Killzone Shadow Fall

 

Factfile
Developed by: Guerilla Games
Released: 2013
Format played: PS4

Ruminations

The Killzone series has a mixed reputation across its 10+ year lifespan, something of a divisive title amongst Playstation gamers.

Developed by Guerilla Games, the first instalment in the series hit the PS2 in 2004 charting the conflict between the ISA and the Helghan Empire (Boo! Hiss!).

My first exposure to the series came in 2009 with PS3-sequel Killzone 2, a title that would capture much of what both critics and fans would point to in their respective cases for prosecution and defence. The launch trailer at E3 in 2005 blew audiences away with its incredible graphical fidelity. But there was a catch; this wasn’t actual gameplay footage. Indeed the game was originally planned for release on PS2, the E3 trailer intended as an indication of what was possible on PS3 but such was the reaction to the trailer that Guerilla were forced to shift plans to Sony’s hulking black noise box.

Whilst perhaps never able to live up to such lofty expectations, the game itself delivered a graphical showpiece for the PS3, a pixel perfect lesson in how to make grey and brown look beautiful. Gameplay itself however saw you having to heft your protagonist around the screen, his movement strangely weighty. It added an air of realism in a sense but with FPS players more used to the floatier control style of Halo, Resistance et al, this felt slow and cumbersome. Still, the game delivered a satisfying shooting experience, if not perhaps the killer-app that Sony may have pinned their hopes on.

Various sequels and offshoots later and we find ourselves with Killzone Shadow Fall. A launch title for the fledging PS4, the game would once again act as a barometer of the processing power offered by Sony’s machine as well as attempting to provide seasoned FPS players with a game worthy of sinking their teeth into.

Gameplay

Now I’ll be the first to admit that, whilst far from a noob, FPS games are not my usual gaming diet which may flavour my experience. One man’s unique may very well be another man’s yawn fest.

I would normally dispense with the plot of a game as being both largely irrelevant and almost routinely dull but Shadow Fall scores some points here.

As series antagonists, the Helghast have always had a Nazi-ish vibe to them with their military uniform, dictatorship and symbolism. And as a student of history, the plot has echoes of the inter-war period between WW1 and WW2. With their planet decimated by the events of Killzone 3 and their society broken, the surviving Helghast are forced to share a planet with their conquerers on Vekta, a literal wall being erected between the two societies. Cue high tensions as indiginous folk are forcibly ejected from their homes to make way for their former enemy with the resumption of hostilities an inevitability.

Given the usual one-note fare, for a video game it is something of a nuanced, mature background to the action. The split between antagonist and protagonist is usually a broad brush of black and white but here there are distinct shades of grey, your progress through the game causing you to question the morality of your actions, right through to a complex, surprising conclusion. Look, it’s not Game of Thrones level plotting but I appreciated the effort.

In terms of actual playing time, the first thing that strikes you is the lightness of touch. Gone are the apparent sandbags that previously weighed your character down, replaced by a far lighter air. Movement feels lithe and responsive, a crucial component of any game reliant on quick reflexes and a sharp trigger finger.

Weapon selection, such a vital aspect of an FPS, is chock full of the usual fare but within these constraints offers a variety and satisfaction of use. Guns range from the lowly pistol through machine guns, shotguns and pulse weapons, as well as the standard array of grenades.

However a key addition to your armoury is the OWL, an electronic device that follows you around the map. This clever little blighter offers you four key advantages; a secondary source of gun fire; a scanner, a zip line and a hacking tool. Proper utilisation of each is essential in certain aspects of the game. You might start by principally using the unit as a secondary weapon, offering you the chance to out flank enemies or send him in as a scouting party. Pretty soon you’ll be firing off a zip line to reach an otherwise inaccessible area before stabbing the echo location button to scan for enemies, this neat tool letting you see grunts through walls and plot out patrol routes, helping you plan your attack. Finally there is the EMP and hacking ability, useful to knock out enemy shields, deactivate automated weapons and hack various consoles and alarms. It’s a great tool and one that adds a real strategic element to the game. Plus as long as you’re packing a shot of adrenaline, the nifty little guy will even bring you back to life when you bite the dust.

Still, chunky great weapons and nifty accessories are all well and good so long as the environment and enemy provide a fulfilling experience in which to wield them and it is here where we see Killzone at both its best and worst.

Things start off gloriously in the open setting of Vekta as you attempt to locate and rescue the survivors of a downed ship and a secret dossier of information. This isn’t the corridor shooting you might anticipate from an FPS, instead you are presented with open vistas, giving you a vast landscape to negotiate and allowing the OWL to show off its full range of capabilities. Other settings offer a good variety of locations; from the tight confines of a wrecked ship, navigating in open space, creeping round the grotty streets of new Helghan to a haunting journey through the battered and broken former home world of the Helghast.

