(PlayStation 4 Review) Killzone: Shadow Fall

Developer: Guerrilla Games
Publisher: SCEA
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Players: 1-24
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: Ryan Newman

Overall: 7.5 = Good

After the last war between the ISA and Helghast left the planet Helghan in ruin, the victorious ISA resettled the remaining population of their old nemesis on the planet Vekta. The two sides have since held a tenuous peace, made possible by a giant wall that keeps the two sides apart. Years of mistrust and increased antagonism are threatening to shatter the armistice, as the cloak-and-dagger operations of the Vektan planetary forces and the resurgent Helghast are quickly escalating tensions to the point of open conflict. As a Shadow Marshal, players will make their way over the wall to take on the deadliest missions behind enemy lines in the hopes of preventing all-out war.

It’s difficult not to think about The Last of Us during the beginning of Killzone: Shadow Fall. Both games take the unique position of opening with the player controlling a child—in this case, Lucas Kellen—in a world that is falling apart around them. Instead of a virus turning the populace into ravenous mutants, the Helghast forces are kicking Vektans out of New Helghan with extreme prejudice. As the first chapter went on, though, I found myself impressed not with Shadow Fall but at Naughty Dog’s storytelling acumen, as their talents—or their lack of involvement here—became increasingly obvious. The beginning of The Last of Us is a success in as many ways as the beginning of Shadow Fall is not. While Naughty Dog uses space, pacing, and mystery to draw players in, first enticing them with a few scattered breadcrumbs and then allowing the seriousness of the situation to set in as they explore an empty, disheveled home, Guerilla Games is terse, forceful, and clinical: jump, run, crouch. Fail at running between cover in time and it’s instant death. Mood and tone are sacrificed to the rigidity of command to ensure immediate comprehension of a basic mechanic; players come to grips with their surroundings not because they want to but because they have to. The disjointedness continues after Lucas’ father runs across another adult. As they begin to talk, their stilted dialog fails to sync with their lips, which would be a reoccurring problem, and as their conversation shifts towards Lucas, they look near him but not at him. To say that the first chapter is anticlimactic is an understatement.

Fortunately, things pick up during the second chapter. Several years have passed since the bloody relocation of the game’s opening, and Lucas is now a famed Shadow Marshal. Armed with an OWL, a drone capable of hacking terminals, deploying a shield, attacking, launching a zipline, discharging bursts of shield-disrupting electricity, and using adrenaline packs to resuscitate Lucas when injured, players will operate in the impoverished and increasingly deadly city of New Helghan. Before each mission, the Vektan Security Agency will outfit him with a pistol, which can be swapped out, and a standard issue assault rifle that doubles as a charged sniper rifle. During combat, Lucas can slide, take cover when firing, engage in melee by knifing unaware enemies or hitting them with his gun, launch an echo locator to detect nearby enemies, and sacrifice an adrenaline pack to slow down time while firing. In short, he’s well prepared to take down some Helghast.

All of his abilities and gear will come in handy over the next several chapters, which feature semi-open-level designs that allow players to sneak through vents and climb over objects to take side paths to allow them to circumvent and ambush the numerous enemy patrols. The world is never as big as it looks, but for several missions, Lucas will have much more freedom to accomplish his assignment than previous protagonists. This larger range of movement combined with his skills and weapons offers some great tactical possibilities, such as coming along the side of a checkpoint and having the OWL attack from the opposite end as a distraction as Lucas rushes in from their now-exposed rear with guns blazing and knifing wherever it can find purchase. The destructible environments are also fully utilized in these segments, especially one sequence in which hostages can be rescued by going in one room at a time from the hallway, or blasting apart the thin partitions and coming at the enemy through the rubble like Robocop.

That freedom erodes fairly quickly, however, and after a few chapters, the game shifts to become an incredibly linear shooter. Despite the numerous empty straight hallways, the design still has the pretense of being semi-open, but players will only find dead ends for their efforts. After a while, even those slight detours disappear, and what’s left is a nice-looking game with very basic environments that host extended sequences where absolutely nothing happens. Of the entire campaign, it’s those moments of downtime that stick out the most. There were several times when there were no enemies, no non-combatants, not even the random tiresome taunts over the loudspeaker to distract—nothing. Even when there are enemies, their piecemeal distribution often left me feeling unsatisfied with the encounters, as they frequently ended just as they were getting interesting. Despite Logan being Enemy Number One, the Helghast make very little effort in tracking him down and stopping him. The moments when enemies flood in with their portable shields, sniper escorts, and shield-wielding heavies are few and far between. And unlike most scripted shooters, which take full advantage of the approach to put players in the middle of the cinematic mayhem, Shadow Fall often feels as if the best bits are on the outside, just out of the player’s reach. The AI might be better in general than in Mercenary, but the latter proved to have more sensible enemy placement and offer more engaging gunplay.

