Fascism. Racism. Oppression. Idealism. Dutch studio Guerrilla Games continues to explore the totalitarian society in Killzone: Shadow Fall, but this time with a fresh angle. The war is over. Helghan was destroyed in Killzone 3 and 30 years have passed. Twelve million Helghans fled to Vekta where they live out their lives as prisoners of war or manual labour in the most inhospitable part of Vekta City. Guerrilla Games has sought to paint a picture with more nuances as the conflict between VSA and Helghast continues. It's a story that brings to mind the Cold War, the Iron Curtain, and Stalin's rule.
Vekta City is full of contrast. It's split down the middle by a gigantic concrete wall and 30 years of peace has done nothing to ease the tension as Vekta City reminds us of Berlin during the Cold War era. One side of the city is home to Vektans and this area returns to the aesthetics of the original Killzone with futuristic, elegant architecture blending seamlessly with blossoming cherry trees and fountains. It's a harmonic and balanced world far removed from the hellish planet that played host to Killzone 2 and Killzone 3.
On the other side of the wall lives Helghans. That side of town has began to fall apart as their efforts have focused on trying to rebuild Helghan. The industrial focus on the Helghans has shaped this part of the city - it's dark, gritty, full of soot and dirt. On both sides of the wall you'll be bombarded with propaganda - with one side singing the praise of material goods and prosperity and the other side targeting the VSA and the wall as the reasons for their dire situation. It's a fragile peace and at the start of the game it feels as if war is about to break loose any second.
Game director Steven ter Heide explains the vision for the game: "We were happy with and proud of Killzone 2 and 3, but when Sony asked us if we wanted to be one of the few studios to develop a launch title for PlayStation 4 we knew we wanted to take the series to the next level. Something new. One thing we never did in the previous games was to offer the player choice. Previously the player was merely a tool and we focused on linear experiences with nice pacing and high intensity. With Shadow Fall we knew we wanted to create a different Killzone with more potential for players to customise their experience."
After having spent three hours with two of the ten chapters of the campaign, it's perfectly clear what ter Heide is speaking of. The environments are larger than in Killzone 2 and there are always multiple paths to choose from. Alleys, ventilation shafts, secret doors and stair cases, all contribute towards a more well thought out and dynamic world. At first it feels different and strange as I absolutely love the first two games in the series and appreciated their structure and composition. Guerrilla has lowered the tempo markedly and the environmental design has more in common with games like Half-Life and Bioshock where you typically explore and take in the surroundings before you move along, rather than being urged to run along a predetermined path. I call it "old school" when I bring up the subject with ter Heide.
"Games like Half-Life and Deus Ex had a labyrinth-like level design in order to slow down the pace and give the player time to really take in the story and the atmosphere. We've taken the same approach with Shadow Fall as we want the player to recon, plan out, attack and then during the fight adapt and change their strategy more than previously. We want to give the player more choice and this isn't limited to level design, but it is also reflected in the mechanics. That's why we came up with the drone - Owl."
Owl is an AI controlled drone that the player carries along on his back. Pressing the L1 button lets you assign Owl with one of four tasks. Owl can attack the enemy, stun Helghans with an electric shock, place a Halo-esque plasma shield, or put up a wire that the player can glide across. These functions are activated with the touchpad in the middle of Dual Shock 4 and it becomes intuitive after only a couple of uses.
It's obvious that Owl was part of the original game design as the combat often encourages the player to experiment with its abilities. Rushing into a situation without having Owl first scout the situation often means your session comes to a violent end. Much like in Crysis it becomes a question of getting an overview of your situation and planning your attack accordingly. For instance, placing down a shield, put down four enemies, recall Owl and have him shock the five reinforcements that have arrived can result in you doing away with 9 threats without taking a single bullet. The same encounter without using Owl resulted in me using up four adrenaline packs while depleting my stock of invectives.
It takes half an hour to adapt to the new pace and I find myself planning my next move much like I would in Crysis 3. "We felt we had an interesting, incredibly well crafted game world in Killzone 1, but in our three previous games there was never any incentive for the player to stop and look at the surroundings. In Shadow Fall we've spent even more time and money to create a living, dynamic game world that we hope players will want to learn more about."
Story has never been one of Killzone's strengths. The first game saw an alien race attack the Vekta colony and apart from the traitor Hakka and the mythology of the Helghast, there wasn't much that was memorable. The same is true of the two sequels on PlayStation 3, even if Killzone 3 had a lot more dialogue heavy cutscenes than any of the previous entries. With Shadow Fall a lot of effort has gone into telling a story, and there is a lot of pride around the studio of what they've managed to accomplish.
