Developers: Guerilla Games
Publishers: Sony Computer Entertainment
Hot damn, Killzone: Shadow Fall is pretty. Really pretty. It's so pretty, in fact, that my very first act as protagonist Lucas Kellen was to rush to a balcony and gawp at the stunning vistas before me. Unfortunately, though, I was on the run from the Helghast at the time, and dawdling was inadvisable. I'm pretty sure I hold the current record for swiftest demise when it comes to this game.
The point is, of course, that Killzone: Shadow Fall really looks like a next-gen game.
It gallops along in clear, crisp 1080p at 30fps in singleplayer, and 60 in multiplayer, and Guerilla Games have thrown colours into the mix, which makes a nice change from the decidedly military tones of previous installments. An early mission sees you trotting about in a lush green forest to discover what happened to a missing scout battalion. Later on, as you find yourself in Vekta City, the urban landscape unfolds in beautiful fashion, with alabaster monoliths giving way to skyscrapers of vanilla marble and shimmering glass.
The lighting is phenomenal. From glorious sunsets that see stars melt into the horizon, to rich neon hues in more urban environments. There's a hint of lens flare in some shots, occasionally specks of dust and dirt on the camera that add to the framing, as surfaces glimmer and gleam with reflections. Every single frame of Killzone: Shadow Fall is a feast for the eyes, and if you want a next-gen game to drop your jaw with sublime prettiness, then this is it. It's a testament to the artistic craft of Guerilla's designers that you want to move through the game at a relatively languid pace just to enjoy the sumptuous visual detail. The PS4 gives this game the grunt, but the art team deserves real credit for making the tight corridors of a city's shanty built out of shipping crates just as visually engaging as the beautiful, sweeping shots of Vekta that greet you as the opening credits roll.
It's truly impressive stuff, and it makes the world of Killzone: Shadow Fall aesthetically irresistible. You want to spend time in it, even though it's filled with senseless hate and horror. Guerilla did something brave with this game, they tried to push the envelope out a little and change up the formula. The struggles between Vekta and Helghan remain, you still get to shoot space fascists in the face, but Shadow Fall is a lot more concerned with what happens when two factions that hate one another are forced to live in close proximity. With Helghan destroyed, the mirror of WWII exhibited in the first bunch of Killzone titles is at an end, and an uneasy truce has been brokered between the Interplanetary Strategic Alliance and the Helghast. But without a planet to call home, the Helghast have found themselves repopulated on Vekta, with a gigantic wall separating the previously warring factions.
This Cold War-esque scenario (the story also brings post-war Palestine to mind as well) is well-setup to begin with, not least visually as the burning red and orange of New Helghan contrasts with the pristine white and blue of Vekta. But it's not easy to draw direct parallels too much, and Guerilla do a good job of bringing balance to a delicate subject. There's plenty to be pitied on both sides, with heroes and villains in both red and blue as faction lines are blurred. You play the role of Lucas Kellen -- a young Vektan refugee who sees his father gunned down by the Helghast right in front of his eyes and is taken under the wing of Thomas Sinclair, a Shadow Marshal. Skip ahead fourteen years and the conflict has settled somewhat, Sinclair has risen through the ranks to become Director, and Kellen is now a Shadow Marshal himself.
Sadly, though, Guerilla aren't as adept at handling such rich subject matter as, say, 4A Games (Metro: Last Light) or Valve (Half-Life 2) might be. Part of the issue is that Killzone has traditional been focused on shooting space Nazis in the face. Without an unquestioning war in which to do that, what does Killzone become? Guerilla created a smarter story and a smarter world this time around, and there are occasional moments (most of them early on in the campaign) where you feel like the narrative and gameplay complement one another perfectly. The first proper level, where you're searching for your recon team behind enemy lines, and have to stealthily eliminate Helghan alarms before taking out the AA guns on the overlooking cliffs, is absolutely cracking. But it's all downhill from there as Guerilla resort to endless waves of enemies and dropships. It's like Halo Reach's risible campaign -- these seemingly interminable waves of enemies in the second half as everything becomes horribly predictable -- only somehow worse, because there's actually potential here.
