I’m going to do this review a little differently. Normally reviews are done close to the release date for a game, but with this one I’m going review the game late. A high profile launch (in this case, a brand new console’s flagship title) often has a lot of hype surrounding it which can cloud the view of the player. Launch games are generally reviewed on a different scale than most other games are and what’s good for a launch game may in either not be all that great in the grand scheme of things or simply take some time before it’s true brilliance is realized.
So this brings us to Killzone: Shadow Fall, the technical showcase meant to show off the power of the Playstation 4. Now that we’re a little over two months away from the hype and excitement of a new console launch is behind us, how does the game hold up? Not well, it turns out.
Let’s start with the positives. As a technical showcase, Shadow Fall is unrivalled. It’s quite possibly the prettiest game to ever grace a console and several of the technical tricks it pulls off are truly impressive. The load times are a perfect example of this; Getting from the system menu into the game takes only around one second, and the campaign is virtually load free the entire way through. This is exactly what we were all hoping for when the thought of “next-gen” first entered our minds.
It’s unfortunate, though, that all that technical marvels are wrapped up in a complete mess of a game. Killzone: Shadow Fall doesn’t seem rushed like many launch titles do. It’s actually a very polished game that seems very much finished – it’s not incompleteness, rather poor underlying design that brings the game down.
To start with, the campaign is confused as to what it wants to be. Open world, stealth, corridor, horror, tactical; All are valid subgenres for a shooter and Shadow Fall’s campaign tries them all out to see what works. None of them do. Different missions take different approaches to the gameplay but never sticks with any single concept long enough to get good at it. An early mission in the game explores the open world theme and, after a bit of a confusing start filled with unclear objectives and paths, opens up and allows the player to tackle the objectives in any order they choose. But just as the game starts to find it’s groove and the player gets comfortable with how everything works the mission is over and the open world theme is never explored again. This happens again and again; A mission starts off roughly and just starts to find it’s place in the world when it ends and the subject is never explored again, or has long, pointless extractions in the middle. One mission actually sees you backtracking through areas to retrieve power cores to power up a machine. Once is bad enough, but having the backtrack through the same area, now completely devoid of enemies, four times leaves the player bored and breaks the flow of the game. Another mission introduces the side objective to break into an enemy computer system and wipe their records on your ally, only there is no incentive or reward to do so, no particular reason to care, and is the only optional objective in the entire game.
By the latter half of the game every mission becomes a slog from beginning to end. New concepts such as a freefall through space are introduced to help mix up the gameplay but it falls flat on it’s face once you realize it’s essentially down to luck as to whether or not you manage to land in the (completely unmarked) safe zone. Every mission feels very scattershot, like the developers took bits and pieces from every game they liked and mushed them together without understanding what actually made the pieces so good to begin with.
Even the firefights need work. As in past Killzone games, movement and gun handling feel very heavy and deliberate. Such a system worked beautifully in Killzone 2, but falls flat here because of the lack of interesting weaponry. For most of the game you’re limited to a small selection of similarly performing submachineguns and your basic pistol. The standard rifle you begin each mission with (and you’re forced to use every time you load a save mid mission) is not a fun gun to use yet is constantly forced upon the player. It does have a secondary (unlike most other guns) fire, but it’s only useful once or twice throughout the entire campaign.
Encounters are poorly paced with many coming in rapid succession before a prolonged period of nothing. The AI is weak with most enemies resorting to hiding behind cover and occasionally peeking up to take potshots at you, never moving once they’ve found their spot. If they happen to hit an alarm before they dive for cover you’ll be treated to enemies spawning behind you and killing you before you even realized they were there. When the game is feeling particularly cruel it will force you to fight giant defense robots which consists of throwing an EMP grenade, firing until it gets up again, repeating, and hoping you don’t get torn apart by the time you get into range.
There’s not even much of a plot to keep you hooked. Somewhere, buried deep down, is an interesting universe ripe to be explored but Shadow Fall exploits precisely none of it. The story is a completely incomprehensible disaster that jumps around with no rhyme or reason all while being delivered in clumps by inexperienced voice actors that understand what’s going on about as well as the player does. In the latter half of the game the storyline takes a philosophical turn and attempts to point out that the world isn’t black and white and both sides have their demons but it’s presented with about as much care as the rest of the plot.
