Killzone: Shadow Fall is a beautiful game.
It’s apparent even in the first few seconds of the prologue, as torrential rain hammers against the walls of your high-rise before its ambient lighting is accosted only by the neon orange lens flare of an approaching Hellghast trooper. Everything looks refined. Everything looks pure and untarnished.
As the game opens up and the expanses ahead of you change and vary from heavily cultivated forests to darkened, daunting spacecraft holds, Shadow Fall really comes into its own as the most aesthetically pleasing game of the Playstation 4’s release. And so it should be, after all, this is the poster child for the PS4’s early days, and this is the game that will draw many of the comparisons when this fresh console generation comes to a slow and steady halt in just under a decade.
Shadow Fall was even bundled in with the console itself, going as far as to warrant its own stylized packaging, such is the faith that Sony put in Guerilla Games' FPS to drive home the power of the PS4 and become the front runner for its early assault on the console market.
It was a clever move on the part of Sony. After all, what’s more likely to create a lasting impression on a consumer than near-perfect graphical presentation that shows just how much games have been improved in one single leap forward. And for that purpose, Shadow Fall has its place, but where in amongst the swathes of similarly improving shooters does this game fit? Well, therein lies a problem.
The plot of Killzone: Shadow Fall revolves around ‘The Wall’, a superstructure that has been erected for the sole purpose of keeping the Vektan’s and Hellghast from spilling over into each other’s turf. And, as well as its significance in regards to the plot, The Wall is also a perfect visual metaphor for the awkward marriage of graphical fidelity and FPS association that Shadow Fall struggles to overcome.
In essence, Killzone: Shadow Fall is a game that strives to be the go-to shooter of its kind, and yet its appeal rarely extends beyond it being a notably good looking one.
Returning to the plot, and the world of Vekta is now at risk after its leaders allowed their defeated enemies to colonise half of the planet in the hope that it would end the threat of war between the two factions. This, of course, was a mistake. Taking control of a Shadow Marshall who’s early life saw him forcibly removed from his home by the Hellghast, your story is centred around missions on both sides of The Wall as you try to keep the peace as best you can and avoid another planet-shattering war.
Missions are varied enough, but never really extend beyond the norm for an FPS. You’ll be briefed at HQ in suitably technological fashion, before the game abruptly cuts to the mission start without taking a breath. In this sense, the pacing of Shadow Fall feels more like selecting different scenes on a DVD menu rather than being a part of a slowly unraveling story.
In one mission, your objective is to attach C4 to an anti-aircraft gun, whilst in another you have to search a seemingly abandoned ship floating in orbit. Neither the presentation of these missions nor their application is anything you haven’t seen before, but, as is the growing trend in the genre, you do have a decent amount of leeway to go about your business and approach the task from all manner of directions. And aiding you in doing so is your resident drone sidekick, the Owl.
With four distinct settings that each allow for a different action, the Owl can attack enemies, stun enemies, shield you, hack terminals and allow you to rappel down steep inclines. This is a game where you’re regularly outnumbered, and being a Shadow Marshall is all about working alone, but thankfully the Owl helps deflect some of that soul-crushing loneliness suffered by many an FPS protagonist. Its usefulness when deployed in combat is rarely in doubt, but in some cases it seems like you need to be in the perfect circumstance in order to utilize it. You may want it to attack, only to be just out of range, or you may want to rappel and find yourself unable to do so despite being on an incline, and after time, this begins to become a little bit infuriating. Its whirs and beeps are comforting though, and in many missions where the enemy assault just didn’t seem to want to relent, the Owl picked me up by the shoulder and eased me forward. Not literally of course, but maybe an Owl with arms is will find its way into the next Killzone title.
Yes, traversing tundra with the Owl bobbing buoyantly overhead is comforting, and you’d think that being able to direct its attack, when combined with hitting the first blow would be enough to give you the advantage in battle, but even on easier difficulty this simply isn’t the case.
The enemies of Shadow Fall, and there are a lot of them, tend to direct their attack in one of two ways; extremely close quarters or completely out of range. For the latter, Snipers do their duty at the best of times, but it almost always seems like you’re never rightly equipped to deal with them. Instead, you’re forced to run around the edge of the battlefield and weave in between their dancing laser sights, hoping not to get struck and killed from afar. For the majority of the time though, your enemies will be in touching distance, and due to a distinct oversight in their pathing, skirmishes tend to always pan out the same way. Once you’ve tripped an alarm, enemies will funnel directly towards you in droves, shooting as they come and even endeavouring to get close enough to melee you to death. This is the kind of AI behaviour that was prevalent in games a decade ago, and it certainly isn’t befitting of this games ambition.
But, as I mentioned previously, this is a game that prides itself on its looks first and foremost, and if you’re willing to overlook the flaws in storytelling and certain gameplay incongruities, then sticking along for the ride may very well be worthwhile.
Graphically, Shadow Fall is pristine and stunning, but what’s just as impressive is the design.
When you’re on the Vektan side of the wall, you really feel like you’re a part of a utopian society. Buildings range from clear to white, amber and blue hues illuminate the skyline and the technology on show from the aircraft to the digital signage all paints Vekta as the perfect, graceful marvel of a city that it strives to be. Conversely, New Helghan is dark and unforgiving place that is so different to Vekta, it seems a world apart rather than just a wall apart. Slathered in liquid black and orange highlights, dwarfed by jagged buildings, razor-sharp angles and gothic architecture, New Helghan really is a Helghast home away from home, and if I didn’t know any better, I’d say that this side of the wall is where the bad guys reside.
This is a design ethos that extends all of the way to multiplayer too, as arenas ranging from rooftops, to trenches, to derelict, charred war-zones all have a distinct feel and character about them. Each map also tends to bring a different staple of FPS multiplayer to the table too. Narrow choke points, long sight lines and defensible positions are all represented in a collection of colourful, neatly conceived maps that go towards broadening the appeal of the game beyond that of a less than memorable campaign.
The format of Shadow Fall multiplayer is that of your standard FPS class-based style. Slickly designed menus mean that selecting a game-mode to launch or viewing your lifetime stats is as easy as the push of a shoulder button, whilst anybody in your chat-party will instantly join your game alongside you for a superbly streamlined experience.
Rarely dropping from 60 frames per second, gun-play is smooth and unhindered whilst the graphical superiority of the single-player campaign also translates well. A constant flow of challenges and unlocks keep things interesting, whilst a varied set of weapons all available to you at the start of your multiplayer career means that you can instantly begin chopping and changing your class load-outs to best suit your style. Gadgetry from the single-player also makes it through too, as one-way shields and radar pulses keep the action flowing without it ever seeming like a directionless series of minor conflicts like was the problem in some of the latter Call of Duty titles. With only 22 unique weapons and three types of player class though, there may not be enough depth to tide you over for as long as you would have hoped.
At its best addictive and rewarding, Shadow Fall multiplayer is solid and wholly playable, but even here it’s evident that the game is battling with its need for establishing itself in its own niche. There’s no open-scale warfare like Battlefield, no vehicular combat like Halo and even no VR visor like Blacklight, so where exactly does Shadow Fall take its place on the FPS mantle? It may be a fairly competent shooter in its own right, but it’s one that doesn’t seem to have enough confidence in itself to mount a serious challenge alongside some of the other shooters that will grace the Playstation 4 over the next few years.
And as in life, you’ll find it hard just trying to get by on your looks.