When a new console arrives it’s expected for the next wave of franchise IPs to appear to help usher in the latest generation of hardware. But among whatever new titles we’re graced with, it’s also part of the norm for some established franchises to make the long-awaited next-gen jump as well, both to fulfill the hype of players and to show just how far, at least in theory, a game has come thanks to the added graphical power that’s been created.
Despite the somewhat storied it has had throughout the years, the Killzone franchise is indeed a pillar of the PlayStation brand, thus we have Killzone: Shadow Fall at launch for the PlayStation 4. Despite trying some new things and impressing in some technical categories, the PlayStation 4 debut of Killzone fails to leave a lasting impression, and in some ways almost serves as justification that the series either needs to take a prolonged break or simply needs to remain under the guidance of the recently formed team at Guerrilla Cambridge.
The biggest gripe that’s to be had with Killzone: Shadow Fall is that it feels like it’s half a game. Now I’m not being a fanboy of another FPS or an outright hater since I’ve been a fan of the Killzone series since day one. Seriously, when Killzone came out for the PlayStation 2 I enjoyed what it offered, no I wasn’t one that bought into the hype that it was going to be a “Halo Killer”, and I’ve since enjoyed the subsequent sequels or spin offs such as Killzone: Mercenary for the PlayStation Vita. So if I were to use wrestling terminology and call myself a mark for the Killzone franchise, I was ultimately nothing but disappointed with what Shadow Fall presented since it never really gets off the ground above whatever base elements it presents.
Having a somewhat tepid reputation for not being that engaging on the story front based on what was presented in past installments, Shadow Fall manages to somehow defy expectations by falling below its predecessors in the narrative department. I don’t think anyone has ever heralded the Killzone series for having a story that rivaled the depth and lore of Halo, nor has it been hyped by the team at Guerrilla Games, but Shadow Fall’s narrative is so basic and flat that it’s instantly forgettable. Even using the rather shocking finale of Killzone 3 as a launching pad, in which the entire planet of Helghan was destroyed, Shadow Fall quickly falls into a series of narrative clichés which quickly becomes one of sheer boredom due to the game never truly capitalizing on the central themes that it sought out to achieve; that of depicting a cold war turned hot, the subtle notes of forced segregation, social inequality between the Vektans and Helghast, and whether the so-called “heroes” are indeed that heroic compared to the “villains” they need to keep in check.
Instead of trying to offer a narrative which attempts to be somewhat smart and mature in the themes it provides and coupling that with the same action fans of the Killzone franchise are familiar with, Shadow Fall rather opts for an experience with a lackluster story and gameplay that is only entertaining for small bursts of time. It’s really baffling as to how the story of Shadow Fall is so disappointing since there’s material there for a good experience. Having the Vetkans and Helghast co-exist on the same planet with a mere gigantic wall separating them is intriguing, as is the motivation for protagonist, and Shadow Marshall badass, Lucas Kellan to have a hatred of the Helghast and do whatever is asked of him to take them out.
The problem is that the creative team at Guerrilla never really takes those elements in any interesting directions since Lucas is a one-note character who is barely visible within the game, along with having no personality to boot, and the story instead has a very thin, and weak, premise that boils down to being another atypical weapon of mass destruction finale with literally no pay-off or resolution to it since it instead ends on a quasi-cliffhanger in which nothing within the game has been achieved except for wasting the time and patience of the player. Central themes in Shadow Fall painfully come across as a facade of what it attempted to be – akin to a supposed Paul Greengrass action-political thriller turning out to be nothing more than a generic action movie with such a lack of narrative or character depth that it seemed as if Brett Ratner directed it.
Shadow Fall could have been a nice finale of the Killzone series or spun it off in a new direction, yet the distinct lack of any constructive narrative building and realization of the established lore of the universe is almost on the same level as the missed potential that was also found within the Resistance games – its okay but there’s a ton of unexplored or hinted at material that would’ve made for a better game.
