The Killzone franchise has always managed to steal the spotlight in one form or another, either by causing drama through under delivering on it’s over-hyped promises, or by stunning gamers with its technical prowess and gorgeous visuals. Killzone: Shadow Fall is the premier launch title for the Playstation 4 and the 4th main entry in the franchise and stole the show at E3 2013 with a breathtaking gameplay demo. Guerrilla Games seized the opportunity to both showcase the abilities of Sony’s newest game console and reinvent the quickly stagnating franchise.

 

Departing from the grit covered, desolate battlefields of the previous entries in the series, Shadow Fall moves to the lush and diverse planet of Vekta, where the ongoing conflict between the Vetkans and the Helghast rages on. Twenty years after the destruction of their home planet of Helghan by the Vektans, the Helghast find themselves occupying half of the planet after guilt-ridden treaties had been hastily written and begrudgingly signed by both factions. The result is a wall that circles the entire planet, the proverbial “Iron Curtain” of this new cold war.

 

The planet of Vetka is a gorgeous world whose vast oceans, modern cities built upon striking sea walls, and lush environments are brilliantly contrasted by the industrial and hazy Helghast occupied territory and provides plenty of opportunities for Guerilla to flex their graphical muscle. Highly detailed environments are well-lit with many dynamic and diversely colored lights, which is a welcome change of pace to the usual gray and grit the series has come to be known for. Distance vistas and backgrounds are rarely static and are often lively with the activity of cargo platforms, moving transports, and large spacecraft, providing an excellent atmosphere to compliment the uneasy peace that has settled over Vekta.

 

 

 

You play a Vetkan Shadow Marshall named Lucas Keller who witnesses his father’s death during the Helghast’s brutal evacuation of Vetkans from their newly occupied half of Vetka. Twenty years later, Lucas finds himself as a prisoner of war on the  wrong side of the wall. He is beaten before being exchanged for a Helghast prisoner held by the Vetkans. The prisoner exchange quickly devolves into a shooting match, and Lucas is tasked with finding out who is trying to reignite the war and who was is important that the Helghast, who slaughtered a surrendering army on Helghan, would keep a Shadow Marshall alive to trade for.

 

For the first time in the series, I found myself intrigued by the characters, plot, and the surrounding universe, which has always been nothing more than an annoying necessity that provided the backdrop for the conflict, and gave a little meaning to the actions of the characters. If anything, the poor writing and unlikeable characters (mainly Rico) detracted from the overall experience of the previous games. Shadow Fall undoes the cliched good vs. evil tone by introducing many characters whose actions and words make you question their motives and ethics. Levels are filled with a variety collectibles that flesh out the setting and add a touch depth to what was always a very shallow storytelling experience. While not worthy of any awards, the narrative holds together well and only rarely falls into the trap of cliches.

 

Furthering the shift that Guerilla took with Killzone Shadow Fall is a new approach to level design and pacing. Past Killzone games have been very linear affairs with on-rails and vehicle based sections to keep things from becoming too mundane. Shadow Fall is still linear, but it takes a slight sandbox approach to its level design and often gives the player much more freedom to tackle objectives how they see fit. Levels often have multiple routes to each objective, as well as optional objectives that aid in accomplishing the main task, and exploration is rewarded by discovering the aforementioned collectibles, weapons, or adrenaline packs.

 

To emphasize this new approach, Lucas has a variety of abilities that increase his awareness of the surrounding environment or reactionary tools that are used to even the odds in a tough situation. An electronic sensor can be used to highlight enemies behind wall, while adrenaline packs can be used to revive Lucas when he is down, or slow down the game world with a bullet time effect that allows for more precision aiming.

 

 

Lucas is also accompanied by a flying robotic companion called the OWL that can be used to attack or stun enemies, deploy a shield to take cover behind, hack various terminals, deploy ziplines to unreachable areas, and revive you when you’re down. The Dualshock 4’s touch pad is used to select the different OWL abilities. Swiping across one of the four cardinal directions selects changes the ability while clicking the touch-pad recalls the OWL. It’s a clever use of the touch-pad to extend the functionality of the controller and I do hope that more developers utilize this in the future.

 

Despite the tools to detect enemies and the fact that the OWL can distract or stun targets, I rarely found myself being rewarded for stealth and relied mainly on shooting my way through the objectives. Suppressed weapons were rare, and the opportunity to quietly deal with enemies at range was few and far between, which left point-blank melee attacks as my only real option for a stealthy approach. Enemies were too easily alerted to my presence and seemed to have a telepathic connection with their friends, who would be alerted the moment you were spotted. I rarely felt that I could get the drop on my enemies despite knowing their position, and the levels quickly devolved into traditional running and gunning.

