This is the sixth game in the Killzone series from Dutch developer Guerilla Games, and what I’d term one of the first true next generation games to hit the shelves (there are plenty of new titles out there, but very few that have only been developed for latest platform). We’re in a bit of a pattern here with FPS games coming out at launch on a new Sony console, the PS2 had Timesplitters, the PS3 had Resistance, both of which were excellent games to start a generation off with. This has competition in the form of Call of Duty: Ghosts and Battlefield 4, and considering both are cross-generational games they’re still impressive, so how does Killzone Shadow Fall measure up?
This next chapter starts 30 years after the conclusion of Killzone 3, Helghan is uninhabitable after the events of the previous game and the survivors offered a home on Vekta where things have been tense but peaceful because the two civilisations are separated by a 200 metre high security wall. Things start off for you as a small boy escaping the purge of Vektans by the Helghast as the two societies are segregated with the installation of the wall, then being rescued and taken under the wing of a Shadow Marshall called Sinclair. It’s fairly predictable that you’re going to follow in Sinclair’s footsteps and become a Shadow Marshall, and after a nice backstory/history/training montage you begin in earnest as an elite soldier saving his planet from the enemy.
Once you get into the first proper mission you realise how Killzone Shadow Fall is different from the others. It’s still a first person shooter, but you’re now resolutely on your own instead of being accompanied by a squad, though you are given an OWL. The OWL is a lovely piece of technology that acts as transport, backup, shielding, stun device and medic, and feels like a replacement for your absent team mates, but one that doesn’t get in the way. The new touchpad on the controller comes into its own here, you swipe in the cardinal directions to select a function, then hit L1 to activate, all nice and easy and gives you 4 more controller options to make things more complex. Besides the OWL, you now have freedom to approach objectives from multiple angles. This isn’t an open world and the tasks usually have to be performed in certain order, but it’s reminiscent of the stealth vs. full frontal assault tactics of Deus Ex. This departure from the usual “go to X, shoot Y” formula works pretty well, especially as the levels are quite large so it gives you space and perspective to work with. You’ll wish for silenced weapons or sniper rifles in some sections though, or the nice cloaking devices your enemies are sometimes equipped with, because it’s all too easy to slip up and trigger an alert, and if you’re in the wrong place your minutes are numbered.
The gameplay is true Killzone pedigree, it has the heft and weight you’ve come to expect from the games. It can feel slow and cumbersome if you’ve just come from a Call of Duty/Battlefield game, but it’s more solid and measured than either of those, and to me feels more precise and under control. The AI are still top notch and will suppress and flank you if they can, and if they can’t they’ll just come in force and with greater firepower. If you’ve never actually been killed in a game by a literal hail of bullets, stick around to the latter part of the story and you’ll get the chance, the Helghast don’t hold back. You know you’re getting hit because not only does your screen turn red, but your trigger fingers do too because of the shifting colour of the light bar on the controller. It’s a nice touch not having a health meter on screen, and equally impressive that the pad colours actually graduate from red, through amber and back to green instead of just blinking between the three. The brutal melee returns for combat duty, whether you’re sneaking up on an unsuspecting guard or hitting the buttons in a panic because you’ve run out of ammo, the animations are as fluid and gruesome as ever.
The other technical aspects of the game are excellent too. This is a significant leap on from the last game simply down to the graphical detail and scale of the environment. The draw distance is fantastic and we know from some of the early game presentations that the backdrops are rendered relative to the player so that they are more realistic, which really shows as you’re making your way through the levels. If you’ve played Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight you’ll have an idea of the scale of some of the levels, particularly as you’re making your way deeper into the heart of some of the New Helghan areas. You do feel like you’re really in there, the cities have design and substance, and even though you’re guided down routes you don’t feel like it’s just a fancy corridor, it gives the impression it could be a real place.
There are some jaw dropping moments that you can’t help but stop and have a look at because you’re used to this type of visual in a tweaked and pre-rendered cutscene, but not whilst you’re playing. It made me think of the first Uncharted game and the beautiful work on the scenery, this has a similar impact but with much more dynamic areas. The audio is top notch too with each environment having its own specific aural signature. There’s as much detail in the sound as there is in the visuals here, and highlights I noticed were walking past what looked like a power unit on a wall where I could hear the fans whirring away inside, or when I was in a gunfight in a confined space and the sound of the weapon firing changed depending on where I was in the room. Subtle, but working to bring you closer to the game. Then there’s the use of the built in speaker on the pad to play you audio diaries that are picked up. This is a great touch that keeps you in the action and lets you listen to details for the backstory without feeling like you have to stop moving and wait for the narration to end.
