We like sci-fi. We do. All we ask is that our sci-fi games have science in them, and that the game understands the physics of the universe. Unfortunately, Killzone: Shadow Fall is not a game which manages to live up to our expectations.
The Killzone franchise started back in 2004 when the Helghan Empire (analogy for Britain) attacked the ISA (Interplanetary Strategic Alliance) homeworld of Vekta (analogy for America). Since then, the games have gone back and forth with Vekta (America) constantly wiping the floor with Helghan (Britain) across each and every installment. Despite the half-baked story which the franchise continually offers, we’ve still held a special place in our heart for Killzone up until now, because even if the story is a load of bobbins, the games have generally still been fun. Killzone 2 was probably the peak of the franchise, but since then the series has been on a gradual decline, with each new entry being slightly more mediocre than the last.
But if the underlying game isn’t particularly original or manages to break any boundaries, it at least looks gorgeous. Make no mistake, there are some stunning vistas on show in Shadow Fall, with some superb use of lighting effects that really show off what Sony’s latest console is capable of. While some of the animations fail to convince, overall the world in which you find yourself is well-realized and often quite beautiful.
Shadow Fall is a game about a Shadow Ranger (or a Ninja Marine, to be more precise) named Lucas Kellan; you start the game in his childhood home being led away by his worried father. You see, the ISA decided to bomb the shit out of the planet Helghan. Helghan is not only the Helghast home world, but is heavily mined for the energy-bestowing mineral petricite. Unfortunately, petricite is extremely explosive, and the entire planet pretty much goes up in smoke in what is later dubbed the terricide; not the helgacide – the terricide, as in ‘Earth’ and ‘killing’. We’ll forgive the terrible use of English here, and move on – because Vekta, feeling kinda dickish about killing an entire planet’s worth of innocent men, women and children, decided to give half of the planet Vekta over to the Helghan in an attempt to forge an uneasy truce.
The problem here is that the Vektans and Helghans loathe and resent each other – to be fair, the Helghans were on Vekta first, and the ISA forced them off it, causing them to relocate. The Vektans let them come back, but in order to keep the two peoples separate, both nations built The Wall. It seems Vetka wasn’t interested in acknowledging the fact that apartheid doesn’t work - they just went ahead and built The Wall anyway. At this point in the game you are better off switching over to the movie Pacific Rim, but if you’re here to stay, you may want to pull up a chair – it’s about to get complicated.
In order to let peace prevail, the entire planet of Vekta now has The Wall spanning its circumference. This wall is technically actually two walls, at an average of 70 meters high, and almost 300 meters high in the planet’s capital, Vekta City – with 200 meters of landmine-strewn, drone-patrolled no man’s land in between. International waters are similarly patrolled, but have floating platforms instead of The Wall; amazingly, The Wall somehow manages to also affect the weather. Shadow Fall takes place on both sides of Vetka, with the Helghan half – New Helghan – being a smog-ridden mass of ashen reds, while the Vektan side is a daydream of blues, greens and the sun.
The Wall is actually a pretty interesting plot device – put two diametrically opposed, warring races on one planet and see what happens; take the Vektans with their democracy and money, and the Helghan with their dictatorship and poverty, and you have a pretty decent melting pot waiting to boil over. Helghans could initially seek refuge in Vekta, but were later deported and branded traitors by their Helghan kin when tensions rose. These traitors had the shit kicked out of them nightly, and resented Vektans even more as a result. There are a few interesting newspapers scattered around which document the fall of an actor who was discovered to be of Helghan lineage, which manages to paint a surprisingly touching tale of oppression. If only the rest of the plot was handed with the same level of care.
The rest of the story is pretty by-the-numbers affair involving a mad scientist with a typically nefarious scheme to wipe out an entire species, and it plays out pretty much as you’d expect. It never rises above mediocre, but it’s at least delivered with plenty of gusto and has allowed Guerilla to work in some admittedly interesting set-pieces which maintain a sense of constant forward momentum – at least until later on, when Guerilla seemingly ran out of ideas and instead decided to have the player run through endless corridors and generic Enemy bases.
Elsewhere, Killzone: Shadow Fall is a game which suffers heavily from launch title-itis – a sickening disease whereby videogames are rushed out the gate because they need to be the first disc in anyone’s new console. Shadow Fall suffers from some horrendous bugs and general oversights which often threaten to ruin your enjoyment. Characters will only look at where they expect Lucas to be, but never at him. They will hold out items to where they think Lucas should stand, but never where he is standing. Echo is the only character who looks at and talks to Lucas – and this was startlingly obvious from the first chapter. We hoped that we’d find someone, anyone else who reacted to our position, but were left disappointed. It’s a shame, because it breaks the immersion and takes you out of the experience.
