Killzone: Shadow Fall Review – PlayStation 4

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Killzone: Shadow Fall has the luxury of being the only exclusive FPS launch title for either of the new consoles releasing this holiday season, but it is not without its competition.  Big names like Call of Duty and Battlefield are also staking their claims to your launch library purchases, and with a much larger and more enthusiastic following that not only spans both systems but also both generations of hardware, Guerrilla Games seems to be caught in the crossfire.

Not that the Killzone franchise is without its own loyal fan base.  Spanning both previous PlayStation systems and most recently appearing in one of the PS Vita’s best portable game of 2013, Killzone is a competent shooter in its own right, and being a first-party Sony title it has always had the luxury of being able to exploit the power of whatever system it shipped for.   That is certainly the case with Shadow Fall as this is the most spectacularly gorgeous FPS I have play on any system of any generation to date – and this is a launch title; just wait until developers have a few years with this new tech.

So if you walked into a club and saw all three available FPS games standing at the bar you’d have three distinct choices.  You have Battlefield, the attractive prospect with long-term relationship potential, Call of Duty, just as good looking but probably only going to hold your interest for a few months, and then there is Killzone: Shadow Fall; the stunning supermodel that is great to show off to your friends, but shallow enough to only be worth a one night stand (or maybe a weekend tryst) at best.   Which girl…err…game are you going to take home.  Well for those who prefer looks over brains, the good news is that Killzone is only going home with you if you are driving a shiny new PS4.

A hypnotic opening cutscene sets the somber stage for the current war between the ISA and Helghan.   It seems that 30 years ago the ISA bombed their planet leaving it uninhabitable, then in an odd twist of guilt and remorse they offered to let the surviving Helghast move to their planet and occupy one of their largest cities.  Imagine that after nuking Japan the U.S. had said, “We’re sorry…here, take New York City.”  That seems to be the unlikely premise that this story is based on.  In the opening level we play as young Lucas who is trying to escape the city with his father during the first days of the Helghast occupation.  After witnessing his father’s senseless murder at the hands of the Helghast, Lucas enlists in the military and we trip through time until we reach present day where the story gets really confusing with all sorts of epic twists and political betrayals, conspiracies, terrorism, and genocide.

Ambiguous narrative aside, most people play FPS games for the combat and Killzone keeps things pretty basic with a standard set of weapons, some with dual functionality, and your new best friend, the OWL.  Call of Duty Ghosts may have a trained dog but in Shadow Fall you have an OWL and it sticks with you for 95% of the game and proves to be the most useful AI partner in recent gaming history.   Swiping in any of the four directions on the DualShock 4 touchpad, you can change the function of the OWL.  It attacks, it shocks and disables shields, it creates its own shield for you, and most exciting of all, it creates an on-demand zip line allowing you to fast-travel around the map provided your destination is within range and lower than your starting point.

I have to admit that I forgot about the OWL early on, but when things started to get tough – and that happens often as the difficulty is brutal in this game, even on the normal skill level – the OWL plays a strategically crucial part to your tactics.   Enemies will often have energy shields that need to be disrupted before you can damage them, and some Helghast will have riot shields and your OWL can force them to turn around allowing you to attack their unprotected side.  Your OWL is also an expert hacker and can be used in numerous key locations to advance the game as well as disable alarm systems that will continuously summon new waves of Helghast until silenced.  Your OWL is even a field medic, able to restore you to full health provided you have an adrenaline pack.

Your D-pad gives you quick access to four useful functions, the coolest being this pulse sensor device where you must hold down the button to scan your surroundings.  The longer you hold it down the further your scan range, but if you hold it down for too long you will overload the system and everyone in the immediate area will know where you are.  Once enemies are pinged you can see them through walls and even order your OWL to target them.  This is especially useful on spider boxes that your OWL can disable before they unleash a swarm of suicide spider bombers.