Outside the technical aspects is the story, and in fairness it’s one that you probably have to be engrossed in the world Guerilla have created to fully engage with. There are references to the previous games, mostly the Killzone 2 and 3, and there are dossier files dotted around that can get you up to speed if you’ve not played any of the series before, but it does feel like there are some bits that need expanding on to make it a standalone experience. Character-wise, they are pretty much all new even if some have familiar names, and the voice-acting is performed well, though I think we’re in a stage of game production now where we don’t expect any less. On a deeper level, the story seems to parallel the East/West Germany divide of the 1960’s and the descent into the Cold War with espionage and counter intelligence being the key conflict rather than the full scale battles we’ve seen before. This sets up the premise for being a solo operative with no support, and lends itself to empathy with the character for the way he evolves over the course of the game. These are never cheery games, but the gung-ho attitudes of Sevchenko and Rico we’re used to have disappeared and been replaced with a more thoughtful and considered view from the main protagonist which puts your loyalties in a grey area as the game unfolds, and rightly so as it tries to examine who’s right and who’s wrong in such a large scale, long running conflict.
So what’s wrong with Killzone Shadow Fall? Well, pretty much nothing. I had some audio drop out during the opening sequences, but I think this was down to the game installing and me downloading about 12 gigs worth of other software on the day I got my PS4. There were some lip syncing issues at a few points; an in-engine custscene that had some exploded mech debris covering one of the main characters heads (it really wasn’t meant to be there); quite a bit of light rendering on background items happening later than it should; and a definite frame judder when I opened one door near the end of the game. Other than that it was smooth all the way through. There are enough levels to keep you going, and I was clocking in at around 45 mins to an hour for each because of the time I spent exploring and hunting for the obligatory collectibles. There’s a decent variety to the gameplay as you go through that you might not necessarily expect, and it’s not just jumping on a mounted gun every now and again. The addition of optional objectives is nice, even if there aren’t many, but I did find it tricky at points to know what I was supposed to be doing next. A simple hit of the up direction button is supposed to tell you where to go and sometimes it’s not easy to see, so much so that I spent half an hour on one section because I couldn’t figure out where the waypoint marker was.
This isn’t just about the singleplayer though, as you’d expect there’s a hefty multiplayer in there too, as there should be for any self-respecting FPS nowadays. The formula is very familiar if you played the others, all the online games are team based, one is the VSA and the other is the Helghast, and usually in the Warzone format where several game types are run consecutively that mixes up the flow of the games on the map whilst keeping you in the game for longer. There are 10 maps currently, with more promised according to the season pass blurb (and intriguingly some co-op content which will be a first, and something I’m looking forward to), and each map has it’s own particular style as you’d expect. There’s nothing ground-breaking here, but it’s stable, smooth and seems to retain the graphical fidelity of the campaign mode, even if it is in smaller play areas. Unlike my experience with Battlefield 4, it hasn’t crashed back to the home screen yet, and I’ve experienced very little lag or glitching.
Nicely, Guerilla seem to have taken a leaf from Call of Duty: World At War and have included a lobby called New Recruits, which is effectively only for beginners so that in your first forays you’re not going to get your arse handed to you constantly. The weapon sets are fixed and if you’ve completed less than 50 challenges (one of the ways of tracking progression through the multiplayer portion through achieving scores/kills/actions/etc.) you can jump in and learn the basics with people in the same position. This is a really good idea and one that should be included more often to give new players a chance to understand it without the massively steep learning curve (and get them engaged with the game to make them come back more readily and spend money on new maps). In the few rounds I had in this lobby, I even topped the leaderboards for my team in the second and third games, but we lost overall because of our total lack of teamwork. The “accolade” animation has returned too where the top three players from the winning team and the top scoring losing team player are shown on screen just before the detailed results breakdown. It’s a nice touch seeing your avatar take out one of the winning players if you’ve lost, not so nice if they execute you…
So on the whole it’s a good singleplayer and multiplayer experience, but should you get it above Battlefield and CoD? Yes. It’s the first truly new generation FPS built from the ground up to run on new hardware only, and it shows in the way it looks and sounds. It also offers something different to the others: a story that makes you think from different perspectives. There aren’t many games that illicit an emotional response from the player, and I’m not saying this will have you tugging at your heart strings, but there were several moments where I stopped and genuinely considered the actions I was taking from the information I was receiving, despite having to follow them through. Well played Killzone Shadow Fall, you managed to make me feel like a bastard.