We’re getting a bit too accustomed to the archetypal first-person shooter that has a great multiplayer mode to go along with a mediocre single-player campaign. Historically, though, the Killzone franchise has been somewhat of an outlier, with action-packed story modes that sit comfortably side-by-side with the engaging multiplayer. Now that the next generation of gaming is officially upon us, does Killzone: Shadow Fall continue the trend?
Kind of. Not really.
While the multiplayer modes continue to entertain, the single-player campaign of Killzone: Shadow Fall improves on its predecessors in some ways, but also tries to fix what wasn’t broken — with varying degrees of success. It continues the technical prowess of its pedigree with outstanding visuals and sound design, along with rock-solid shooting mechanics with all the oomph you could ask for. However, for perhaps the first time in the core series, it’s the pacing that cripples the experience.
You’re not likely to notice for a while, though. The game kicks off with a plot and setting that is easily the best of the series. Killzone 3 left on a rather dark note — the ISA beat the Helghast on their own turf, but did so by “Terracide,” a mass-destruction attack that rendered the planet Helghan inhabitable. Instead of elation, you were left with the sombre responsibility of near-genocide, and the decimation of an entire world. Killzone: Shadow Fall picks up years later — the ISA has granted refuge to Helghast survivors of the Terracide, allowing them to colonize half of planet Vekta in a walled-off area that has been called New Helghan.
Gone are the vapid characters of Sev and Rico, who really only served as your typical soldier placeholders in a war game. Enter Lucas Kellan, a Vektan citizen who witnesses his father’s death at the hands of a Helghast terror attack. After joining the military and graduating to the rank of Shadow Marshall, he serves as the game’s primary protagonist and certainly has more to offer to the story than those of the previous games. I was surprised and impressed by the range of morality throughout the narrative — the plot remains engaging through to the conclusion, with political undertones that are clear parallels to the modern climate.
This game looks fantastic. It’s a wonderful way to introduce us to the power of the PlayStation 4. It’s all on display: beautiful landscapes, detailed textures, smooth framerate, all running natively at 1080p with absolutely no screen-tearing (though, the uses of lens flare and bloom lighting are a little extreme). Thanks to planet Vekta, the settings are more varied than ever, as well. There’s a stark contrast between the bright, clean Vekta City and the run-down slums of New Helghan. There are also some impressive set pieces, from the collapse of a Vektan skyscraper, to an unnerving sequence while crossing the border into New Helghan as a deportee. Environments are noticeably more vertical than in previous titles, and it makes a tangible difference on the feel of the game.
The sound design is powerful — you can practically feel the kickback of each rifle and the force of every explosion. Electronic events such as scanning and hacking provide satisfying beeps and buzzes that add a shimmer to the sci-fi motif. The voice acting is a tad inconsistent, but serviceable. Even the load times feel rather brief. From a presentation aspect, Killzone: Shadow Fall leaves little to be desired. The possible exception is the less-than-stellar musical score, which too often devolves into uneventful vamps that do little to inspire excitement.
Also well-executed is the action itself. The shooting is tight and responsive, thanks in part to the excellent DualShock 4 controller. Your character is accompanied by an OWL drone that adds a wrinkle to the experience, offering up the abilities to cast ziplines or stun enemies, the latter function becoming invaluable late in the game. The OWL abilities are selected using gestures on the DS4 touchpad — it’s a welcome feature: always accurate, and easy to grasp. In a nice little add-on, the light on the front of the DS4 controller changes based on your health level — green for healthy, yellow for hurt, and red for nearly dead. It sounds gimmicky, but I actually found myself referring to it later in the game to help gauge my status.
There’s also the ability to scan for enemies, highlighting their positions through walls. It’s extremely helpful, though the game arbitrarily takes the ability away from you at certain times with little to no explanation. Also, as there’s no penalty for using it (short of an easy-to-avoid noisy overcharge), you’ll be inclined to pause to use it quite often — it ends up breaking up the pacing a bit.
And there’s the rub — the pacing in Killzone: Shadow Fall feels ill-advised. There’s an emphasis on stealth in this title, but it’s no Deus Ex. For the most part, the levels aren’t well-equipped to handle such an approach, and with as good as the shooting feels, it’s always more satisfying to let bullets fly. But nonetheless, the game is insistent on slowing things down too often.
