It must have seemed impossible at the time when Sony contacted Guerrilla and asked them to work on a sequel to Killzone 3 on PlayStation 4. They were given two years and a fairly modest budget of just under £30 million (modest compared other massive projects that is). Given these circumstances Shadow Fall comes across as a masterpiece. It's also easy to understand why this game isn't called Killzone 4, as Shadow Fall feels very much like a spin-off that has little in common with its predecessors other than the glowing eyes of the Helghast.
The game starts off with a prologue that appears inspired by The Last of Us. Lucas is 8 years old, the year is 2370 and Vekta City is going through changes that will be key to the events in the upcoming conflict that the player gets caught up in during the 8 hour long campaign. Lucas and his father flee from screaming Helghast troops while the rain pours down outside the windows. Ten minutes later the story skips ahead 13 years and we're introduced to the man who adopted Lucas and has commanded the VSA forces for ten years. He's stumbled upon a massive conspiracy that originates from within the ranks of the Helghast.
At the end of Killzone 3 Helghan was devastated. The bomb killed over a billion Helghans and the remaining 12 million inhabitants of the most inhospitable planet in gaming were transferred to Vekta as refugees. A 400 meter tall wall made out of concrete was built to keep the races separate. Guerrilla Games serve up fascism and racism and reference nazism, Stalinism and Cold War era Berlin. Segregation and exclusion. Oppression and elitism.
The story covers a lot of serious themes and is told in an incredibly dire tone. Thanks to great actors and well directed cutscenes it grabs ahold of you and makes you care, at least to a degree. The narrative isn't on par with the genre greats, but Guerrilla has learned a lot over the course of the last decade and showcase an impressive maturity. Compared to the narrative of Killzone 3 and the rather tiresome Helghast rally that made up its core, the conversations Lucas has with Sinclair feel very refreshing.
As Lucas Kellan you act as a well trained errand boy for the top commanding officer of the VSA. Kellan is a "Shadow Marshall" and his missions often involve infiltration, stealth and dealing damage behind enemy lines. Stealth plays a much more prominent role in Shadow Fall compared to previous titles, and even if you opt out of being cautious you still need to hack alarms and make sure you move forward in short bursts and never leave yourself out in the open for too long.
This results in a fairly different Killzone experience. It mixes components you'll recognise from Deus Ex as well as Prey, Halo and Half-Life, with a solid sense of the heavy and war-torn world the previous Killzones have offered up. Lucas is accompanied by a small drone called The Owl. This little hovering fellow is capable of four basic tasks that are introduced early on in the experience, much like the features of the nanosuit in the Crysis games. Ordering Owl to emit a tactical echo (and thereby learn the positions of the Helghast within a hundred yards or so) is key to planning your attack. Owl can also shoot at the enemy, stun them with electricity, and produce a zip-wire that allows Lucas to reach distant platforms and ledges.
To a degree Guerrilla should be applauded for their ambition with Shadow Fall, but there are problems here when you look at the level design. The environments are more open in Shadow Fall, with more of a labyrinthine feel than the corridors we know from Call of Duty. The player often has to search and explore an environment before moving on to the next one. There is not really any guiding arrow that appears to lead us on our way, and occasionally light puzzles break the pace. It's an old-school approach for a very modern action game, and it works most of the time.
The slower pace is a welcome change, and with many ventilation shafts to crawl through there's a sense of actually being able to lose track of where you're going, which is also appreciated. At the same time the ill-thought-out level design drives us crazy at times, and the sometimes careless structure of the missions and the exaggerated variation of mechanics also frustrates. At the start of the game Lucas steps out into the technically wonderful patch of forest where Helghast troops are patrolling the perimeter, while communicating with each other and placing traps.
It's all about keeping track of where the enemies are, using Owl cleverly, placing shields in strategic locations and aiming for the helmets. We played through Shadow Fall on "hard" and died more times during our 8 hours with the game than we've done in the four numbered Halo games put together. But while it's easy to appreciate the more open game world, it's also easy to spot signs of stress and the fact that the team hasn't constructed these kind of labyrinthine levels before.
All too often, especially in the forest level, enemies and their well aimed attacks draw me in the wrong direction. We follow the sound of gunfire, take out the enemy and progress. As conditioned by 20 years of action games. But several times it turns out that we should have moved in the opposite direction to set off bombs in a downed freight ship (or similar tasks), before moving on towards the spot the enemy were guiding us to. At times it gets really weird when you have to go back, perform some seemingly menial task, return to the previous position and push a button that wasn't there at first. It breaks the illusion.
When Shadow Fall is at its best it's atmospheric, exciting, gorgeous, scary, cool, challenging and full of top of the class balance between recoil, rate of fire, enemy patterns, animation and environmental design. But when it doesn't come together it can be one of the worst experiences we've had in years. The level where you jump from a crashing space pod wearing a Wing Suit, only to have to navigate your way through skyscrapers that are crashing down, feels like a nightmare that lasts an eternity. It's one of the worst sequences we've experienced in a game of this type. And this is where the problem with Shadow Fall lies. Guerrilla has been trying a little too hard, and it's noticeable that they have been pushed to make a deadline. Combat is sometimes poorly choreographed.