Like a rollercoaster, the campaign picks back up from its long dip after its initial second chapter bump, but then it nearly derails itself entirely with a poorly constructed freefall sequence. As when Lucas suddenly has a jetpack, and later a jetpack with a rocket launcher, the game simply assumes that the player knows what to do with the minimal cues given. Thanks to a death summary saved for each level, I know that I died more times during that one sequence than I did for every other area combined. As players drop towards the ground, they are supposed to navigate through several city blocks’ worth of crumbling structures. This definitely looks cool, with apartment buildings toppling over and crosswalks giving way to huge chasms, and should be a fantastic experience, but it ends up being absolutely infuriating as it is only passable through trial and error. As with the rest of the game, the remaining levels look great but never deliver the outstanding setpiece encounters that are promised. The story’s ending is quite bold in comparison, and had Guerrilla approached the entire campaign with that sort of panache, I could very well have spent this review singing its praises.

If the single-player campaign was all there was to Shadow Fall, then it would be a pretty disappointing next-gen debut. However, to the good fortune of action fans everywhere, the multiplayer component provides the kind of exhilarating, interconnected, well-designed, and addictive gameplay that the campaign lacks. Nine modes (Classic Warzone, Team Deathmatch, New Recruits, Team Tactical Combat, Cloak and Dagger, Warzone Semi-HC, TDM Hellcore, Capture King, and Search & Destroy Only) host teams of Vektans and Helghans battling against one another as Assault-, Scout-, and Support-class soldiers. Each class has a set ability that serves as their core function for the team, with Assault troopers securing positions with their deployable shields, Scouts advancing ahead and locating nearby enemies via echo location, and Support units keeping the battle going with drones that revive incapacitated teammates. And it’s these primary functions and their interplay with the numerous secondary abilities and superb level design that make multiplayer incredibly addictive.

Each character starts with their entire weapon and sidearm sets unlocked. Instead of leveling to gain access to new guns, players complete skill-based challenges to upgrade their abilities and unlock weapon mods. The challenges are broken up over mode-, map-, and weapon-related tasks, but it all comes down to gaining experience through combat and solid team play. These are further split by the units’ primary ability and swappable secondary abilities. These secondary abilities complement both the primary abilities as well as those of the other players. Assault units can swap between a speed boost, a stun blast, or a tagalong attack drone. Scouts can cloak to sneak around for spotting enemies and causing havoc with knife kills, emergency teleport to another part of the map, and launch a stun drone. Support soldiers can lay down spawn beacons, erect turrets, launch machine-gun-armed air support drones, drop supply boxes to replenish health and ammo, and teleport to a random teammate under attack. These all upgrade with use but upgrade even faster when used to maximum effect, such as laying down a spawn beacon in a safe spot near a hot zone; they even work wonderfully together, such as Assault characters erecting shields in front of spawn beacons, Scouts launching stun drones in preparation for a chain-gun-toting heavy who is speed boosting to the scene, or an Assault soldier with their attack drone protecting a turret’s exposed rear. Additionally, the game type makes a difference as well, as do the levels.

Most of Shadow Fall’s modes are either variations of or traditional genre standards, such as deathmatch, territory, and capture the flag. Classic Warzone is the most popular mode, and with good reason, as it rotates through the various modes on timed intervals for five rounds. This is really where picking the right abilities makes a difference. For instance, when capturing and returning a beacon, an Assault soldier can make the best use of his speed boost, while Scouts can pick off approaching enemies and Support players can teleport to where the action is (where the beacon is, more often than not). To capture and hold territory, spawn beacons, turrets, drones, and shields are crucial for defending the zone of control. The maps are well disposed for players to take full advantage of their abilities, with numerous nooks, barriers, side paths, vents, and even beams that skirt the perimeter of buildings, all making proper placement of beacons and turrets critical. Some of the best moments are finding that sweet spot to lay down a turret and shield to hold reinforce a choke point, or to put a spawn beacon, allowing teammates to rush in from an unprotected flank. For players who enjoy support-type troops or careful team play, there are few games as accommodating. There aren’t many maps, but of those there are, all of them are excellent. Not only do they funnel the action to key areas, but they offer enough freedom of movement to make them feel bigger than they actually are and offer numerous ways to get in on the action. And as before, offline play is fully supported with bots, though these matches do not go towards challenges or the player’s statistics, but the bots can put up a hell of a fight, making offline play great for practice and for those with slower connection. For players who enjoy class-based multiplayer, Shadow Fall is an absolute class act.

Killzone: Shadow Fall’s campaign is as unremarkable as it is good looking, but its multiplayer is phenomenal through and through. While the campaign lacks the atmosphere of Killzone 2 and the imagination of Killzone 3, multiplayer takes and makes the best of both. It isn’t that the story was the problem, despite the stilted and oft-poorly delivered dialog, but the execution. Seeing that the once-grand battles of before have grinded down both sides to the point where they are fighting over the remaining bits of a scarred planet is a fine commentary on the ruinous resolve of both peoples, even though that intriguing world is poorly realized. Enjoy the campaign’s visuals, but know the heart of Shadow Fall is its multiplayer.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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