Within each location, as well as a significant level of blasting action (hey, this is an FPS after all), other tasks are required of you from hacking terminals to protecting civilians and rescuing hostages. Whilst these generally offer a nice change of pace some of the mechanics occasionally get in the way. Scenes where you travel through the weightlessness of space are all very well and clever but almost entirely pointless, as are the handful of scenes that force you to walk a pre-defined path, deliberately slowing the pace momentarily to drive home a plot point but in terms of interactive experience, simply an annoying waste of time and little more than an excuse to show off the visuals. Equally there are some sections where you expect to take control and do something cool only to find that the game has taken over as you become merely a passenger to the action. (And hey, how come when I’m floating through space I get to use an unlimited use RPG that wreaks havoc and devastation? Why can’t I use this bad boy in the rest of the game and I’d soon make short work of these Helghan’s?!)

But these are just side dishes, the entree remains the core FPS experience of shooting lots of enemies in the face. Helghast soldiers form the standard fare, backed up by a variety of mechanical nasties of ever increasing size that prove eminently satisfying to take down. And there are some truly spectacular set pieces, none more so than the chapter 7 and 9 stand offs that sees you battling a seemingly never ending squadron of goons before making your escape.

With levels more open than in a traditional FPS you have a degree of freedom in how you approach objectives. Fancy storming in all guns blazing? Help yourself but a better approach might be taking the stealth route and sniping from distance before shutting down the alarms and picking off the remnants, or perhaps sending in your OWL to out flank the enemy and gain an advantage.

What a shame then that the world so often seems under populated. For a story so well drawn and hostilities so clear, there are innumerable instances where you plod through the level virtually unmolested and with little to do other than get from A to B. These are not the downtime moments that a skillfully paced game like Uncharted 4 manages, balancing character development against action. Rather these instances can reduce the experience to that of a glorified tech demo, showcasing its graphical capabilities but without the gaming substance to support it. What’s here is superb, however you may occasionally find yourself wishing there was more of it.

I played through on the normal setting and with the various distractions a house with twins offer, completed the campaign in around 15-20 hours, so seasoned FPS gamers can anticipate a somewhat shorter run. For my money, this is the Goldilocks zone of game length; long enough to be satisfying but short enough that you can complete it.

Away from the single player there is the usual array of multiplayer options, which we’ll come back to another time.

Graphics & Sound

As you would expect for a current gen game, visually this is a beautiful looking beast. The open world of Vekta particularly impresses, the game taking every opportunity possible to show it off to you. And whilst other locales are less immediately impressive they nonetheless shine in their own way. New Helghan’s derelict streets act as a jolting counter point to the bright vistas of sunny Vekta whilst the trip to the bruised and battered Helghan home world is particularly haunting, a whole planet lying in ruins as a society is forced to count the cost of a fruitless war.

The HUD is kept to the minimum of clutter, your OWL commands handily displayed as a reminder of their d-pad instruction. Incoming fire is handled by the usual screen-drenched-in-red design, quickly clearing when you find somewhere to hide and recover. A minor bug bear; Killzone employs the now customary tactic of on screen button prompts for simple actions. Be it a melee attack, climbing up a box, accessing a console, the game can’t help but flag it on screen. Uncharted was guilty of this too and it is a level of hand holding I could do without. Perhaps you can turn it off in the options but by chapter 8 or 9, you have  fairly good grasp of the controls so surely these tutorial esque prompts could be ditched. It feels a little like being nannied through the game. It weren’t like this in my day, wee lad.

Voice acting is broadly acceptable. Your man is largely silent, speaking only when required to advance a plot point. Background grunt conversations and civilian chatter add to the atmosphere whilst Helghast soldiers growl at you menacingly. The main cast that you interact with are a little hit and miss, one of the chief villains in particular rather arm flappy and cartoonish whilst Sinclair, your primary Vektan contact, is one note and annoying.

However the music is simply superb throughout. Whack on a pair of decent headphones for full effect and you’ll soon be swept up in the action. As you approach any sort of battle, a thumping bassline kicks in as an ominous electronic piece rumbles along in the background, pumping up your adrenaline as you hunt down the last of the enemy grunts or dash in to cover to avoid the relentless fire of a rampaging metal denizen of death. Then, as suddenly as it first appeared, it fades away as the last bullet pierces Helghan armour, signalling the end of the conflict a chance to draw breath.

It is genuinely thrilling and superbly executed.

Bottom line

A showcase in some respects for what the current gen can offer; incredible visuals, stupendous sound and a satisfying, varied single player campaign, all hanging off of an interesting, grown up plot.

There are some weaknesses for sure and it won’t win any awards for originality but this is a solid FPS and a worthy continuation of the Killzone story.

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