"There is peace, but behind the wall someone holds a secret that will change everything," says ter Heide. "Shadow Fall is all about nuances, the grey scale that has been missing from the previous three games. We have been very clear about that fact that it's been about war and that the player has one objective - to kill a certain enemy. This time it's all about nuances. Are the intentions of the ISA really good? Are the Helghan as evil as most are lead to believe? Moral obligations, humanity, loyalty and faith are themes that are covered in this game and I'm proud of the fact that we've created a more mature and exciting story with greater depth than before. You will learn more about the reasoning of the Helghan and what motivates them, their way of thinking and ideology. Given that they've always been the main characters of Killzone it feels good to tell more about our iconic enemy."
Is there a human side to these black Stormtroopers that have oozed evil since the very first game?
"We've never really made out Helghast to be purely evil, if you look back and think about it. It has more to do with what the player has felt about the war on Helghan. This time we want to explore a number of moral issues and give the enemy a face. We've learnt lots over the last ten years and we really want to showcase this with Shadow Fall. Just the fact that there are Helghast rebels in Shadow Fall says it all. There are cells behind the wall that simply don't want to live under the totalitarian rule of Lady Visari."
Lady Visari is naturally the heir to Autarch Visari's throne and we saw a glimpse of her in Killzone 3. She's old now. And pale. Absolute power leads to absolute corruption, but we're really not told a great deal more about the story. The chapter we sample revolves around hunting down one of Lady Visari's generals and we're jumping between rooftops on the Vektan side of the city. Hiding behind elegant green bushes I'm impressed by the clean aesthetics. A short while later we're tasked with trying to make it past the security check to the Helghan side of the city. It feels like I've entered a Killzone-take on Ridley Scott's crowded Blade Runner streets.
"The design team has been inspired by movies like Blade Runner, Alien, Prometheus as well as Judge Dredd and other comic book worlds," says art director Arjan Bak. "We pick up and digest as much as we worked on expanding Vekta. Early on with Shadow Fall we decided to try and create a more realistic world with a functioning infrastructure and modern architecture. At first when we began work with the concept art there wasn't a wall, that idea came a few months into the project. Working with the contrast between what can be described as heaven and hell has been extremely interesting work for me as art director. On the one side there is freedom and a wealth of opportunities. On the Helghast side there is oppression and we've worked hard to drive home the vision of a totalitarian side of a city where the city plan is the same on both sides. It is important for us to show a Helghast side that has been influenced by them, but not built by them originally. It was the Vektan version of the United Nations that forced VSA to welcome Helghast to Vekta City in order to broker peace, and originally VSA were unwilling to accept this. The tension, conflicts and difficulty in knowing that an enemy you've fought for years resides on the other side of a wall is something we've really tried to leverage as we tell our story."
The main character of Killzone: Shadow Fall is Lucas Kellan, a Shadow Marshall, spearhead of the ISA - Vekta City's most efficient, lethal and, most importantly, invisible special forces. Covert missions see you infiltrate the Helghast side, but you'll also spend time on the Vektan side. Combat ranges from quick corridor encounters to massive firefights with as many as 20 Helghasts at a time. One major difference as far as the atmosphere is that there is peace and these missions are all played out in secret.
The story is told through gorgeous cutscenes rendered with the game engine and Guerrilla were careful to point of out (several times in fact) that the entirety of the game is seen from a first person perspective. A passive narrative is hardly anything new as it has been a staple ever since Half-Life changed our position in video game narratives in 1998, but Steven ter Heide often returns to the importance of never breaking player immersion. Much like Half-Life's Gordon Freeman, Lucas remains quiet through the entire campaign and the story is told through the characters you come across during the 12 hour long adventure.
"There will always be those who most of all wants to skip every cutscenes and those who hunch down and hump a desk while the other characters are conversing during the cutscenes, but on the whole I think we've managed to create interactivity in the story that will keep the player focused on what's going on. I don't want to spoil anything and won't go into any detail on what Shadow Fall is all about, but let me say this: "You will be positively surprised and hopefully somewhat shocked over what's going on in Vekta City."
From what I experienced at Guerrilla Games in Amsterdam there is an undertone of conspiracy that runs through every cutscene. It reminds me of Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Bioshock Infinite and it's a nice surprise that such an effort has been spent on a story that's not just rich on curses and a horrible main character like Sevchenko. When I bring up Sev in my conversation with Steven ter Heide, he smiles knowingly, before we talk about something a lot of you have been wondering about - whether there are any plans to reintroduce Templar, Luger and Hakka as playable characters again.
