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Killzone: Shadow Fall Review

Jim Sterling | 14 Nov 2013 19:00
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Developed by Guerrilla Games. Published by SCEA. Released November 15 2013. PS4 only.

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I'll never quite understand why, exactly, Killzone is not considered worthy of the same attention enjoyed by the likes of Halo, Call of Duty, or even FarCry. Certainly, the series has its dedicated fans, and the most devout of PlayStation brand thralls will flock to its call on the strength of its exclusivity alone, but still, it isn't awarded the same gravitas in the gaming media as other big-budget shooters, and the average gamer wouldn't place it high on a wish list.

Personally, Killzone is my shooter of choice. Its universe is a fascinating one, its warring factions possess an unmistakable personality, and the multiplayer feels tailor-made to my exect preferences. I wish more people took it seriously. In fact, I may be the only reviewer who can tell you the difference between Mael Radec and Stuart Adams.

Killzone: Shadow Fall, for all its self-conscious improvements, will fail to change any of this. While Guerrilla Games has clearly addressed many recurring criticisms of the series and produced something notably slicker, the productionn is still fundamentally Killzone through and through. For most gamers out there, this won't be worth the attention. For me, it's pretty much what I wanted.

Killzone: Shadow Fall boldly advances the story some thirty years after the events of Killzone 3. With their planet destroyed, the surviving Helghast have moved to Vekta, the very planet they attempted to conquer in the first game. The Vektans, for their part, have offered half the planet in reparations for the destruction of Helghan, and a giant wall has been erected to separate the two territories. Political tension is in the air, and players are there to cut through it with a knife as Shadow Marshall Lucas Kellan, protecting Vekta from Helghast terrorists and fighting to stop outright war between the two races.

Shadow Fall's single-player campaign takes place across the expanses of Vekta and New Helghan, as well as off-planet, and may very well be the best structured story mode of the series. The sense of being a soldier in a planetary war has been replaced with stealthier, more intrigue-riddled scenarios, allowing Guerrilla Games to go to town with atmospheric locations and moments of quiet tension to punctuate the combat. Delving deeper into the lore of the series and portraying the Helghast in the sympathetic light they've always deserved, Shadow Fall is a more complex and interesting tale than previous installments, though to really appreciate it, one is going to have to have been already well invested in the narrative to do.

While I found the story satisfying enough, the decision to replace most of the Helghast voice actors with Americans is a troubling one. Part of why I've always loved the Helghast is how their snarling British accents contrasted the more generic ISA protagonists, but this time a huge chunk of them sound like little more than common grunts found in almost any other shooter. It's possible Guerrilla is trying to show how living on Vekta has influenced their culture, though the walled-off planet premise seems to contradict such an idea. In any case, I can't help feeling a lot of the personality has been removed from an enemy force I always considered iconic.

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At least visually, Killzone retains a distinguished air. The stark contrast between the bright, lush Vektan cities and the filthy, militant wasteland that is New Helghan makes for a game that always feels environmentally fresh. While the PlayStation 4 affords a slight graphical bump in terms of lighting and particle effects, it's really the artistic direction of Shadow Fall that makes it worth viewing in 1080p. The beautiful greens of forest environments and the harsh red-on-black color scheme of Helghast outposts is what really sells the world of Shadow Fall, irrespective of advanced console technology.

Shadow Fall's combat is mechanically hard to tell apart from previous installments, especially to the casual observer. Guns are still weighty and ranged firefights are still methodical affairs, requiring players to hold their positions and be wary of flanking attackers. Longtime players will note a fresh fluidity to the gameplay, however, a new sense of speed that makes the game less like an embattled march and more akin to a sprint through a minefield. Animations for reloading and aiming have been quickened, while the action blasts along at a far steadier pace. This is somewhat at odds with the amount of times one is made to stand in slow elevators or slowly hack open doors, but such instances are far from overwhelmingly egregious.

Lucas' OWL is the series' newest toy, an autonomous bot that the Shadow Marshall can call forth to perform several tasks. Able to target enemy opponents, erect a temporary shield, stun shielded Helghast or act as a zipline, the OWL is a useful new gadget that can make the difference in a battle, not least for the fact that it can use collectible adrenaline packs to revive Lucas -- a downright essential feature for some of the more bullet-laden encounters. Using the OWL is as simple as pressing L1, while its features are selected with quick swipes of the DualShock 4 touchpad -- a relatively straightforward and easy use of the hardware. While it can sometimes be easy to forget the OWL's existence, it's a damn cool toy to use, and manages to be so without getting crammed down the player's throat.

Other new toys include the ability to perform melee kills while diving from high places, and tossing one's knife at a second enemy, as well as hackable spider mines that can be sent to explode in an enemy's face. All these extra playthings conspire to make a far more energetic campaign in contrast to previous installments.

All that said, Shadow Fall inexplicably peppers itself with dull space exploration sections that drag on far longer than they should. One particularly irritating situation involves escorting a space train from one long stretch of emptiness to another, intermittently blasting at bots that fly toward it in formation. I got the point of this little endeavor within seconds, but it dragged on for minutes. Shadow Fall is littered with moments like this, and makes things worse with some poorly designed environments in areas, badly signposted and full of useless spaces that lead to nowhere interesting. These dull and frustrating segments are more hindrances than overwhelmingly negative experiences, but they occur frequently enough to merit criticism.

While Shadow Fall's single-player suffers from dreary moments and loses a surprising amount of personality with the simple change of accents, it's still a fluidly structured, pleasantly varied campaign that should last you a solid eight hours and provides immensely satisfying gunfights. While there's nothing like the jetpacks from Killzone 3 or the mechs from Killzone 2, there's still plenty of memorable stuff on offer, and it looks very pretty to boot.

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Multiplayer is going to be a bit more familiar to fans, even if the changes look dramatic on the surface. For a start, the familiar classes have been eradicated, replaced with three very simple ones -- Assault, Tactical, and Support. These three classes, however, contain all the abilities and potential of previous ones in the series, now brought together under broader categories. This lends a lot more scope for customization, allowing players to choose a simple role and then outfit it for their specifications. As a personal preference, I always liked playing as either the Tactician or a Medic in previous iterations, and had to choose between the two. Now, thanks to the Support class, I can revive teammates like a Medic and place extra spawn points like a Tactician. Whether you want to be a simple attacker, a team helper, or a sneakier predator, the three classes will have you sorted before allowing you to delve deeper and get the exact experience you want.

This focus on customization is carried through into the gameplay itself. Custom Warzones are a big part of the online shenanigans this time around, with players able to change everything from the objectives to the weapons to what classes are allowed. One simple Warzone, titled "Run n' Gun Capture Fun," forces all players to be the Assault Class and offers one objective -- capture and hold territory. It's a very streamlined experience, with the other end of the spectrum allowing all classes, tons of guns, and up to five varied objectives pulled from previous entries in the series.

Needless to say, as a fan of Killzone's multiplayer, I'm very much into what Shadow Fall provides. It preserves everything I enjoyed in the last installments, but offers that extra level of player choice to keep me invested. The new way of unlocking abilities and equipment is interesting too, replacing a linear experience system with set challenges that reward fresh items. Essentially, performing your role efficiently in a match will allow you to perform that role even better in future, as continued use of abilities and equipment unlocks new additions to them.

Also, I do have to note that the fact the best player on the winning team gets a choice of executions to perform on an opposing player at the victory screen is a beautiful touch. Well played!

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As already noted, Killzone: Shadow Fall is a good- looking game, though that mostly thanks to the art design. Textures are a bit blurry at times, and the physics have a habit of freaking out, while the overall graphics really aren't much of a leap from the PS3 and definitely struggle to outmatch the very best of what a comparable PC can do. That said, art direction does trump hardware horsepower, and Shadow Fall has that where it counts. The audio is also much improved this time, with a surprisingly atmospheric soundtrack, and a beautifully punchy sound to the weaponry. I am still struggling to get over the American Helghast, though!

Killzone: Shadow Fall is a rock solid game, though it struggles to truly showcase the PlayStation 4 as a launch title. First of all, you're going to have to already be a fan of the series to really get much out of it, and the straight continuation of an established first-person shooter franchise is always going to struggle to wow the player with anything unique.

Still, I do have an intimate knowledge of the series, and as such, am pretty much the exact person this game is for. If you're a Killzone fan, you're likely going to love Shadow Fall and get everything you expect from it. A more elegant narrative campaign and a richer multiplayer experience are offset by some odd artistic decisions and a number of strangely dull elements, but overall, this is a quality shooter that delivers what Killzone players have come to expect.

Bottom Line:: Killzone: Shadow Fall is not going to win over the masses, especially those who never cared for the series to begin with. It is, however, a fine shooter with a fun story, and a multiplayer mode that fans can sink hours and hours into.

Recommendation: Many PS4 owners will buy this one simply due to it being one of a tiny handful of launch titles worth caring about. However, be wary if you are buying it just to have a launch title. If you don't want a methodical shooter with a story that's incomprehensible to new fans, you may just end up disappointed.

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