I’ve always felt a little sorry for the Killzone series, forced to live in the shadow of its over-achieving, glory-loving, media-whoring cousin, Halo. It’s not that Killzone is a markedly inferior series – the gunplay has always been tight, and its devil-eyed, space-Nazis are some of the coolest baddies to ever shoot you in the face. (And when it comes delivering killer visuals, Killzone has reversed the Warthog over Major Chief’s face more than once.)
Unfortunately the series has always struggled with two facets. Firstly, it’s been one of the more linear shooters out there, sticking to whack-a-mole with futuristic assault rifles, which doesn’t compare well to the AI-driven sandbox combat of Halo. Then there’s the storyline. Let’s face it, Killzone is known for its graphics and not its narrative for a reason. With the series debuting on a system a gazillion times more powerful than its predecessor, can Guerilla Games pour more of those MHz into improving the core gameplay, and not just bigger, prettier spaceplosions? The answer is yes, mostly.
The very first level of Shadow Fall will be quite a shock to Vektan veterans. Rather than being presented with a funnel 10-metres across as they’re so accustomed to, they’re instead thrown into a huge open area that will have them shaking in the throes of agoraphobia. Enemies and objectives are dotted through the area, and can be approached in several ways. Stealth is a viable tactic, but most will probably find the trigger-flexing approach the easiest, especially now players are equipped with a hovering robotic friend called the OWL. This little buddy can be used to zip-line in from high areas, to deploy an energy shield, to attack enemies with his pea-shooter, or to detonate an electric shock. The last power is especially useful once you encounter baddies who wear electric dressing gowns for protection. Forget to send the OWL flying into battle and the game will tear you a new one, especially if you play on the hardest difficulty as I did. But trust in this little fella’s powers and you’ll soon be cutting through squads of Helghan death-troopers in a way that would make your biker mother proud.
Strangely, this open approach to level design becomes less common as the game progresses through its 10 levels. I say strange, as this gameplay is easily more fun than the frequent corridor-stomping situations the game devolves into later, though even these have interesting novelty mechanics to help spice things up. It could be drifting through a zero-g environment, or playing hide and seek with giant rabid robot crabs, or sneaking past towering sentry guns packing rockets that scream like a human getting flame grilled – Shadow Fall never forgets to throw something new and fresh at the player on a frequent basis. Unlike Call of Duty, these change-ups are not just new environments – though each level is wildly different to the next, and some of them actually have colour – they actually introduce new gameplay mechanics for the entirety of the game. Even the last level was introducing new ways to play; a stage where most other shooters have run out of things to show off. Despite the new ways to play, the AI remains relatively retarded, never quite realising that hiding behind cover means keeping the top of its head out of sight. Overall though, the single-player gameplay is definitely a refreshing improvement on earlier games in the series, and a huge step away from scripted corridors.
As expected, Shadow Fall is mostly spectacular to look at. Running at the full HD resolution of 1080p reveals a wealth of intricate surface detail that would otherwise be lost in the blur of sub-HD resolution. Lighting and particle effects in particular are truly next-gen, and it’s not afraid to throw dozens of active light sources into a single scene. Several areas have a sense of scale that even PC titles struggle to match, from detailed cities that stretch to the horizon, to giant fleets of Helghan Battle Cruisers warming up for action. It generally runs at a cracking pace, though it frequently drops from the 60fps mark when the action gets hot and heavy. There’s also a bit of aliasing in certain scenes, a result of the use of the lacklustre FXAA method. Given that it’s a launch title for the PS4, we can easily forgive these minor niggles, and if this is what Guerilla can do with a system fresh out of the oven, the mind boggles at what they’ll be able to achieve in a year or two. It’s definitely the best looking game of all of the PS4 launch titles, which will be reason enough for many gamers to buy it.
If there’s one area where Shadow Fall’s space-Nazi’s have taken a giant goose step back, it’s the narrative. While the subject matter is potentially the most interesting, showing both sides of the story, it’s been handled with all the delicacy of a lumberjack performing brain surgery. Lines are as poorly delivered as they are written, and the many cut-scenes feel rushed, with clunky animation and timing issues. I’m guessing it came down to a matter of timing, as this facet of the game lacks the finesse and polish that comes with a lengthy development schedule. There are also a few insane difficulty spikes, but a post-launch patch has helped smooth these out.
While Guerrilla has boldly changed up the single-player for the better, it has wisely left the multiplayer mode basically untouched. Now supporting up to 24 players, the core of the game is still the brilliant War Zone mode, which flits between deathmatch, king of the hill, search and destroy and other modes every few minutes, keeping the action fresh for the entirety of the round. You’ll still find most players in War Zone mode or team deathmatch, and sadly not using the new “create your own game” mode that so much fuss was made about during the pre-launch hype. This new mode allows players to fiddle with hundreds of different variables to create entirely new game modes, but a week out from launch and this area of the game is a bit of a ghost town. Hopefully some creative player comes up with a killer mode, and this feature will surge in popularity, but until then prepare yourself for the same old lovely Killzone multiplayer experience, but now with more players and polygons. The frame-rate online is definitely less stable than single-player, but when combined with the heavy handling the series is renowned for, isn’t too much of a problem.
Killzone Shadow Fall isn’t quite the game to topple Halo from the sci-fi FPS galactic tower of awesomeness just yet, but it has taken a promising step in the right direction. If only it had banished even more of the claustrophobic corridor gameplay and had just a little more effort taken with the storytelling, it could have been a truly classic launch title. As it is, it’s still a sterling shooter that shows off the potential of the PS4’s powerful hardware, and an easy recommendation for PS4 owners looking for their futuristic shooter fix.