The biggest sin of Shadow Fall, however, is that’s boring. For all the incredible animation and beautiful vistas there is never anything to actually keep you engaged. More than once I would quit once I was halfway into a mission because I realized I’d been completely bored for the past hour.
I’ve been hard on the campaign, but it’s not all bad. The first few missions are actually very exciting, and the OWL, a flying robotic companion that can provide fire support, shields, and more, is an interesting idea that adds a lot uniqueness to a genre that is typically known for having a one man army. There’s even a cool little feature that allows the player to send out a sonic shockwave that maps the nearby area and highlights enemies. The longer it’s pressed the further the shockwave travels, but hold it down for too long and it emits and loud noise that alerts everyone to your presence. The OWL and the sonic mapper change the way firefights flow and at the very least makes Shadow Fall feel different than any other shooter on the market. There are some legitimately great ideas here that are hamstrung by poor showing put forth by the rest of the game.
So the campaign fell flat, but how is the multiplayer? It’s a mixed bag with an emphasis towards the good side.
The backbone of every Killzone multiplayer is the Warzone mode. The basic gist is that each team is given a series of opposing objectives (for example, activating/defending a bomb, capturing territories, killcount) that change every time one team completes their objectives. It essentially cycles through multiple game modes in a single match and provides a direction and purpose for each team that changes as the tide of battle turns. Warzone is pretty much unchanged in Shadow Fall and is just as fun as it ever was.
Killzone’s upgrade and levelling system is another area worth praising. Rather than subscribe to the Call of Duty method of doling out better weapons and perks as you level up, Shadow Fall gives you all the weapons and abilities to start. Instead of guns, what you get is different options for you guns (say, a different type of scope) that you unlock as you get more kills with a particular weapon or higher powered versions of class-specific abilities as you use them. Killzone also uses a non-traditional levelling system. In multiplayer, absolutely everything you do across every mode and objective is tracked. Every one of these stats has milestones (10 kills with weapon x, 50 territory captures, 20 allies revived, etc.) that when hit give you another level. As the milestones get higher for each statistic it actually trains you to perform better and teaches you how to play properly in a very organic and intuitive way. Unlocking new multiplayer icons even requires you to hit certain milestones on specific statistics that train you to become an expert in a certain area. There’s even support for offline play with bots which, while not counting towards your stats and unlocks, is always appreciated and a feature sorely missing from many modern day shooters.
The downside of the mutliplayer modes mostly has to do with imbalance caused by map design. The standard 12 player Warzone is well balanced and encourages teamwork with 3 well balanced classes. Things are slightly less balanced in the 12 player deathmatch gametypes where I found the Support class had a much diminished role, but it’s not too bad. Everything goes out the window, however, once you go up to the 24 player games. The maps were clearly not designed with this many players in mind and every match devolves into a frustrating meat grinder.
The actual map design itself has interesting if somewhat ineffective layouts. Colour schemes on some maps actually one of the teams (darker maps favour Helghast, lighter maps favour VSA) to blend into the scenery and makes it difficult to pinpoint attackers. Even worse is that some maps seem to heavily favour one side over the other. I noticed this was the worst in the Forest multiplayer map – One team’s spawn point is set up in such a way that if the other team gains the upper hand it’s possible to completely trap the opponent in their spawning area. There are three entrances leading out of the base, but each entrance either has zero cover for the defender or so much cover it obscures visibility and funnels all teammates into a single, easily grenadable chokepoint. In Warzone this isn’t as bad due to the changing objectives, but in team deathmatch I experienced this problem multiple times and every single time it was frustrating beyond belief.
One minor mark against the multiplayer is that the menus are confusing and unintuitive. Checking your progress towards milestones involves digging through several layers of poorly laid menus while finding custom and user created gametypes (a standard feature) is hard to find and virtually hidden.
Killzone: Shadow Fall is worse than your average launch title. It goes beyond being mediocre and dips right into “bad game” territory. As a showpiece for powerful new hardware it’s second to none, it’s just a shame that all the visual splendour and technical magic is wrapped around a game as poor as Shadow Fall.
Title: Killzone: Shadow Fall
Platform: Playstation 4
Developer: Guerilla Games
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Release Date: 15/11/2013