4 shooter are better suited to the online components. It makes Shadow Fall feel distinct when compared to other available shooters and, again, I have a hard time faulting a developer for trying something unique.
Up to 24 players can duke it out in big, colorful environments with easily customized loadouts ready to be swapped in and out depending on your current needs. Communication would go a long way toward strategizing, something that is unforgivably missing unless you and your buddies are in Party Chat. Word is that chat will be patched in at some point, but I can't rightly ignore its absence in a modern shooter.
Getting in and out of various different types of Warzones is a snap, with Guerrilla offering some of their own options (Knives only, anyone?) and players able to tweak the online battles to their heart's content. Still, I typically prefer to stick to the good old fashioned Warzone, a rotating series of objectives that force players to keep moving around the map, work together and actually pay attention to their goals if they hope to find success. It's my favorite mode in any shooter, one I'm surprised hasn't been borrowed by Killzone's peers.
In short, Killzone: Shadow Fall is something of a mixed bag. It looks and plays great, but not all of the design choices were the wisest. Much of the campaign feels like check boxes being marked off while other facets feel like an all-too-rare breath of fresh air. I can't help but feel like Guerrilla threw everything at the wall to see what would stick in order to decide where the series should go next. Here's hoping they pick a good, more consistent bearing moving forward. I enjoyed most of my time with Shadow Fall and will come back to the multiplayer until the next shiny thing catches my eye. It's a good entry in a series I've enjoyed for quite some time, even if this particular adventure didn't exactly blow me away.
Players: 1 (online multiplayer 2 - 24)
Platforms: PlayStation 4
Developer: Guerrilla Games
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment