I feel like I really ought to enjoy Killzone: Shadow Fall. It has many of the qualities I enjoy in a first-person shooter: A strong emphasis on story in its single-player mode, an elaborate futuristic world, varied level design, and a willingness to stray from the corridor shooter style so common to the modern FPS. Yet somehow, I detest it.
You see, along with all these sterling qualities, Shadow Fall includes a slate of poor choices, all brought together in a stitched-together hodgepodge of ideas plucked from every million-selling shooter of the past decade. Usually the worst ideas. You love escort missions, right? First-person jumping challenges? Scripted sequences with unclear, constantly changing directives that can only be cleared by scrupulous memorization via trial and error? Sudden, arbitrary mechanical changes in sections featuring skills you never knew your character had?
Killzone includes all of these things, and they're every bit as terrible here as they were in the other games where you hated them the first time around. Unlike those other games, though, Killzone lacks a real personality to call its own. It's more like a soulless run-through of a "bad FPS design cliché" checklist. Don't get me wrong -- I honestly do believe developer Guerrilla Games has invested a tremendous amount of care and effort into crafting the series' universe. I just don't feel like they hit the mark. The world of Killzone features two races of humanoids who hate each other a lot and treat one another with equal awfulness as they each plot their rival race's total extinction. Having slogged through the miserable fruits of their rivalry, I feel like the universe would be better without either faction and regret the fact that the linear narrative doesn't offer you the option to just blow up the planet they share so unhappily.
Shadow Fall's is a story defined by its deeply unlikable characters, all framed by empty posturing against war and racism even as the player is forced to occupy the jackboots of a special agent who grimly proclaims his determination to find "justice" (read: Shoot everyone) as his commander spouts jingoistic homilies. Its narrative feels stiff and disjointed, with awkward transitions and unbearable, canned dialogue. You're often forced to undertake actions that make no sense. Several times your character watches helplessly as villains decide not to kill him but rather to spout exposition at him, in the tradition of ham-fisted fiction everywhere. There's no sense of urgency to the story; it just sort of rumbles from one nonsense plot point to the next without ever offering a real sense of stakes, let alone a sympathetic hook into the narrative.
But who plays shooters for their plots, right? Unfortunately, I felt just as disconnected from Killzone's gameplay as I did its narrative. Its guns have no heft, aiming feels slippery, and combat is an utter chore. There's no joy in playing Killzone, either single- or multi-player, and its tendency to switch around player capabilities seemingly on a whim further mutes the enjoyment. The game delights in changing the rules of what your protagonist is capable of, and it further erodes the experience -- especially on the unfortunate occasions when the game enters its absolutely execrable freefall mode.
The bad guys, the Helghast, manage to be the least interesting enemies I've ever shot by the truckload in an FPS. They're an entire army of identical-looking men who use the same basic tactics with trivial differences; there's Guy Who Shoots At You, Guy Who Shoots At You With a Sniper Rifle, Guy Who Shoots At You While Rushing You As He's Protected By A Riot Shield, and late in the game the toughest variant, Guy Who Has A Regenerating Energy Shield Just Like The Elites From Halo, appears in droves. This limited set of masked men comprise your foes from beginning to end, and the more of them you fight at once, the more boring they become.
Rather than build challenge by giving the Helghast interesting tactics, the designers just relied on that old standby of sending them out in large numbers and making them unreasonably aware of the player's position. You can duck behind cover and they'll track you as you're out of sight; you can pop up from hiding when their backs are turned and the instant you expose a pixel of your protagonist's hit box, they'll instinctively know you're vulnerable and turn to gun you down. No matter what other threat hems in the Helghast on the battlefield, their first priority is to take aim at you... even as, say, a high-powered gunship blasts them to pieces.
The bad guys, the Helghast, comprise your foes from beginning to end, and the more of them you fight at once, the more boring they become.
While Killzone remains a first-person shooter through and through, the game style changes from level to level. The first feels like Crysis with its semi-open setting and bright jungle environs in searing daylight, while the second stage is more akin to Dead Space: Players navigate the cramped, dimly lit corridors of an abandoned space station. And then it's on to a shootout in a populated futuristic city taken straight from Halo: Reach. And so on, and so forth. You've played most of Shadow Fall before, but in better games.