This new Killzone might not have as many spectacular set pieces as Call of Duty Ghosts, but it is not without its moments of awesomeness whether you are dangling from a rope as a VTOL weaves through the city or making an orbital free-fall return to the planet that turns into a squirrel suit flight through abandoned rubble before landing on a giant inflatable mattress.    While the game doesn’t have any obvious puzzles there is one level where you have to open doors by unplugging and reinserting power cells into various sockets similar to Dead Space.

Shadow Fall is littered with collectibles; comics, newspapers, and even audio logs that play through the speaker of your DualShock 4 while you continue to play the game.  The new DualShock 4 is a fantastic controller out of the box, but it is especially suited for FPS games with great analog movement, responsive touch and D-pad controls, and great trigger action.  Guerrilla seems to address every new feature and function of the console and the controller in this launch title and does so without ever seeming gimmicky.   While it might not be the best FPS game at launch, it certainly sets a few feature bars that future titles need to follow or at least consider.

The story will take most gamers about 8-10 hours to get through.  There is a lot of time spent on just figuring out what to do and where to go.   You can press up on the D-pad to reveal your objective list and put a temporary waypoint on the HUD, but figuring out how to get to that point in some of the more densely populated maze-like levels is a bit of trial and error.    The was one level where I was getting turn by turn directions and doing okay, then the guy in my ear stopped talking and I was immediately lost.   Even Lucas said, “It would be nice to know where I am going”.  Without being too spoilery the ending is sudden, shocking, and possibly disappointing depending on how much you cared about the story and the characters.   There is a bit of redemption waiting for you in the loosely-hidden chapter 10 buried in the end credits.

Killzone: Shadow Fall has a competent multiplayer mode with support for up to 24 players in a variety of game types; the most famous of which is Warzone, a fantastic creation that dynamically mixes up various match types like CTF and Team Deathmatch within a single session.  This is the only mode that really sets Killzone’s multiplayer apart from its competition.  Your more traditional modes are still available but you’ll find most everyone is playing Warzone.  While there is no local co-op or split-screen gameplay, the game does support Remote Play with a PS Vita.

For those who are tired of all the perks and ability micromanagement in those other FPS games, you’ll be pleased with the more objective-based structure of Shadow Fall’s multiplayer system that has you checking off weapon and mode-specific goals rather than grinding XP during combat.  With more than 1,500 of these challenges, you won’t be completing this section of the game anytime soon.  There are multiple classes to choose from and all are equally balanced and integrate nicely with other types of gamers and classes.   Some even have access to attack and support drones, and while not nearly as game-changing as the OWL; these drones do offer their own unique brand of strategy.

As previously mentioned, the presentation is showcase material for the PS4 with in-game graphics that rival anything you’ll see in Battlefield 4 or Ghosts.  There is a certain level of polish that will dazzle you from the opening moment of looking through the rain-splattered window, to the first time you peer over the railing at the sprawling nighttime skyline, to that epic title cutscene that takes you on an aerial tour of a futuristic city.   Each new chapter brings something new to the table as far as original environments and gorgeous graphics no matter how depressing the situation.  And as much as I normally hate and complain about them, Guerilla even got the lens flares and screen dirt right.   Characters look great with motion-capture performances, detailed faces, perfect lip-sync, and excellent voice acting; sound effects are futuristic and powerful with great use of LFE, and the score fits every mood in moments of simple narrative or intense action.

Killzone: Shadow Fall might be a system exclusive but it is far from a genre exclusive with popular franchises like Battlefield and Call of Duty nipping at its heels.   There is no doubt that Guerilla has tapped into the power and potential of the PlayStation 4, creating a technical masterpiece that is pure joy to watch, but for me, that experience was a bit short-lived.    With its unclear objectives and confusing levels combined with the god-like awareness of the enemy AI, death was frequent and frustrations were high even as early as the first level trying to blow up that statue.   There were moments of brilliance and moments of utter failure, and even though there seems to be a thriving online community, I just don’t think Warzone or any of the other traditional online modes can compete with the juggernaut momentum of the competition, but it sure looks good trying.

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