The launch of a new generation of consoles is something that requires caution from any game reviewer. You can’t harp on about visuals too much, because ultimately, an upgrade in graphical fidelity is the minimum expected of a new hardware generation. So forgive me if I indulge slightly, but Killzone: Shadow Fall was the moment I realised we truly needed a new era of home consoles, because it’s one of the best looking games ever made.
Set some 30 years after the events of Killzone 3, both Helghan and Vektans are living on the same planet, separated by a wall with a fractious truce that appears more to be a front than any real, honourable calm. You play as Lucas Kellan, a Vektan Shadow Marshal, and complete missions that take you from sun-soaked, lushly vegetated areas of beauty to eerie space stations that make you feel like, for a moment, you’re playing the movie Aliens. Every environment is stunning, so much so that in an early mission I found the area so busy, so beautiful, that I had difficulty killing my Helghan foes. Speaking of which, they aren’t stupid enemies: they will shine torches right in your face, blinding you and causing you to spray in their general direction. Next-generation games are already overdoing lens flare, but at least here it makes sense.
Accompanying you on the battlefield is your trusted OWL. A robot of sorts, you can send your OWL out to battle, both distracting and damaging the Helghans, or you can stun them (not entirely useful, save for nearer the end when shielded enemies appear). Your OWL is very much the key to the game, able to hack computers, act as a rappel rope, a medic on the field (it can revive you if you have steroids), and it can even create a shield that you can fire through.
Along with this tactical addition, also new to Shadow Fall is the ability to ping your environment. This allows for you to scout an area without moving, and adds variety to the way you can tackle encounters. There are areas that are best tackled quietly, but then there will be a moment that you shoot through a wall, surprising your space-Nazi enemies – all made possible by the ping ability. To activate it, you simply hold the right D-Pad down, though if you hold it too long it will actually alert everyone to your presence. It can create minor issues, as it’ll highlight enemies in orange. The incredible visuals can confuse at times, and the objective marker (up on the D-Pad) is sometimes difficult to decipher, as are glowing orange enemies, who can blend into the darkness.
In terms of making use of the PS4’s new controller, the touch-pad activates the four functions of your OWL: you swipe up, down, left, or right then hit L1 to action whichever ability you’ve chosen. The DualShock 4’s speaker is put to great use, as audio-logs will be broadcast through it. These flesh out the story, and some are very long and create tension and atmosphere; but aside from these collectibles, there’s little reason to return to a campaign that lasts 8-10 hours, depending on difficulty.
The story is typically Killzone, in that it purports to be more grandiose than it actually is. You get the feeling there’s some kind of subversive social commentary going on here, shades of grey; nobody is really good, in fact everyone is mostly bad. Starting strongly, there’s a definite case of this tale fading towards the end as the unrelenting overtures of depression weigh heavy. The voice acting helps maintain realism, and the Helghan soldiers are still a fearful looking and sounding enemy. In fact, the audio design is superb throughout, but (unless it’s my eyes) I’d have sworn there were very minor lip-syncing issues in places.
What Shadow Fall really does suffer from is difficulty spikes, and a lack of imagination in the set pieces. Too many missions involve holding out until something happens, and that’s something Guerrilla haven’t learnt from previous games: throwing wave after wave at you might be okay the first few times, but there’s just not enough variation overall, aside a short escape section that strips you of your OWL. Towards the end of the game it becomes a war of attrition, and can get infuriating, especially as it comes to a close with one of the most frustrating sections I’ve played in a shooter for a very long time. The difficulty isn’t helped by the fact that the enemy AI seems to have very wide cones of vision and can detect you quickly. There are sections that throw shielded enemies at you repeatedly, and unless you are a very good shot, it feels like trial and error.
The weapons are interesting to use, though. Starting with an automatic weapon that has a secondary fire that (sort of) turns it into a rail-gun-cum-sniper rifle is fabulous. As with previous Killzone games, they feel heavy, meaty even. Shotguns have a thumping impact on an enemy at close range, but aren’t going to kill enemies who are mid-range from you. It’s very much what you’d expect, but executed well. Also, top marks to Guerrilla for being brave enough to include Lucas’ feet and legs. Often something missing from first-person titles because it can lead to oddities, there’s an attempt throughout to create a feeling of weight, maybe even realism. That said, it doesn’t quite match the feeling of its predecessors, which is something I missed, because I always enjoyed that individuality. Those who couldn’t get on with the feel of previous games will fare better here, that’s for sure.
Multiplayer is excellent, with a seemingly higher frame rate than the single player and the opportunity to hone your skills in offline bot-matches. There’s nothing new, but it’s a nice option. It’s here that you’ll find the meat of the game, too, with the usual cycling of modes throughout the Warzone. Abilities from the single player carry over, such as the tactical echo (ping the area), cloaking, and others, to create variation through classes.
There’s a generous helping of maps (some better than others) and with the PlayStation 4’s user-interface vastly improved over the PS3, inviting friends and meeting up is easier than ever. If you couldn’t get into Killzone 3’s multiplayer, you may find something here. Veteran players on the other hand, will feel right at home. Shadow Fall’s multiplayer may seem light at first, but the more you play, the more you realise it’s a hefty offering, all told. It’s also hugely customisable, allowing for lots of variants and the possibility for like-minded friends to set up their own type of game. Either way, Killzone is still one of the most different first-person shooters you can take online, which is great.
VERDICT: For those wanting to show off their new console, Killzone: Shadow Fall is the game to do it with. A reasonable, lengthy but frustrating single player campaign paves the way for a compelling multiplayer experience the likes of which you’ve never seen before – visually speaking, anyway. Select easy-mode and you’ll have more fun overall, but if Guerrilla are to continue with the Killzone series, they need to come up with some fresh ideas for the set pieces, and try to create a more streamlined difficulty. Otherwise, this is more Killzone, but looking better than ever before – and that’s saying something.
VERY GOOD. An 8/10 is only awarded to a game we consider truly worthy of your hard-earned cash. This game is only held back by a smattering of minor or middling issues and comes highly recommended.
Review code provided by publisher.