In its defense, Shadow Falls tries to do some interesting things. The lunkheaded hero has the useful ability to "scan" the environment and track enemies, even through obstacles. This makes it possible to keep tabs on lots of foes at once, which is especially handy when tracking a squad on a floor above or below the hero. However, it falls flat when the game spawns a group of enemies after you hit certain checkpoints; you can scan for Helghast before reaching a door, find nothing, open the door, and suddenly face a small army of foes that didn't register mere seconds before. Enemy markers also tend to be infuriatingly inconsistent in duration; sometimes the highlighted indicators will remain active for several minutes, while at others they'll fade almost immediately.
The player's second major supplemental boon is a remote drone called an OWL, which alternates between remote gun, shield emplacement, and zipline. It's an invaluable tool, and it adds an interesting new element to combat. The downside? It's so good at gunning down bad guys you'll often be tempted to hang back and let it clear out rooms for you while you stand around and watch highlighted enemy markers flicker out one by one.
And while you'll find it difficult not to hate just about every single wretched character Shadow Fall throws your way, including the utterly unsympathetic protagonist, the new Killzone does offer one breakout character: A half-blooded free agent code-named Echo. You can tell she's important because she's the first person (of many) to inexplicably decide not to kill the protagonist when she has him helplessly at gunpoint. This happens in the lengthy opening cutscene, presumably to make it clear from the outset that Shadow Fall intends to wallow in clichés; after all, you know when she doesn't shoot you that she'll end up being either your protagonist's ally, his lover, or both. Despite that, she's a decent character (and remarkably well designed in her red-hooded techno-ninja garb), and it's to the game's detriment that she's not a more central figure in the plot.
And if nothing else, Shadow Fall certainly is pretty. Granted, the animation is canned and awkward, feeling like something out of 2005, but the lighting, detail, and color of the visuals are among the best yet seen on a home console. Graphics only go so far, of course, and it's destined to be exceeded by later PS4 games as developers come to terms with the hardware. For now, though, Shadow Fall's greatest success is its effectiveness at showing off the PS4's capabilities.
For all of Shadow Fall's failings, I think what bugs me most about it is that it's yet another first-person shooter that gives players no agency or choice but nevertheless subjects them to moralistic harangues about how they're such mindless sheep to blindly obey the orders handed to them. Its writers clearly think they're making a deep, important statement -- never mind that every BioShock-come-lately has retread this exact same point numerous times over the past few years -- by attempting to make the player feel guilty about the slaughter they've partaken of. Never mind that Shadow Fall doesn't offer any other approaches to its mandatory narrative, or even a non-lethal way to take on enemies. That's fine. After all, there is an alternative: You can simply not play the game.
I experienced Killzone: Shadow Fall’s multiplayer gameplay at a recent review event. After playing the single-player game for a few hours, I was glad to have the chance to change things up. Killzone’s follow-the-waypoint gameplay isn’t the best FPS action I’ve ever experienced, and frankly I was becoming a little bored of gunning down endless droves of NPCs using the kinds of tricks I haven’t been able to employ effectively since the turn of the century.
So fighting actual people was a nice change of pace, and definitely showed this game in a better light. The environments we played were nicely executed on the whole, but – and let’s face it, with FPS games the devil is in the detail – they just didn’t quite feel as finessed as the arenas in other games. They look good and are varied, from tight indoor environments to more open spaces. But I found some were a little cluttered, and got snagged on stuff like furniutre and plants more than a few times. I’m sure I’ll get used to it, but initially, Killzone just made me feel a little clumsy when it came to navigating the environment smoothly.
But while I felt movement was occasionally a little touch-and-go, I had no problem getting on with the business of dispatching people. The silky-smooth framerate combined with the Dualshock 4 resulted in pinpoint accuracy – something that a camping sniper type like me particularly appreciates.
Ultimately, Killzone: Shadow Fall’s multiplayer is solid, enjoyable and packs some entertaining modes to keep the action interesting. If you have the game, it’ll help extend its playtime long after you’ve completed the single-player mode. It’s not as deep and finessed as COD: Ghosts, and it doesn’t offer the sheer variety and mayhem of Battlefield 4, but it’s a lot of fun – and will be most appreciated by those who love the franchise.