News, Views, and Reviews
Killzone Shadow Fall isn’t getting enough hype. With both Sony and Microsoft releasing next-gen consoles within weeks of each other, hardware specs often get argued about more than the launch line up of games. When that line up is compared, it does seem like the Xbox One has more exclusives, covering several different genres, but the shooter genre is not represented. This is strange because the current generation recognizes the Xbox 360 as more of a “shooter” console than the PS3 – but that’s about to change in a big way. Sony might not have as many exclusives at launch, but Killzone Shadow Fall is really all they need. It is THE killer app for the PS4 launch!
This may be unexpected, as KZ: SF is the sixth game in a series that hasn’t really done very well. The first Killzone was hyped as a “Halo killer” back on the PlayStation 2, a boast it fell way, way short of. Shoddy controls and frame rates did not impress very many people back then. Killzone 2 and 3 looked and played lot better, appearing on the much more powerful PlayStation 3, but developer Guerrilla Games couldn’t quite convince everyone that the sluggish controls were on purpose, or more importantly, more fun than games like Call of Duty. Guerrilla Games tried a few unique things to try and stand out from the crowded “military shooter” genre, but in my opinion, those unique features weren’t enough to elevate the series above some of its shortcomings. Fortunately, Sony’s handheld system, the PS Vita, recently added “Killzone: Mercenary” to its library, a game that actually was well received. This started bringing the franchise back from obscurity, and Shadow Fall will hopefully become a break out hit.
Graphics: Even with its mediocre reception, many have argued that Killzone 2 and 3 were some of the best looking video games of the current generation, at least on consoles. Some even compared it to the high bar set by Crysis, though I disagree with this comparison. The KZ titles on the PS3 do have a lot of detail and nice textures, and some of the story levels are quite elaborate with tons of activity on screen, but they are also very monochromatic. Of all the shooting games criticized for being too dull and colorless, too grey or brown, Killzone 2 and 3 were probably some of the worst offenders.
But forget the past. After playing through a staggering 10+ hours of Shadow Fall’s single player campaign, I am ready to nominate it for the Best Graphics of the Year. There is some tough competition: I played both Crysis 3 and Battlefield 4 on Ultra settings on my gaming PC, and in my opinion, Shadow Fall beats both of them. I’m probably going to be tasked with defending that, so here goes: Crysis 3 and Battlefield 4 show off some very impressive visuals, but after seeing two to three amazing settings, you’ve seen pretty much all you’ll see for the rest of the game. Shadow Fall matches those amazing settings right away, but continues to produce new settings and new environments throughout the campaign. Crysis 3 wins points for having more interactive environments, like grass and shrubbery that move when characters pass through it, and Battlefield 4 wins points for destructive environments that fall apart in spectacular fashion. Battlefield 4 wins more points than Crysis 3 or Shadow Fall for having a larger cast of impressive looking non-player characters. All three games lack consistency, however, as some character models are extremely detailed and life like, and other characters don’t match those details. So, if Shadow Fall isn’t as interactive as either Crysis 3 or Battlefield 4, and has fewer NPC’s that look amazing, why does it still win the award for best graphics? Because it just looks so, so pretty. Everything is very clean and detailed, with amazing draw distances and tons of details filling the screen, and there is that variety. From the wide open hills of Vekta to the energy torn ruins of Helghan, and from the pristine Vektan cities to the dilapidated slums of the Helghast underworld, I was always impressed with my environment. Oh, and there are some zero gravity space walks, too. This is definitely a next-gen game, and I believe everything else will be compared to it from now on. These aren’t just aesthetic impressions, the varied locals are essential to depicting the extremes experienced by these two societies forced to live together on the same planet.
Controls: Winning awards for the best graphics won’t matter, though, if the game isn’t fun to play. It may have taken them several games to get it right, but Guerrilla Games locks it down with some very solid, responsive controls. Really, I feel like that is the most important thing I can say in this review, and like the lack of hype, I’m surprised more reviews aren’t praising Shadow Fall’s wonderful controls. Clearly, the developers did their work, but the next generation power of the PS4 can’t be overlooked. The DualShock 4 (PlayStation 4 controller) is not only more comfortable to hold than the DS3, it’s also better designed for shooting games. Sony claims they have reduced input latency, and playing this one game on my new PS4 has made me a believer.
Mimicking solid, responsive, shooting game controls isn’t the end of the story, though. Shadowfall adds a new tool for the single-player campaign: the silent sentry drone “Owl” opens up new game play possibilities. It can be used to zipline to lower areas, send out electric charges to stun enemies, set to fly around and shoot at enemies, or it can create a defensive shield that you can shoot through from your side, but deflects enemy fire from the other side. Switching to one of these four options is as quick as swiping the new touch-sensitive panel in the center of the DS4 controller. Perhaps because this is a new controller and I’m not used to “swiping” it, but I found I used “Owl” about as often as I used the “plasmid” powers in Bioshock; that is to say, not very often. Still, I appreciate that Shadow Fall includes more game play options, which could extend replay value of the campaign.
Game Play: Killzone Shadow Fall borrows heavily from some great games, and you can see that DNA throughout the game, but it finally manages to stand out from that crowded “military shooter” genre because it’s unique features also work very well. Most of the time. Shadow Fall is a more open, player driven campaign, similar to games like Bioshock, Halo, or Crysis. It isn’t totally open like a sandbox game, but many of the areas are quite large and give the player freedom to complete objectives how and when they like. Other areas are more confined or linear, and like Bioshock, some areas are completely combat free. Shadow Fall wants to tell a story this time, and you will take the time to take it all in. Sometimes the game and the story get in each others way. It feels a little strange, for example, to have a climactic chase of an enemy character abruptly ended by a non-interactive cut scene that takes control away from you right when you’re expecting an epic confrontation.
