Killzone: Shadow Fall Review

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Killzone: Shadow Fall is beautiful. It’s gorgeous. It heralds the arrival of next-generation graphics. I’m sure you’ve heard people talking about how impressive it is, much like I had. But, I didn’t really understand what those people were talking about until I sat down and played through the campaign. Along with the console versions of Battlefield 4, Killzone: Shadow Fall is a game that offers a uniquely next-gen visual experience. Surfaces reflect light like their real-world equivalents, edges look sharp and curves are accentuated with a finesse heretofore unseen on consoles. Blood coagulates, and the soft orange glow that so characterizes Helghans has never looked so alluring. It certainly leads the charge in graphical terms. I wish I could say the same for the rest of the game.

The story of Killzone: Shadow Fall takes place 30 years after the events of Killzone 3, which ended with Vektan forces destroying Helghan. Vektan and Helghan political leadership worked out a truce that allowed Helghan survivors to live on Vekta as refugees. Refugees that owned half of the planet, because someone thought that was a good idea. Let me be clear: Vekta offered the survivors half of their home planet, displacing the Vektans who already lived there. Over the course of the last 30 years, both forces have been launching clandestine reconnaissance missions into the other’s territory, threatening to end an already fragile peace. Traditionally, Vektan forces have been portrayed as the “good guys” and Helghast forces, with their proletariat and authoritative leanings, the “bad guys”.

In Killzone: Shadow Fall the lines of morality are blurred as each side searches for a reason to go to war and a way to gain the upper hand. From a narrative perspective Killzone: Shadow Fall has a lot going for it, but the presentation of certain story elements leads to an oversimplification that robs the story of its potential. Complex moral issues are approached with a heavy hand that pummels characters into positioning them as zero-sum propositions. Whoever was responsible for writing the game clearly knew that they wanted to introduce a bit of ambiguity into the story, but they stopped there. Killzone: Shadow Fall’s characters do not live that ambiguity. To them things are clear cut, black and white, good and bad. It is as if each respective side is simply fitting into the tired and worn die that was cast for them. Were it not for the game’s aforementioned attempt at blurring the lines that separate Vekta and Helghan, this would be less of an issue.

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“Look into my eyes…”

However, the story does manage to give the player moments in which to relish this attempted ambiguity. It is the quiet moments in the game that really put the player on the ground in a way that intimately acquaints them with life on Vekta. The most effective aspects of these moments are how much the design team let them breathe. The most memorable one for me was a four or five minute section where you, as a Vektan Shadow Marshal, are crossing the wall as a civilian, going through a couple of checkpoints in a line with others crossing to the Helghan side of Vekta. The most effective world-building goes on in these moments. Unfortunately, they are few and far between so they take on the characteristics of being fleeting and seemingly unmemorable. Most players won’t remember them, and that’s a shame.

One thing players are sure to remember is how at odds some aspects of design are in the single player portion of the game. Many reviewers have mentioned developer Guerilla Games’ attempt at opening up the traditionally linear design that was present in previous installments of the Killzone franchise. However, some of the more illogical and, frankly, obtuse elements of the story carry over into the overall design of the game. I’ll concede that the environments have certainly been opened up. They are much larger than areas in previous Killzone games. But, not much of an effort was made to think critically about how to draw the player’s attention to the things they should be looking for. You’ll spend more time fumbling around looking for some object in the environment you can climb up than you will actually doing the activity the genre name—first-person shooter—is taken from.

You will get lost and find yourself constantly mumbling “Am I supposed to go this way?” as you get from point A to point B. The frustratingly directionless flow of the action in the single player is compounded by the fact that there is no mini-map, presumably because Guerilla was aiming for a very clean UI design, an assessment that I’m not entirely sure I agree with, but more on that a bit later. Your mission objectives are displayed by pressing up on the DualShock 4’s d-pad. A small orange circle is supposed to pop up on the map, but you’ll find yourself whirling around looking for the damn thing most of the time because it blends in so perfectly with many of the environments in the game. Even then, the little orange circle doesn’t really show you where you need to go, it’s more of a directional suggestion.

The last four chapters of the single player are particularly unapproachable, made even more frustrating when noting that nothing in the environment really responds to the player all that well, not even the enemies I’m afraid. If you are going to present the player with more open environments, things need to happen within that environment to let the player know that they are on the right track. This doesn’t happen in most of the game, but it is suspiciously absent in the part of the game that would benefit from it most.