Every now and then enemies appear from all directions, and there is no real sense of where you are. While Owl shoots down Helghasts for all he's worth, Lucas presses up against the interiors in search of a place to hide. While this is true, some of the combat in Shadow Fall ranks amongst the best we've ever experienced in an action game. During one mission Helghast terrorist leader Vladko has placed 22 massive bombs on board one of Vekta City's many Sky Trains. Lucas is tasked with jumping on the train as it moves, making his way through a level that sent both chills down our spine and made us scream with joy.
Another grand moment that took our breath away was when during one mission you infiltrate a research station inside of a giant spacecraft. Lucas is tasked with sabotaging it from the inside and finally sending it towards the sun. Parts of the ship are infected with a nasty virus and decomposed Helghast bodies lay on the floors. The walls are covered with writing in blood and the art team really shines in this area. It's gorgeous from both a technical perspective and the aesthetics are equally pleasing. The further Lucas climbs towards the reactor, the harder the opposition grows. More frequent encounters, tougher Helghasts. It feels like something out of Half-Life, Deus Ex or perhaps Quake. A wonderful celebration of old-school shooters brought to life with all the modern day tech you could wish for.
The campaign swings from genius highs to frustrating, horrendous lows. Thankfully the highlights are more frequent than the moments that had us screaming with rage. When it comes to the multiplayer it delivers a solid experience, even if the flirt with the Call of Duty crowd feels a bit tired. Perks, load-outs and an exaggerated pace reminds us of Black Ops 2, and even if the map design and weapons balance is good this isn't something we plan on spending a great deal of time with once the review has been written up.
The Warzone mode allows us to completely tailor our multiplayer experience, and do away with all the Call of Duty-inspired modernities, but we would rather have seen something more original. Fewer maps, fewer teams, no upgradable weapons or gear, no currency to buy stuff with after each match. Things we see in every game. With that rant out of the way, Shadow Fall's multiplayer is well crafted from start to finish, and we recommend it for those looking for a sci-fi take on the Call of Duty formula.
Since this is the first next-gen exclusive we're reviewing you're probably curious about the visuals. For this purpose we've compared it side-by-side with some of the best looking games on the market including Battlefield 4, Crysis 3 and Far Cry 3 on PC. Only Crysis 3 beats Shadow Fall on technical merits on ultra. Crysis 3 wins out thanks to its higher resolution and better textures.
The volumetric lighting in Killzone: Shadow Fall is nothing less than amazing. The level that plays out on the top secret research craft was jaw-dropping. The lighting paired with an insane level of detail makes this an incredible leap from Killzone 3. Particles dot the air making it less than perfect, something that makes more of a difference than we were expecting. Dust and smoke rest in the air and as they're hit by the searchlight from Owl, graphical magic is born.
The aesthetics are brilliant throughout. The contrast between the clean, light, and elegant Vekta-part and the industrial, dark and dirty Helghast-part of the game world works wonders. During the game you will jump from missions that take place on both sides of the wall and it's impressive how the atmospheres of each area is kept. On the Vekta side it feels important to spare innocents, take your time and plan your course of action before taking on the enemy. Meanwhile during visits to "New Helghan" we felt encourage to go all out.
Naturally there are differences when it comes to the weapons of the two armies. The VSA guns are white, clinically clean and high tech. Often they offer alternate fire options. Several emit blue lasers. Helghast guns are on the opposite side of the spectrum, much like in Killzone 2. Black, noisy, loud and damage dealing. In the end the weapons balance, design, physics for recoil and firerate are perfect in this game. Shooting has, simply put, never been as satisfying as it is in Killzone: Shadow Fall.
Guerrilla Games have continued to build on the fantastic sound they offered in Killzone 2 and Killzone 3.You can really tell this as you stand behind a dumpster in Vekta City and reload your gun as you await the next wave of screaming Helghasts. Unlike games like Call of Duty and Halo 4 where only an appropriate amount of reverb was placed on the weapons, they spend the time and effort to simulate acoustics where each bullet is simulated in realtime and where the surrounding materials and the distance to these decide how it sounds. The same way it works in games from Crytek and DICE.
Add to this the sweetest music we've heard in an action game since the first Halo. Two different composers, independent of each other, have written the music to each side of the game world. Vekta City is a harmonic place that's forced into war, while New Helghan is hell on Earth. This is naturally reflected in the music. Guerrilla mixes mechanical sounds and pulsating music that reminds us of the scores of Inception, Watchmen and 300. At times it feels very powerful and it fits the atmosphere of the game like a glove.
When it comes to controls and the new DualShock 4, Shadow Fall could be the start of a golden age for the action genre, and first person shooters in particular. This is due to the significantly reduced delay between input and outcome. The deadzones at the center of the analog sticks are much smaller, something that allowed Guerrilla Games to completely remove any "aim assist". Even without these training wheels in place we've never felt as accurate with out shots as in this game. Taking out Hellghasts with headshots has been our favourite pastime this last week and it is going to be very interesting to see how this level of precision can evolve once more studios learn to master DualShock 4.
Killzone: Shadow Fall ends up being a nice side attraction that, despite a few frustrating elements, shows what PlayStation 4 is capable of. The mix of exploration, light puzzles, a slower pace and the contrast between Vekta and Helghan, are elements that really stand out. The wonderful graphics, the juxtaposing aesthetics and the masterful audio also impress. A couple of idiotic missions, a weak ending and a bunch of firefights that devolved into something akin to a meaningless guessing game pull the score down to a weak 8 in the end. Guerrilla is capable of more, but if you're dying for a next-gen action experience, this is a game you can't afford to miss.