There are a few other frustrations, though opinions of these may vary. I’ve read some reviews that didn’t like the zero gravity portions, and I thought they were pretty fun. Conversely, I didn’t enjoy some of the stealth-type areas as much as others might, as those types of “trial and error” game segments are usually not my favorite. Because it is more open, the game assists you find your way by simply pressing “Up” on the D-Pad, which “pings” your objective locations for a few seconds, but that almost never helped me figure out which way I was supposed to go. To be fair, these criticisms apply to those great games as well, I think it’s just the nature of the genre. Overall, I much prefer this style of game play than a heavily scripted, non-stop adrenaline ride that too many games try to create lately. Again, at 10+ hours, this is a substantial single player game.
Sound: I discovered a feature available on the PS4 a day before I got it, and I suppose I should keep this in mind while I review the sound quality. There is a headphone jack on the bottom of the controller, so you can plug a headset in and chat with your teammates or friends online. But, if you just plug in a regular set of headphones or earbuds, and select an option in the PS4’s settings, you can play the game’s audio through that jack instead of through the TV or monitor. Coincidentally, I’m currently using my PC monitor as my main display, and I welcomed that option, as I didn’t know how else I was going to get sound. The quality is actually quite good, as I noticed some great stereo-separation effects like objects falling behind me or rain falling on tarps above me, though I imagine it would sound even better on a true surround-sound stereo. The only thing I question is if the music sound levels would be as severe as they were on my earbuds.
Delivery methods aside, the sound quality of Shadow Fall is excellent. In fact, I’m purposely replaying the credits as I type this so I can re-listen to some of the soundtrack. As I’ll cover in the “Narrative” category, Shadow Fall is not the typical shooting game, and its soundtrack generally matches its moody, melancholy atmosphere. The Helghast Empire is very industrial, very rigid and imperialistic, and the music shifts to some percussive, mechanical sounding tracks when appropriate. There is also a sense of pride in either the Vetkan or Helghan themes, somewhat patriotic in their own unique way. I don’t know if it was just because I was using the headphone jack, but sometimes the transitions between themes was too jarring, but then again, maybe that was the point. There are only a few main characters this time, and each deliver their lines with convincing conviction. I would have liked to hear more from the main character you control throughout the game, especially as one of the points of the story is confronting his lifelong held beliefs and challenging his point of view. Wouldn’t you say something, anything, if you had some dramatic life choices? Like the jarring music transitions, some of the dialogue is a little over the top, but perhaps its intended that way. After all, this is a story about extremes.
Narrative: I though of putting this category first, as I feel it’s one of the strongest aspects of the game, but the history of the franchise – especially its shortcomings – needed to be discussed. Some may overlook shortcomings in a game if the story is worth it, but I tend to favor solid game play over interesting narrative. Fortunately, Shadow Fall has both. Like its collection of game play elements borrowed from other great games, Shadow Fall adapts some familiar genre tropes and melds them into a unique creation. Part science fiction, part “military shooter” and, believe it or not, part political thriller, Shadow Fall is often referred to as “the Berlin Wall in space.” There are a few chapters that dive into more traditional, “battlefield” type engagements, but overall, much of Shadow Fall is supposed to happen behind the shadows, in a sort of “cold war” type scenario.
Sony and Guerrilla Games wisely started this chapter 30 years after Killzone 3, as sort of a fresh start for the series. It is assumed that many might pass on something titled “Killzone 4” as that implies having to play at least 3 other games to appreciate it. As intrigued as I was with the setting in those games, I felt like the games themselves failed to tell the story in a meaningful way. Shadow Fall is definitely better at telling its story. It’s really about a conflict where neither side is clearly “right” or “wrong” and they do terrible things to each other and use propaganda and misinformation to justify their actions. Where Killzone 1-3 failed, in my opinion, was never clarifying that to the player. In each of those games, you play on the side of the Vektans, and the Helghast are portrayed as the bad guys. The friendly AI characters that “tell” the story as you play were so obnoxious and over-bearing, that I hated them. That would be fine if it were intentional, if it was the game’s way of showing how brainwashed and ignorant your fellow soldiers are, but their viewpoints were never challenged in the game itself. So they just seemed like jerks with no justification. Shadow Fall picks up those same themes, finally shows the conflict from both sides, the main character has to face some pretty serious, life-changing decisions, and I love it. The pompous arrogance from both sides ranges from subtle remarks to dialogue that is a little over the top, as I said, but I think that’s the point. I don’t want to spoil the story, but I really like the approach that not only corrects the shortcomings of this franchise, I think it’s a brave statement to make in the shooting genre. War is terrible, and it’s about time it was portrayed this way in a video game.
Conclusion: The “sci-fi-military-political-thriller-shooter” genre isn’t nearly as crowded as the “military shooter” genre, and I applaud Guerrilla Games for the effort. Crysis 3 dabbled in some existentialism, Bioshock Infinite caters to discussions of metaphysics and economics, and Shadow Fall looks between the cracks of political dogma and racism. I suppose some might not want their shooting games to mean anything. Preferences may vary, but that’s what happens when you try to create something unique. No matter what people might think about the story, its characters and themes, the technical merits of Killzone Shadow Fall can’t be denied. It’s a well made game with solid controls, inventive combat options, beautiful and varied settings, and a moody soundtrack supporting a 10+ hour long adventure. It may copy design decisions of other games, but it copies them very well. The unique features may annoy some more than others, but I had fun with it. If the quality of the multi-player is as great as I hope it is, this could be the “total package” and possibly a Game Of The Year contender!
Killzone Shadowfall is rated ‘M’ for Mature for Blood, Intense Violence, and Strong Language, and was released exclusively for PlayStation 4 on November 15th.