"The amount of choice we gave players with four different playable characters in Killzone is greatly expanded in Shadow Fall even if we only have one main character. You can opt to make your way stealthily throug levels, spend time in ventilation systems, use the stun ability of Owl and work hard not to trigger any alarms. If this isn't your style you can play defensively, use shields and place explosives, or simply jump straight into the firefights with the biggest gun you can find. In many ways we've included the same kind of freedom in Shadow Fall as there was in our first game."
A new feature that will please the more cautious and calculating player is "Tactical Echo" - a way to scan the surrounding so you don't turn a corner and find yourself face to face with those menacing orange eyes. As the name implies it involves surveying the surroundings through echo location. Patrolling enemy soldiers will be marked as yellow dots on the screen. This feature isn't for me as I'd like to be caught off guard by enemy soldiers, rather than learning their routes as you would in say Splinter Cell: Blacklist.
With all these changes Guerrilla Games are naturally running the risk of alienating fans that have been around since the first game on PlayStation 2. Lead designer Eric Boltjes jumps on my question before anyone else has time to answer:
"To develop the first game on a new console and to be a part of the process that Sony have undergone developing PS4 and its innovative controller, has been an incredible learning experience and challenging and it felt completely natural to do something a bit different. Sure the tempo is lower and the environments larger, but once you start firing, that special Killzone feeling remains the same. Heavy controls with lots of kick back. We never wanted to compromise with the sense of authenticity we feel Killzone has always had."
And it feels the same way. The controls aren't quite as cumbersome and heavy as in Killzone 2, but reminds me more of the more fluid experience of Killzone 3. Thanks to the new DualShock 4 and the power of the console the precision is far greater. Technical director Michiel van der Leeuw goes into more detail:
"PlayStation 4 has allowed us to tune everything. The foundation is a reworked version of Core Engine, the same engine used in Killzone 2 and 3, but most of it is new. The more precise mechanics is something we can thank Sony for as the new controller has a dead zone with the analogue sticks that is 20 times smaller than with DualShock 3 and PlayStation 3. The latency between controller and game is much shorter, which makes for a sense of more direct and immediate response."
The singleplayer campaign of Killzone: Shadow Fall is rendered in a native 1920x1080p resolution with framerates ranging between 35 and 40 frames per second. The resolution of the textures are 15 times as high as in Killzone 3 and the game is stocked full of gorgeous systems for volumentric lighting and particles. The multiplayer is rendered in the same resolution with 60 frames per second as Guerrilla hope to compete with Call of Duty.
"In singleplayer we prioritised wide open, inviting and, most importantly, varied environments over locking the framerate to 60 frames per second," says van der Leeuw. " For multiplayer it's far more important with 60 frames per second since it's about maximum precision at levels that approach a sport."
When it comes to multiplayer the core is made up of Custom games. This is something Guerrilla introduced in Killzone 2 and it has since been copied in many competing titles. There will be three classes at launch and additional classes will be made available through DLC. Instead of experience points and the ability to upgrade your character, Guerrilla have opted for something called Challenge Points, which you get after a match. With these you can upgrade your weapons and buy additional equipment. Guerrilla are keen to point out that player choice is key and through Warzones you will be able to customise your experience. Apart from rewarding skill rather than time spent in the game, the concept is reminiscent of Call of Duty, and while it will appeal to some more than others, during our two hours with the multiplayer we noted that everything from level design to spawn points, pacing and weapons balance, is top notch. The graphics are ridiculous and the brilliant flow of 60 frames per second makes for a streamlined, smooth and easily grasped experience in the early exchanges.
Thanks to the increased precision of DualShock 4 and the crisp 1080p graphics and great framerate, Guerrilla have opted to not included any automated "aim assist" in Shadow Fall. It's hard to notice as I don't think I've ever been as accurate with my shots as during my two hours in Warzone. The controlls are brilliant, and DualShock 4 is a massive improvement on its predecessor.
I was impressed with what I experienced of Killzone: Shadow Fall at Guerrilla Games in Amsterdam. I now realise why this game isn't called Killzone 4, as it offers something different than the previous games. The developers wanted to take a great leap forward, tell a mature story full of nuance and close the distance between themselves and narrative giants such as Half-Life, Deus Ex, and Bioshock.