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Meet the ‘emo’ of the future

Starting with Chapter 7, the game becomes more restrictive and linear with its environments. Not quite Call of Duty levels of linear, but not quite as open as previous areas of the game either. Level design in the last two chapters (9 and 10) are particularly confusing and almost unnavigable. That’s not to mention one of the most ridiculous spikes in difficulty I’ve experienced in quite a long time. This wouldn’t be a problem if figuring out how to defeat the shielded enemy that makes a surprise appearance wasn’t so unintuitive… alas, it is unintuitive. Later parts of the game try to introduce solutions to various problems by having a companion character tell you what to do. The problem is she provides about the vaguest details one could possibly imagine. “Meet me up ahead,” she yells. Okay. Up ahead where? Because while you were talking I was having a peek around the environment and my “up ahead” is bound to be a different direction than your “up ahead”. “There’s got to be some way to cut the power!” Well, shooting it doesn’t seem to work, neither does hitting it with a rocket launcher or throwing EMP grenades at it. Any other suggestions?

The single player does a very poor job at directing the player’s attention to where it should be focused most, and this is most painfully evident in the concluding chapters of the game. One thing I found particularly frustrating was what I came to call the reticle’s tumor. For most of the game, you will be accompanied by a cute little robot named OWL. OWL floats above you and does a fantastic job at saving your ass. OWL has four different settings that are chosen by swiping in one of the four cardinal directions on the DualShock 4’s touchpad. The problem is how this information is displayed. If you swipe up on the touchpad, an icon is displayed above the reticle letting you know that OWL has been set to attack mode.

This is true of swiping down, left or right. Whatever direction you swipe, the corresponding mode is displayed in that same direction next to the reticle. The problem is that the icons stay there, and the icons are quite large, much larger than the reticle itself, in fact. I found it very frustrating and distracting in the heat of a firefight, as the reticle’s tumor often obstructed my view. It’s the one thing that keeps the UI from being the clean, uncluttered piece of design Guerilla wanted it to be.

Now, I know that I have been quite hard on Killzone: Shadow Fall so far. However, we have come to a point in the review where I get to sing its praise. One of the things I found myself appreciating most about Shadow Falls design is how unimpeded the very basic elements of first-person shooter design are. It’s not a game that concerns itself with hooking the player in an addiction-fueled unlock system. The single player doesn’t have the bells and whistles you’ll see in the single-player component of other AAA shooters. There are the most basic differences between guns. Some of them shoot fast, some of them slow; some of them shoot far, and others are meant for close-quarters skirmishes; some of them have scopes, and some of them don’t. In the day and age of the scorestreak and weapons that have their own leveling and unlock systems, it is a nice change of pace to see a game that gets back to the basics. It’s just you, your chosen weapon and skill. And you better make sure you bring the right weapons for the job. It’s something I found particularly appealing about Shadow Fall. It’s very unpretentious, the simplicity of its shooting mechanics belying only the skill it takes to master it at higher levels of play.

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“Ohhhhh shit!”

Even the multiplayer with its varying perks and equipment is a substantially simplified version of what is par for the course is most AAA shooters these days. Everything is unlocked from the beginning, so options are open to you from the start. It puts the focus on your skill with your chosen weapon loadouts, something I appreciate very much. The multiplayer really is a skill-driven affair. While Call of Duty and Battlefield layer and stratify their unlock and leveling systems to allow players to amplify areas and weapon types they particularly excel at, Shadow Fall makes you earn your salt by stripping away the arguably needless convolution that has become FPS multiplayer loadout and weapon and unlock systems.

The maps are also excellently designed. Most are open areas with a near limitless number of nooks and crannies, encouraging the player to explore and learn different routes for different situations. There are a healthy number of modes, too, the standout of which is undoubtedly Warzone. Warzone has players engaging in intense firefights while changing objectives move the action around the map. For the first five minutes you may be playing a simple deathmatch, the next five a version of domination and the next five a variant of the popular search and destroy mode found in Call of Duty games. All in all, there are around ten different objectives that can be set to appear in any Warzone match. It plays very much like a first-person, competitive version of the multiplayer from Mass Effect 3.

Where the single-portion of Killzone: Shadow Fall fell flat with its environment design and did a poor job of directing the player’s attention where it needed to be, the multiplayer component of the game succeeds at what it sets out to do. You won’t find much to love about the single player. I can’t say I plan on returning to it, despite the fact that there are collectibles I have not found. It’s stuck, in the worst way possible, somewhere between the Crysis series and Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

  • PS4

The Verdict

Multiplayer is the gift that keeps on giving and that is where most of my attention will be focused going forward. I hope Guerilla Games continues to focus on the skill required to wield Shadow Fall's weapons effectively. If the inevitable next installment manages to sort out the issues with the single player and continue on with solid shooting mechanics and multiplayer, Guerilla Games could have a hit on their hands.
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