The disappointment of Shadow Fall is also unfortunately echoed within the actual gameplay as well. While the Killzone series has always featured enjoyable single-player action to accompany the multiplayer antics, Guerrilla took a huge step backwards with their approach to Shadow Fall. Some interesting new elements are introduced in the game such as the Owl (a mobile robotic ally of Lucas which can provide shields, zip lines, or attack support), and weapons having more notable secondary attack functions such as a sniper scope on the primary assault rifle. Those aspects are fine and dandy, but the design philosophy and construction of the levels is where Shadow Fall truly stumbles in such a way that it may make you wonder if the same team that handled the previous Killzone games actually worked on Shadow Fall.
Featuring more open environments compared to the rather claustrophobic corridors found in past iterations, Shadow Fall at first seems like a breath of fresh air. After all, the graphics are luscious since the engine developed by Guerrilla is diverse enough to convincingly render both lively forests, dense futuristic cities, and decrepit slums. The issue that arises in the game is that none of the environments as levels feel truly realized in how they correlate to the actual action that’s going on. There is definitely a flow to them as far as going the logic, albeit loose, of tackling objectives within the context of the given scenario, but the game doesn’t feel as focused on intense gun battles as past installments did. Now that’s not to say that there isn’t a ton of shooting in Shadow Fall since this is a FPS game after all, yet instead of presenting situations in which the player can tackle objectives or battles in various ways, such as what Killzone: Mercenary allowed in a wonderful way, a lot of the action in Shadow Fall is instead focused on doing arbitrary tasks such as picking up batteries to open doors, putting C4 on objects that need to explode, or merely holding a position long enough until all the enemies are dead.
A sampling of gameplay from Killzone: Shadow Fall
Those situations may not sound that bad since they fulfill basic design tropes that are in some respect expected of certain FPS games, but the honest truth is that Shadow Fall is rather boring much of the time. With all the wonderment that’s to be had seeing a city crumble or using the Owl to distract enemies while you flank them, the actual action and design of the levels truly pales in comparison to past Killzone games. Levels in Shadow Fall feel totally separate from one another, other than the obvious location differences such as that of an abandoned space ship or a Helghast stronghold, and that’s partly because the narrative does the game no favors in making the player give a damn as to why they’re there in the first place.
Other than that issue, the momentum within each level never picks up the same way as it did in Killzone 2 or even Killzone 3. It’s understandable for Guerrilla Games to perhaps shy away from making each level have a gigantic set piece battle since the game doesn’t openly feature a war between the ISA and Helghast forces, but by that same token there isn’t that much in the way of memorable moments even in the levels such a thing would occur like the final stage; it’s simply more by the numbers combat against the same Helghast troops you’ve been facing since the start of the game. Any sort of boss battle like encounters such as those feature in Killzone 2 are non-existent until the very end of the game, and even the one that does finally occur falls flat in its execution and may also make you wonder why the game didn’t feature something like that earlier to help build things up – both pertaining to the character development of that particular antagonist and to simply add variety.
The construction of Shadow Fall’s single-player levels is truly a disappointment since it’s again a case of having some interesting material to work with yet never actually taking advantage of it. Applause should be given to the team at Guerrilla Games for trying to open the game up and allow the player to tackle a particular objective first, but such a thing often led me to constantly pressing up on the D-Pad to double-check I was going in the right direction. Maybe that’s just an issue on my end, though I think utilizing different design logic or simply making things a bit clearer to the player would’ve benefited Shadow Fall in some instances rather than aimlessly walking down a corridor or environment with long moments of silence and sheer nothingness in between the battles that actually do occur.
However dire the actual single-player mode of Shadow Fall is due to the mishandling of the story and level design, Guerrilla didn’t lose a step in their expertise of crafting entertaining gun action. With the exception of a few moments in which the enemy A.I. is questionable due to standing still during battle, using the weapons of a Shadow Marshall and those of the Helghast is as much fun as it was back in 2004 when Killzone first came out. Keeping true to what the series first sought out to achieve, the guns in Shadow Fall aren’t too outlandish since there aren’t any laser weapons or things that completely disintegrate people. The world of Shadow Fall is still one in which bullets are ejected from guns and it’s nice to see that Guerrilla have retained their talents of making exquisite gun models – complete with cool reload animations.
