Look carefully and you’ll find a very telling reference tucked away in the first few moments of Killzone: Shadow Fall’s bombastic campaign. Standing out among the various toys and stationary cluttering a young child’s bedroom is a poster for a fictional game, Dark Trolls. Echoing the familiar font and design of From Software’s notoriously challenging Souls franchise, you could just take this allusion at surface value – an obvious nod to one of the most celebrated games of the past few years – but the truth is that it’s more of a statement of intent.
That’s not to suggest a substantial increase in difficulty or that Killzone has taken a tonal shift by introducing a collection of increasingly monstrous creatures to battle against (that is quite wisely left for Killzone’s Sony stable- mate Resistance), but rather the much wider breadth of influence that Killzone: Shadow Fall incorporates. If Killzone 3 appeared to trace along the edges of every Call Of Duty campaign post-Modern Warfare, then the series’ PlayStation 4 debut resembles a gallery of best bits from popular franchises, rather than just a plain old shooting gallery. An early chapter wherein you nervously explore the derelict remains of a space station is haunted as much by the ghost of Dead Space as it is any real supernatural nuisance, while the human side of Vekta has taken a few architectural tips from Mass Effect’s Citadel. What’s most surprising is the positive impact that this has on Killzone’s identity.
Rather than depreciate what little personality series has struggled to establish, it has the exact opposite effect; each location feels part of a much larger, tangible and deeper fictional universe than the small glimpse we’re given through the duration of the main campaign. The lack of brown certainly helps. We have to applaud guerrilla games for showing some restraint in that regard, so fond in the past of bathing the screen in all kinds of murky hues that we’re surprised Shadow Fall’s vibrant palette doesn’t outright blind its helghast troops. When the game does eventually return to some of the series’ familiar environs in the last few hours it’s almost as if the developer has lost its early inspired vim and resorted back to what it knows best.
But even when Shadow Fall drags its players once again through the dirt and grime of Helghan or another dimly lit steel-lined corridor, the visuals consistently crackle to an impeccable standard. Visually speaking, Guerrilla Games has wielded the power of the PlayStation 4 to magnificent effect. Killzone: Shadow Fall is the best-looking console game we’ve ever played. And don’t mistake the truth for hyperbole. The level of detail and polish sets the precedent for the next-gen, the criterion for what is possible is astounding – and, given the enormous leap in graphical fidelity we’ve witnessed at the end of the current generation compared to where it started, this is a mere suggestion of what can be accomplished on the platform. Guerrilla is so proud of what it has achieved that the first hour of the game is almost wholly dedicated to showcasing how pretty everything looks.
Primary characters peer right down the lens of the camera, displaying a high level of nuance and detail in both animation and texturing to a point that we’re willing to forgive the developer’s self-congratulatory overindulgence in what is essentially a superficial parade. The excess continues as we get our first glimpse of Vektan – the central location of the game that houses both humans and Helghast residing in contrast on either side of a monolithic divide – the human side a feast of spectacle, every square inch boasting burnished skyscrapers, bustling districts and every sort of lighting effect under the virtual sun – there’s so much lens flare that you’d be mistaken for thinking JJ Abrams had been moonlighting at Guerrilla.
It loses some punch towards the end of the game, particularly in facial animation as one major character’s stone-faced mannerisms belie the actor’s vocal performance. However, given the general sci-fi bunkum that constitutes the story, such technical hiccups do little to diminish the grandstanding leap in graphical fidelity.
It should be said that the story is an improvement over Killzone 3. It drops the macho shtick, finding a more balanced tone that sits somewhere between Tom Clancy-esque political thriller and a more melancholy war tale. Well, that’s the underlining pitch anyway; tucked away beneath an oddly convoluted and fractured narrative that deploys your hero Lucas into various covert operations. The story beats flit between the laughably cliché and insufferably dull. It’s inoffensive nonsense and admirably performed with real gusto by its cast, refraining from having any meaningful impact on the enjoyment of the gameplay.
And you can’t really fault Killzone: Shadow Fall in that regard. Guerrilla has once again crafted an immensely impressive, hefty first- person shooter on base level and even goes so far to enhance strategy and immersion, while dialling back on the histrionic set pieces that marred its PlayStation 3 predecessor. The player is almost always accompanied by an AI combat drone known as OWL, who has several functions that can be used during battle (utilising the PlayStation 4’s touchpad as a weapon radial to switch between four of the modes). An early mission involves skulking around an open forest expanse, which takes full advantage of the drone’s functionality: using its zipline mechanic to jolt between treetop platforms, advancing on enemies using its attack function, stunning others as a tactical diversion and hacking computer terminals to disable alarms. Successfully juggling OWL’s functionality leads to some of the slickest and gratifying action sequences we’ve played in a shooter and it’s a testament to the open nature of the early environments that gives this fresh mechanic room to flourish in the hands of intrepid players. It’s a shame then that it feels under utilised as the game progresses.
While it’s understandable that some missions are designed with a particular flavour in mind (such as the aforementioned space station that feels like it was cut straight out of a survival horror title), larger
environments lack the craftsmanship to facilitate a wilful exploration and ownership over how objectives are reached or completed. It toys with the idea on a few occasions, boiling it down in one instance to a simple scalpel or sledgehammer approach to a hostage situation. Yet, the former furtive approach rarely feels viable, or at the very least lacks a perceptible advantage to be worthwhile, making the notion of just slaughtering your way through waves of enemies the preferable option.
There’s also a pervading sense that Guerrilla has played its hand too early. Later levels regress into increasingly linear affairs, punctuated by sloppily implemented set pieces – one chapter opens with what should be an exhilarating freefall through a crumbling metropolis, only for its to be hamstrung by some painfully awkward controls and basic luck. When it’s at its best, Killzone: Shadow Fall has the polish, technical excellence and finesse to elevate the franchise among the ranks of the genre’s finest, but too often it slips into rote territory, and superficial design (you can slaughter innocent civilians without surrounding NPCs batting so much as an eyelid), not to mention the truly bizarre technical anomalies (we’re fairly certain that our hero’s height fluctuated quite wildly during the campaign). If Guerrilla had reined in its ambition and concentrated on what it does best – intense and satisfying shooting, fiercely intelligent AI and some of the medium’s punchiest visuals – then this could have easily been a formidable launch title for the PlayStation 4.
It all comes back to that poster hanging on the bedroom wall. Killzone: Shadow Fall is so full of influences, struggling to balance so many different ideas across the eight or so hours of single-player that it fails to settle cohesively. Even worse, nothing here feels particularly new. Killzone: Shadow Fall is an immensely enjoyable shooter but one busy distracting itself from being anything more.