It’s not a problem initially; I was actually enjoying the change in pace for the first several of the ten chapters, content to appreciate the wonderful settings the game has to offer in lieu of the endless shooting galleries that were more commonplace in the franchise. Having things to do other than “shoot these guys” is a welcome attribute, after all.
It’s the latter half of the game where things slow to a crawl. Chapters take much longer to complete, but it’s not because there’s more to do — it’s because you’ll spend inordinate amounts of time wading around the same area of the map hiding from mechanical killing machines (or perhaps even wondering where to go next). When things do pick up again, it feels like cheap padding, dealing with endless droves of enemies. For all of the wonderful things the game does at first, the second half feels like a borefest when it’s not outright irritating. It all culminates in a final mission that is a neat idea, but in execution, probably the least enjoyable in the entire game. Not a good note to end on from a gameplay perspective.
Fortunately, the story is solid, and holds interest through the plodding portions. And for the collectible-happy, there are items like dossiers, comic book pages, and newspapers scattered throughout each level. The audio logs are a nice touch, utilizing the speaker on the DS4 controller to voice narrations that flesh out the game world a bit. There’s also a handy feature in the game’s menu that outlines all of the collectibles you’ve found and which you haven’t, the latter offering a link to the section of the game where it exists. It takes some of the grind out of collecting every last item, if that’s your thing.
While the slow pacing may have much to do with it, the single-player campaign in Killzone: Shadow Fall is the lengthiest thus far, clocking in at about ten hours — decently longer than many FPS story modes these days. The pacing does put a damper on the fun factor, but it’s not enough to completely eclipse the many positives that otherwise make up the campaign. And of course, there’s plenty of action left in this title thanks to the exciting class-based multiplayer modes.
The competitive online gameplay still hinges on the largely unchanged Warzone mode, but several other details have been bustled about to result in an experience that manages to feel new. The most noticeable change from Killzone 3’s multiplayer mode is that the class choices have been whittled down from five to three: Scout, Assault, and Support. Instead of adding extra classes, each of these has a unique primary ability, and multiple secondary abilities. The result is a more streamlined affair — “less choices” sounds like “less options,” but through class customization, that’s really not the case. It’s simply a system that’s easier to use.
Another against-the-grain adjustment is made to the progression system. Instead of an experience-based “level up” scheme, Killzone: Shadow Fall tracks your completed “challenges.” These are accomplishments like racking up a high kill count in a single match, or killing a certain amount of enemies with a specific weapon over time. There are hundreds of challenges to complete, which lead to weapon and ability unlocks for your classes. While, in other games, your name is accompanied by your “level” to denote a wealth of accomplishment, Killzone: Shadow Fall literally displays how many accomplishments you’ve made in a number next to your name.
Standard play modes are here, such as Team Deathmatch and Capture and Hold. But in keeping with Killzone tradition, Warzone is the trademark play mode, offering up evolving objectives during a single match (one moment you’re playing Capture and Hold, and another it’s Team Deathmatch). Not much has changed since it was introduced in Killzone 2, but fortunately, it feels better than ever thanks to all of the mechanical improvements made to the franchise since.
There are several other multiplayer modes that vary the experience, but most impressive is the extent of customization possible within each mode. You can limit the classes or weapons that can be used, change time limits, or adjust the amount of ammo available. You can even configure unbalanced teams, and maybe choose to re-balance by granting the smaller team better weapons or abilities. It’s the sort of flexibility only available to PC gamers with dedicated servers in the past, and it can really change how the game is played.
All game modes benefit from the ten excellent maps included with the game. Each has its own unique personality; they don’t just look different, they each play differently. It’s the sort of variation that we always hope for but rarely receive. As a result, playing Killzone: Shadow Fall online is not only a blast, it’s different enough to discern itself from the competition — and it also helped me to forget the plodding portions of the lesser single-player campaign.
It’s unfair to undermine Killzone: Shadow Fall as just another FPS with solid multiplayer and uninteresting single player. The campaign has its problems with pacing, but still offers up the most engaging narrative of the series. The multiplayer gameplay is more entertaining, but the presentation and mechanics pervading all areas are what set this title apart. There isn’t anything else that looks and feels like a Killzone game, and Shadow Fall is the best-looking and best-feeling of the franchise. If you need a change of pace from the obligatory modern war shooter, turn your sights to this one.
Killzone: Shadow Fall was reviewed by Matt Buckley on a PlayStation 4