The weapons in Shadow Fall all feature a nice balance that’s suitable for various situations, and they’re all pretty easy to handle. In some respects the main assault weapon that Lucas wields is a tad overpowered since the alt sniper mode instantly allows it to become a one-hit kill machine of doom, but other such weapons in the game don’t feature the same issue.
The multiplayer offerings of Shadow Fall on the other hand fair a bit better compared to the uneven single-player campaign, but still suffer from an identity crisis of sorts. A bit more traditional in it’s layout, the differentiating factor in the multiplayer mode this time out is the distinct lack of classes, a thing of which the simply legendary Killzone 2 multiplayer action excelled in. Not having class types is a tad disappointing as is the general flow of matches, which at times feel a bit sparse in respect to the action that’s being had on certain maps. At times there is a nice amount of vertical play to the maps due to the size that’s presented, but again it’s just a case of everything not quite living up to what was already presented to us, or in this case the damn good Killzone 2 multiplayer mode.
If there’s one immediate aspect of Shadow Fall that doesn’t truly disappoint in its conception it would have to be the visuals. Guerrilla Games have always pushed the boundaries of what can be accomplished on the consoles, even going back to having some notable tech issues with Killzone 1 on the PS2, and serving as a launch game for the PS4 I was impressed with what Shadow Fall offered. That’s not to say that the game is an utter masterpiece since some of the graphics do have optimization issues like texture pop-up, slow texture loading, and some questionable facial animations during in-game cutscenes compared to the ones that are pre-rendered.
It was also nice to see Guerrilla Games expand the general art direction for the Killzone universe with how things are presented in Shadow Fall. Staying true to what was first established when the series began, the Helghast retain their iconic red-eyed helmets with a world filled with sharp angles and metallic textures while those of the ISA/Vetkans have a cleaner look. But beyond that some newer elements are offered in the game through the scope and vision of Vekta City with its array of glass structures, giant waterfalls, and more urban aspects such as a monorail. The Helghast on the other hand feature some armor designs that ought to appreciated by longtime fans, though I must admit my disappointed at how the Helghast side of Vekta was designed. While there’s a nice industrial element within the new land of the Helghast, the city itself falls into a rather bland trope of being a complete slum. Narrative speaking that’s okay to some extent given the general direction of the story, that of the ISA not really giving a damn about that part of the planet and the Helghast themselves using resources for war rather than their people, but as a fan I did miss seeing the more ornate part of that culture as it was featured in Killzone 2.
As a fan of the Killzone series and the universe created by Guerrilla Games and Guerrilla Cambridge, the overall experience that’s to be had in Shadow Fall is one of disappointment. Perhaps rushed during development to make the launch date of the PS4, Shadow Fall features some rather questionable level design choices in which boring repetition often trumps hectic, yet fun, combat. Even more, the game does have some obvious technical flaws, both on the graphical side of things, and as well as some other categories you wouldn’t expect like weak, and often muted, sound design.
In some respects Killzone: Shadow Fall feels more like a first-pass of a video game rather than one that’s been crafted with the utmost care and attention. The sloppy story is disappointing considering the scope and poetic attempts that are made, the level design is cluttered with arbitrary tasks which don’t push player skill to the forefront, and the graphics feature some odd tech issues and varying states of quality that you normally wouldn’t expect from a title of this caliber and importance. If you’re a longtime fan of the Killzone franchise you probably should play Shadow Fall simply to see what it offers, both good and bad, but just don’t expect the same greatness that was delivered when Killzone 2 finally arrived on the PlayStation 3 and met the expectations that people had for it.
In its attempt to branch out into new territory, Killzone: Shadow Fall essentially throws away everything that made the franchise unique to begin with, and it ultimately comes across as a Call of Duty clone set in the distant future – it has nice elements and production values but it’s as equally shallow and vapid in the long run.
Rating: Rent It
- Well executed, and varied, art design
- Guns still feel cool and the Owl is a great addition
- Graphics have some beautiful elements
- Single-player levels aren’t that much fun.
- Story is an utter disappointment in every regard.
- There’s an obvious feeling of things being unpolished.
- No epic Brian Cox speech as Visari.