 

Shooting in Shadow Fall is an improvement over the rest of the series, with tight and responsive controls and mostly solid shooting. Guerilla has also ditched the old sticky cover system, which would often frustrate more than help, for traditional crouching without sticking to cover. Your character will still dynamically take cover behind walls when you are crouched and will only peak over cover when looking down the sights, but you’re never stuck to cover, alleviating a lot of frustrating moments I had when I played Killzone 2 and 3. However, the way in which you take damage seemed wildly inconsistent and I often found myself being killed without much warning, which would often ruin the steady pace of progression.

 

As the the story progresses, the missions depart from the slower paced sandbox approach for a more linear shooting sequence, on-rails section, free falling sections, or the forced stealth section. Other parts have you propelling yourself in zero gravity, sometimes shooting down drones or destroying turrets, but usually just traversing space. None of these sections seem to overstay their welcome, yet few of them provide any noticeable challenge over the typical shooting and scooting. There is little enemy variety, however, save for a few shielded units that require one extra step to kill and some robotic mechs which rear their ugly heads towards the end of the game.

 

Light puzzle and platforming elements also crept into Shadow Fall's campaign in a way that is never overly challenging and never feels out of place in context of the environment or the plot, and jumping from container to container or over small crevices without being prompted by a context-sensitive command is a nice change of pace. This extends to the enemies as well, and require environmental variables to be satisfied before you can take them down.

 

The single player campaign is well-paced and fun, and does a great job of demonstrating the graphical capabilities of the Playstation 4. It takes the series in a much needed step in the right direction, but doesn't really stand out as anything special, though a few of the set pieces are memorable visual experiences and the ending pleasantly surprised me.

 

 

Accompanying the single player experience is fairly typical multiplayer component complete with AI-controlled bots. The tight shooting and movement controls found in the single player carry over to the multiplayer and the 60 frames per second help make the already solid feel of the game shine even more. Sadly, this high framerate isn’t consistent and there are often noticeable drops. Furthermore, the screen quality loses its crisp and clean look that is present in the single player.

 

Warzone, matches with rotating objectives, return in Killzone Shadow Fall, along with the ability to create your own game modes with custom rules and objectives. Guerilla regularly rotates in community made modes into the playlists in an attempt to keep the multiplayer fresh. Sadly, these playlists do not attract many players and you often find yourself back in the Warzone or Team Deathmatch playlist just so you can play with other humans.

 

Players choose from one of three classes, each with their own abilities. The assault class features assault rifles and can stun enemies or launch an attack drone to attack enemies. The scout class is equipped with sniper rifles and both support and aggressive abilities, which can highlight enemies around the player and to cloak and launch a deadly melee attack on an unsuspecting victim. The support class sports large machine guns and all abilities are tailored to a supporting role, such as the ability to place down a spawn beacon so that fallen comrades can spawn in closer to the battlefield, or the ability to place down defensive turrets. Character customization isn't all that robust, with limited unlocks and a basic loadout system that allows you to customize five separate loadouts for each class, and ranks are gained through completing challenges instead of experience points earned through killing enemies, assists, and completing objectives.

 

 

Overall, the multiplayer is a pretty standard affair with no real lasting appeal. The three classes do offer some variety but the missions that make up the Warzone are all variants on popular multiplayer game modes. The custom game types have a lot of potential, but without friends to enjoy them with you’ll be stuck playing the standard game modes as the custom game playlists stay empty. Sadly, like the single player, nothing really stands out about the multiplayer experience and there is very little here to win you over from other multiplayer shooters.

 

Killzone Shadow Fall is a solid launch title that showcases the technical abilities of Sony’s new console, and the sandbox approach to the campaign is a nice change of pace from typical point A to B of the series. However, the level design and tools at the player’s disposal are more restricting than they could have been and feel lie more of a missed opportunity than a design that rewards creativity and experimentation. The multiplayer, while unremarkable, is strong enough to be fun for awhile and will keep fans of series interested enough to keep the lobbies full for the foreseeable future. All in all, Guerrilla Games has successfully adapted the Killzone franchise to the next generation with a fun and gorgeous game that continues to forge its own identity among mainstream shooters.

 

Final Score - 7/10

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