When the original Killzone arrived in the latter half of the PS2 life cycle, most press deemed it in previews as Sony's Halo-killer. It turned out to be a decent game, but it had uninteresting heroes, a lack of basic mechanics like jumping, and a bland-looking environment that heralded the era of mostly brown and gray textures. Killzone 2 was announced with a trailer that seemed too good to be true, and it had some interesting gunplay mixed with a good lighting system, but the villains were likeable and the heroes were deplorable. In Killzone 3, the gunplay was dumbed down and the characters were still unlikeable while the bombastic set pieces reminded many of a Michael Bay film — for all the wrong reasons. Killzone: Shadow Fall arrives on the PS4 with lots to prove. Aside from the pressure of being a launch title, it has to maintain Guerrilla's graphical standard while showing the gunplay is married to a good story and sympathetic characters. It works for the most part, but it still carries some undesirable baggage.
The story is both a continuation of the arc from the first trilogy and a way to give the series a fresh start without resorting to a reboot. Some 30 years have passed since the planet of Helghan became a lifeless rock. To broker peace between the worlds, the government of Vekta helps the remaining survivors by giving them half of the planet to inhabit, though it does so without the consent of the existing inhabitants. Both sides are still bitter, so a large wall is constructed to divide the two, and a formal war becomes a cold one instead.
You play as Lucas Kellan, a former occupant of the Helghan-occupied part of the planet who witnessed his father being murdered by Helghan forces while trying to escape into Vekta. Orphaned, he joined up with the VSA and became a Shadow Marshall, a group of ghosts in the army dedicated to monitoring Helghan activity on the planet. After surviving a mission where you rescue some comrades in enemy territory, you discover that a biological weapon meant to work against the Helghast is being reverse-engineered to work against the Vektans. In a race against time, it's up to you to destroy the virus before a full-blown war erupts.
From the outset, the story is much better than the original trilogy due to the more intimate surroundings and better character roster. With a majority of the story taking place on both sides of the wall, the desolate surroundings of the initial trilogy are now mixed with greener-looking forests and urban skyscrapers, making for a more hopeful-looking title. There's some variety in the environments, and that's always welcome. The characters are also likeable and have some personality. You're no longer bound to a pack of meatheads that always abides by the shoot-first mentality. Finally, the various audio logs help flesh out the unseen history between the two worlds, and since they play through the controller's speaker instead of through the same speakers as the rest of the game, it gives you an opportunity to pay more attention.
However, the story isn't told very well. The developers have played up how the story is analogous to a space version of the Cold War and how the planet is a representation of Germany at the time or even present-day Korea. Others have stated that the plot has a background similar to that of Israel and Palestine, a conflict that continues today. At every opportunity, the game reminds you about how bad the other side is and how righteous their own side is. Whether it's propaganda in the streets or officials telling you how the others are pure animals, the blame game is constantly going on. This nagging makes you apathetic to either side, and while it may be the point of the studio to show how pointless war is, by the time you finish the campaign, you won't be moved by the story's attempt to shock you.
Some games can salvage a bad story with good gameplay, and the title implements a number of changes in an attempt to achieve this. The first change is the OWL, a flying robotic companion that can be used for a multitude of tasks. Using the touchpad on the controller, you can select between four different activities for the OWL to perform. It can attack enemies you target, pull up a protective shield around you, briefly stun enemies, or give you a zip line so you can safely cross into other territories. Aside from that, the OWL can be used to hack terminals and disable some traps, and it can use an adrenaline pack to revive you.
Another big change is the more open areas and flexibility when it comes to level progression. This is evident in your first mission as a Shadow Marshall, where you're dumped in a forest at the edge of New Helghan and given a wide swath of land to navigate. There are some optional objectives to complete, and this level gives you freedom to complete them in any order you want, however you want. That gameplay isn't prominent in typical Killzone titles, so seeing it here is very refreshing.
The hallmarks of Killzone's shooting are still there, with very few futuristic guns mixed in with tried-and-true firepower that looks and feels like touched-up versions of modern-day guns. Headshots are the order of the day, as it takes several bullets to make someone fall if you're aiming for the body. By contrast, it seems to take fewer shots for you to go down, but you have regenerative health on your side. Your controller light is now an indicator of your remaining health. The shooting is a mix between the more streamlined Killzone 3 and the heft and weight of Killzone 2. This makes shooting easier to control, but it makes you work for each shot, a compromise that works if you didn't care much for the feel of the second game.
The campaign is fun enough. You occasionally encounter soldiers that act like meat shields, but the other enemies exhibit cunning as they take cover intelligently or use flanking maneuvers against you. Different enemy types behave accordingly, with shielded ones and those with Gatling guns taking point while the rest hang back and deploy shields, just in case. The enemies also try to go for holes at every opportunity, and you'll rarely catch them being blind to your presence or gunfire. As in previous games, these firefights are the best parts of the campaign.
Like the story, the campaign has some issues. Stealth sections play out fine until you discover that the Helghast seem to have better-than-normal vision since they can sometimes spot you through walls and shoot you from undiscoverable places. The brief platforming section works fine, but the awkward jumping makes you wonder if they could have done without the platforming. The same goes for the freefall sections, which look cool but serve no real purpose. The one thing they all have in common is that they just aren't as fun as the shooting.