It’s not just the writing that disappoints, either; the laws of physics are thrown out the window early on and never allowed to reassert themselves. We can appreciate that all works of fiction exist in their own universe. Star Wars has The Force, and The Force has its own will. The Force is a McGuffin, yes, and does whatever the writers want it do, but the writers define the laws of physics in Star Wars and then they stick to them. Imagine if suddenly in Star Wars: Episode 7, Jedis now have the power to walk through walls, or bring back the dead – you’d be upset, and quite rightfully so.
Killzone has always tried to be vaguely believable – it’s a series which takes itself remarkably seriously, even when it takes massive leaps in logic. That’s fine – but don’t expect to hold the player’s suspension of disbelief when falling 10 ft will break their neck, but jumping on a space bike, riding out of a space station (while Echo has no helmet on), ditching the space bikes in atmosphere so you can free-fall onto the planet (while Echo doesn’t asphyxiate, freeze, or burn up on reentry, but can still speak on Comms), fly horizontally across the country as you fall, (you have no wings) and then land on the roof of a building, at terminal velocity, in a dinghy which you fired from your suit. If that isn’t bad enough, the dinghy then dissolves. This dinghy is dense enough that it stayed on the roof of a building exactly where you fired it without skidding, sliding or flying away; it inflates to catch your fall, and protect your incredibly fickle health bar, letting you walk away entire unscathed from something that should have killed you outright. It then dissolves in 10 seconds. It’s all utterly ridiculous, and this ridiculousness often threatens to completely derail your enjoyment of the game.
There are also clipping and collision problems, and you can occasionally see through walls too, if you position the angle just right – but thanks to your handy sonar-thingy you can see where your enemies are – even if they move after firing off the sonar – because that is how sonar works.
These problems could be forgiven if the game was actually fun to play. Unfortunately, it is just more of the same that we’ve come to expect; that is to say, solid, but unremarkable and without much to make it stand out. There’s a few new additions to your toolset, but their implementation and effectiveness is somewhat patchy. There’s a new gadget called the Owl, which is a Magic Ninja’s (Space Ranger’s) best friend. you can set it to one of 4 modes using the DualShock 4’s touch pad: attack, defend, shock/hack or zipline. The hack is useful to disable alarms, and the zipline is a zipline. Generally speaking though, the game likes sending an obscene number of footsoldiers your way and pinning you down, which means that a lot of the time you will be sending your Owl out to attack or shock your enemies while you leap out from behind cover to stab a distracted Helghan in the neck, before throwing a magic second knife into his friend’s face and using a magically respawning third knife to finish the job. If only you could drop your default weapon and replace it with one you like instead.
Speaking of enemies, there are only a handful of different types, and they’re pretty standard fare. There are snipers, heavy weapon experts, guys with shields and your average grunts, and they all behave pretty much as you’d expect. They spawn in large numbers and quickly work to pin you down behind cover with flanking maneuvers, but for all their intelligence they occasionally act in a way that almost ensures their own downfall.
If and when you get shot down, you can get your Owl to revive you using Adrenaline packs. These Adrenaline packs are not simply adrenaline – no – this is Adrenaline. It’s magic. Not only does it get that heart pumping again, it plugs up holes in your torso. But wait, there’s more! At one point you are in the slums of New Helghan and can offer an Adrenaline pack to a woman to save her dying husband; she takes it, says thanks, and places it on her husbands chest. Boop! All better. See? Magic exists, boys and girls.
On top of all this, the Helghast aren’t exclusively British any more – Sony has seemingly decided that Ireland is once again part of the British Empire – because that never upsets anyone. Well done, Guerilla – you’re doing cultural sensitivity right.
Outside of the campaign – which will last around 8-10 hours – there’s the game’s various multiplayer modes, and it’s here where Shadow Fall starts to realize its potential. A wealth of community tools sees Guerilla handing over responsibility for generating content to the players, and there are already a large number of interesting and imaginative player-created game types and maps available. Meanwhile, the developer’s own maps are largely well-designed and interesting affairs, while Classic Warzone mode has each team’s objectives cycling through familiar variants such as capture the flag, standard deathmatch and the need to disarm a series of bombs littered about the stage. This constant mix and match of gameplay keeps things interesting, and while the game’s arsenal remains relatively uninspired, weapons at least pack a meaty punch and everything feels solid and pleasantly weighty.
All in all though, Shadow Fall is a pretty average experience that never quite manages to rise above being simply a showcase for the PS4’s ability to push around a lot of rather gorgeous graphics. It starts out promisingly enough, only to fall flat on its face thanks to a number of glitches, uneven pacing and a regrettable late-game descent into running through endless identikit corridors. Shadow Fall a flagship PS4 game which looks suitably next-gen, but plays like a PS2 game. The action is enjoyable enough – until you get rushed by a wave of enemies with mini guns -and the multiplayer is solid, but as a whole, it rarely manages to rise above mediocre.
If Guerilla games set out to create a game which acts as a demonstration of what the PS4 is capable of, they succeeded. If they set out to create an engaging, innovative experience that will stand the test of time in years to come, then sadly the developer still has a long way to go.