When Guerilla Games released their soon to be flagship IP, Killzone, on the PlayStation 2 in 2004, they probably had no idea they would exclusively develop a total of six games spanning almost 10 years and 5 Sony consoles. Alas, Sony awarded them the privilege of being the launch first person shooter and, for the most part, Guerilla met or exceeded the expectations with Killzone: Shadow Fall for the PlayStation 4.
Shadow Fall is a slightly different story than most Killzone fanatics may be used to. Around 30 years after the events of Killzone 3, planet Helghan has become largely uninhabitable. As a gesture of “good will”, the ISA allow the Helghans to populate half of planet Vekta in what is called New Helghan. As expected, things go terribly amiss, and it’s up to Lucas Kellan, a Shadow Marshall, to save both sides from total annihilation. You may be thinking that this story sounds incredibly generic. That’s because it is. Shadow Fall is full of these almost laughable story elements.
The initial concept of “let’s bring our enemy back here and everything will be cool” is utterly silly. For those unaware of the story at all, imagine somebody you know that does not like you at all. Then you blew up their house with their family inside and asked them if they want to live in your termite infested basement as a sorry. It is a kind of story that was almost needed to separate it from its predecessors and, in that regard, it does succeed but in the most inglorious way.
The cold and dreary wastelands of browns and blacks in Helghan have mostly been replaced by bright green forestry, effervescent blue cities, and technologically advanced structures. It is a very welcomed change and even with its lacking story, the environment helps to convey how different the two sides are even though they are only separated by a wall. One of my favorite missions during the campaign is in which Kellan goes beyond the wall for the first time and you can almost instantly feel the disparity and depression settling over you. Look behind you and you’ll see the beauty of Vekta with its chrysanthemum-like flowers blooming in the distance. The cold reality in front of you is a group of Helghan soldiers set to a backdrop of weathered steel and sickly citizens. It is more than apparent that although Vekta and the ISA extended a hand, it was an unwashed hand covered in disease and the Helghans know it.
Since the inception of the Killzone series, I have always found myself leaning more towards the Helghans as misunderstood but proud, and feeling the ISA as the antagonist more so than the Helghans at times. With the series’ heavy lean on politics, it isn’t difficult to feel that way, but it doesn’t revoke a feeling of regret like, say, Spec Ops: The Line. It does, however, feel like the next game in the series should explore both sides of the conflict a bit more than this entry attempts to do as it has grown increasingly difficult to support the main “protagonists” we're continually introduced to.
Story aside, Killzone: Shadow Fall is breathtakingly gorgeous. The color palette is surprisingly varied and is often used as its own character to help players distinguish between the prosperous Vekta and the diminished living situations in New Helghan. Every structure and landscape is detailed to extreme lengths showing cracks in trees and bolts for buildings. A handful of missions demonstrate what next generation software is capable of by creating a depth-of-field that I, personally, have not seen before. Structures in the distance look far away without looking too much like sprites that we have grown accustomed to in the past. One of the best examples of this in one of the first missions in which Kellan fights off the Helghan in a tree and rock inhabited area with a clear view of the wall and other buildings in the distance. It was something so striking that on my first venture I fell off of a cliff side attempting to get a better snapshot using the PS4’s built in share functionality. Something almost similarly happened to me when Kellan was tasked with visiting Helghan as I was stricken aback by the destruction and chaos of the planet after the events of Killzone 3. These moments alone make playing through the campaign interesting enough to playthrough at least once.
The previous Killzone games touted a shooter containing weapons with weight behind them in which every movement felt heavy or light depending on the device in hand. In Shadow Fall, weight has been replaced by movement speed and agility as Kellan needs to be light on his feet. Shadow Marshalls are quick and efficient unlike the ISA Soldier Sev from Killzone 2 and 3. Where Sev’s expertise was to grab a big gun and start shooting, Kellan can stealthily maneuver and traverse his environment by climbing or entering ventilation systems to avoid detection. Although some might find this as a deterrent, I found it invigorating to option for stealth on some occasions over the guns blazing approach. Where I was disappointed however was not in the weight of character, but lack of weight in some guns; primarily Kellan’s go-to LSR 44 with sniper secondary mode. While in SMG mode, it felt incredibly light so I often found myself switching to sniper to give the gun the kick and weight it needed. Minor complaints aside, Shadow Fall handles as well as any other shooter out there.
If the LSR 44 is Kellan’s primary weapon, his robot companion, OWL, may as well be considered his secondary. OWL is outfitted with bullets, EMP’s, a shield, and a zipline to make it the accessory needed by any soldier on the mission to stop an impending world war and it comes in a wide assortment of colors and designs in case that’s your thing. Where Shadow Fall falters the most notably is when OWL is taken away from your arsenal. Growing accustomed to a certain style of play for a few hours to have it striped away is a plot device that is prevalent and plagues tons of games; some handling it better than others. In the case of Shadow Fall, it leans more on the latter especially when the designers decide to remove OWL from the equation.
The meaty campaign will attract many of the Killzone cult at around 10 or so hours, but many will stay for the multiplayer and rightfully so. Killzone: Shadow Fall’s multiplayer suite is robust and full of experimentation. Every player starts off with all weapons unlocked as well as a variety of modes to dabble in with three character classes to choose from. Where the multiplayer really succeeds is in its tent-pole mode called Warzone. Easily one of my favorite modes in recent memory, Warzone changes objectives for both teams on-the-fly as either time runs out or previous objectives are completed. One minute, players are active in a game of Team Deathmatch until an in-game voice commands demands them to plant bombs on objectives. It is something that the Killzone series has done quite well since Killzone 2 and something I don’t see other shooters attempting.
Players can easily enjoy the developer made Warzone missions, but users can also create their own Warzone customized missions to create unique experiences for others to enjoy. Specify weapons allowed, classes, time limits, and score limits to enable an experience that is all their own. It is incredibly simple to hop into the customization menu and build a Warzone mode to release to the world to play and enjoy. It has been quite intriguing to pick through user created content to have an even more varied game experience than just playing what Guerilla has created for us.
Where the multiplayer struggles a bit is in its progression system. Where competing games in the genre sink their teeth into players with the building of levels to earn bonuses, Shadow Fall abandons quite a bit for an “ease of entry” approach. It is a very interesting design decision to replace XP with challenges as I played for my first 2 or three hours without completing more than a couple of challenges. It was frustrating but the time spent didn’t feel wasted by any means.
Killzone: Shadow Fall shows the promising power of the PS4 with its striking visuals and fun multiplayer, but its mundane plot prevents the game from being the full package at times. If you’re expecting a deep story with strong character development, this may not be the game for you. Come for the looks but stay for Warzone and it’s worth the space on your hard drive and shelf as well as your hard earned money.