Checkpoints are also an issue. It isn't that there aren't enough or too many, but they sometimes trigger in very odd places. Some trigger when a firefight is about to begin, so respawning means going into battle immediately. Other times, a checkpoint triggers in the middle of a precarious position, such as during the attack on Vekta, where you fall to your doom over and over again unless you're quick enough to correct your position. You also can't save the game anywhere, and loading from a fresh boot doesn't take you to the last checkpoint unless you've passed one of the designated sub-chapters, which you don't discover until you quit the game. If you're planning to play the campaign in pieces, your best bet would be to wait until a trophy pops up before quitting. Finally, the AI is very spotty — but only for your squad. You go solo for most of the game, but there are times when you'll have AI backup. Unfortunately, the group seems incapable of taking out more than one person at a time. Once again, you'll do all of the heavy lifting when they're around, so don't expect them to do anything useful. Although the game exhibits some open level design early on, it quickly abandons that in favor of more narrow and focused level design. The design of the levels is fine, but it's disappointing to see it go down the more traditional path.
With an average single-player experience, it falls on the multiplayer portion to save the game, and it does so in style. For fans of the series, the multiplayer will feel very familiar. All of the standard modes are here, from deathmatch to capture the flag and territory variations, all of which can be played on their own or in random rotation in Warzones. The cap is 24 players, with 10 maps and three classes to choose from (assault, scout, support). The use of bots in matches also returns, making this one of the few titles to use AI bots to fill in spots reserved for human players. Don't expect the AI on your side to be useful unless you put them at the higher difficulty levels.
There are big changes in place. The first has to do with the leveling system, which has been ditched. Instead, you have challenges that range from getting kill streaks to winning rounds to capturing a number of beacons in a match. Completing each challenge counts as a rank, and there are over 1,300 challenges to complete. Gaining ranks doesn't open up too many new guns, since those are unlocked from the beginning. Instead, you'll unlock accessories like scopes and flashlights, so you don't get a monumental advantage from being a highly ranked player. The second big change is the ability to customize everything about every game mode, such as which modes you allow in your warzone and which weapons can be used in each mode. If you want a team deathmatch mode where only melee counts, you can have that. If you want a beacon capture mode with shotguns only and double score limit, that's also possible. That aspect is enough to keep the game fresh, and the combinations that the community has created are making things very interesting.
With the old and new mechanics combined, Killzone: Shadow Fall offers something different from the other first-person shooters on the system. Aside from the sci-fi theme, the gunplay requires you to plug more bullets into your enemies and prevents too many one-hit kills from occurring. The constantly evolving goals make things feel fresh, and the availability of almost all weapons from the beginning means that no one immediately comes in with too much of an advantage over others. Most importantly, the game performs well online with no lag, and it has a pretty sizeable community, which is a big feat considering both Call of Duty: Ghosts and Battlefield 4 launched alongside it. With the promise of free maps in the future, it looks as if the game's online mode will have legs for a while.
Despite the uneven nature of the gameplay, the game really tries to take advantage of the new system from a graphical standpoint. Characters have always been large and well detailed, so it's not surprising that the models here deserve similar praise. The models sport smoother animations and animation transitions than in previous Killzone titles. The presence of Vekta, with its pristine skylines and Utopian city gives the game more color, which is a welcome sight when you see that the gray and browns of New Helghan are still in full effect. Particle effects are everywhere, whether it's the constant rain in New Helghan or the burning embers after an attack. Lighting plays a big part in making the game look beautiful, though it's overly fond of using lens flare at every opportunity. At 1080p with anti-aliasing on, the game looks that much sweeter.
Having said that, there are still issues in this department. Look down at any time, and you'll see your legs, but if you inch up while looking down, you'll notice that your legs are twitchy. While there are several reflective surfaces, they only reflect the environment and not the enemies. As for frame rate, it holds at a steady 30 fps in the campaign with very few dips in heavy areas and few rises in more confined areas. Multiplayer goes with 60 fps in games with a small population. Get into the max of 24 players, and the game goes for 30 fps instead. For the time being, this dashes the hope that the next generation hits 60 fps constantly on all games.
The audio isn't quite the expected powerhouse. The effects are quite good, though some of the explosions are muted during certain scenes. The music has a nice, futuristic feel with some deep bass and a feeling of dread in battle scenes. Calmer scenes opt for a serious, determined vibe. The voices are hit-and-miss, with the common thread being that everyone has a hint of a European accent that peeks out now and then. Some of the characters speak with conviction while others go noticeably overboard. The multiplayer announcers are indifferent to everything you do.
Depending on what you're looking for, Killzone: Shadow Fall is either a hit or a miss. If you're looking for something to showcase the power of the PS4, this does the job very well. A few missteps aside, the graphics are beautiful and present something rarely seen in the previous generation of console shooters. If you're looking for a solid multiplayer experience, the game works well. The shooting feels right, the progression system is good, and the constantly rotating objectives keep things fresh. If you're looking for a solid single-player experience, Shadow Fall doesn't provide that. Despite a better plot, the story is jammed down your throat. The game should be in your launch library if you're invested in a stable, sci-fi multiplayer shooter.
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