To be fair to the developers, they do give it a crack, and part of the trouble is that you can see where elements of Killzone: Shadow Fall would have been really striking had the sections in question been better. There's a little dogfighting segment that's pretty cool to begin with, and you have to fend off several waves of enemy fighters. But Guerilla have taken the worst mission type of any space combat sim -- sodding escort and protection missions -- and given you the slowest, clunkiest ship to protect. Later on, there's a part of the game where you skydive down through the atmosphere to land in New Helghan that should be absolutely amazing. You break orbit, burst through the clouds, and then you're falling, the city spread out before you. It's absolutely wonderful, but then you realise that the developers have made it about three times longer than it needs to be, and have created the whole thing as an infuriatingly fiddly instafail gauntlet. Thank god the DualShock 4 is a sturdy controller, because I nearly snapped it in half.
And that's Killzone: Shadow Fall. It's gorgeous to behold, sometimes breathtakingly beautiful, but it's filled with padding and artificially-lengthened segments that could have done with the exact opposite. It handles wonderfully, and the nifty little OWL drone that you receive near the start (I named it Hedwig) allows for some nice little tactical gameplay in the more open areas. The OWL also works the touchpad into proceedings in simple but effective fashion, with directional swiping allowing you to switch between its various functions. But though technically and aesthetically sound, Shadow Fall loses its way with clunky pacing, dumb AI, and poor execution. Guerilla seem on one hand to be trying to make a new type of Killzone game, but they don't go far enough and get sort of stuck in the middle, satifying no-one.
At least the multiplayer is good for a laugh, although since COD: Ghosts plays much, much better on PS4 than it does on last-gen tech, and BF4 on PS4 support 64-players in MP, Killzone has its work cut out. The Classic Warzones are still great fun: basically, the match will cycle through random variants of multiplayer game types. So you might be doing a spot of CTF one minute, then the parameters will change and you're into some team deathmatch or map domination, and then it'll shift again into something more objective-based perhaps, like dropping a bomb for one team to prime and the other to disarm. It's good fun if you've got a bunch of friends involved in Party Chat, but as it stands there's no general team voice chat.
The maps themselves are well constructed, with a pleasing level of verticality and a variety of routes from end to end. There are three classes from which to choose -- Assault, Support, and Scout -- each with class-specific abilities and tech, from drones to cloaking devices to sentry guns to a very handy respawn waypoint that can turn a game if used well. Better yet, Guerilla have opened up Warzones to allow for user-generated Custom setups, which should hopefully prolong the interest in the game's online offerings. That being said, the weapon variety disappoints, even when you throw in skill-based weapon mods and customisation. For a game with a futuristic, sci-fi setting, all of the armaments are pretty mundane, and the player count is fairly low. It's a step-up from a solid slap-on multiplayer component, but Killzone's greatest attraction lies, as it arguably always has, in the campaign.
Sadly, while Killzone: Shadow Fall is an outstanding tech demo, and a dazzling example of the visual delights that the PlayStation 4 can bring to console gaming, it's also something of a hot mess that fails to live up to its promise. The opening level hits a height that is never seen from again as Guerilla's impressive, strikingly different opening falls back on old and tired FPS conventions that not only fail to fill the ambitions of this game's framework, but patronise the player with increasingly padded action, and bloated setpieces that outstay their welcome and ruin their impact. It's the best game you can buy to show off what your brand spanking new PS4 can do in terms of graphical grunt, but Killzone: Shadow Fall is an ultimately hollow experience, decidedly last-gen in execution. That being said, there's hope that with more time and more familiarity with the system, Guerilla might have the conviction to really push the boat out with a follow-up.
- It's absolutely gorgeous
- No, seriously, this game is like ecstasy for the eyeballs
- Opening couple of levels are really well-worked
- Interesting setting and subject matter is full of potential and promise
- OWL drone is a great addition
- Warzones-oriented multiplayer as solid as ever, and class-based
- The potential and ambition shown in Chapter 2 is never built upon
- To much reliance on wave-based padding in the game's second half
- Infuriating instafail setpieces ruin spectacle
- Enemy AI is pretty awful
- Enemy types and weapon variety leave much to be desired
- So much potential, such inconsistent pacing and execution
The Short Version: The first couple of hours of Killzone: Shadow Fall hint towards a game that might just play as well as it looks. And it looks phenomenal. But sadly, the game falters and falls rather quickly, crushed under the weight of its own ambitions, and it retreats to the safe banality of staid FPS conventions for a second half that's all filler, no killer. It's a great game to show off the power of the PS4, a magnificent spectacle, and its Custom Warzones hint towards the possibility of a bright future, but it's just not that fun to actually play.