Killzone: Shadow Fall leads PS4’s visual charge, but lacks coherency

Wednesday, 27 November 2013 12:37 GMT By Dave Cook

Killzone: Shadow Fall is arguably the best-looking next-gen title so far, but VG247’s Dave Cook reckons that the campaign’s old-hat design knifes Guerrilla’s visual masterpiece in the back.

(Note: This article refers to the Killzone: Shadow Fall campaign only. At the time of writing, multiplayer games were not connecting due to the game not being out yet, and as such this article contains potential plot SPOILERS. All images were taken using the PS4’s share function on Dave’s console.)

It wasn’t until I played Killzone: Shadow Fall’s campaign that I felt the next-generation of console gaming had arrived. The screenshots didn’t do it justice, nor did the carefully edited trailers. You have to actually sit down with the DualShock 4 in your hand, and move your avatar around Guerrilla’s technical play-space to fully appreciate the leap in power between PS4 and its predecessors. You can’t simply spectate this game, you actually have to try it.

Guerrilla shoves its technical mastery in your face at every given opportunity. There are no loading screens during missions, but while the game is preparing the next marvelous expanse you are treated to long, lingering shots of Vekta’s capital city as your air cruiser hovers towards its next mission, or dizzying views of the planet’s Helghan quadrant. These ‘holding areas’ are blatant, but rarely feel tedious due to the eye candy on offer. I streamed Shadow Fall over Twitch while I was preparing this blog, and the comment box was constantly filled with praise for its visuals.

It’s the game that will get people talking to their friends about why PS4 is the correct choice going into the new hardware round. Like a viral or meme, word will spread of Killzone’s incredible dynamic lighting, its eye-watering vistas and the painstaking detail afforded to simple set dressing such as chairs and tables. Not an inch of this game’s visual make-up has been neglected or represented without care. This is evident from the moment the plot begins, right up to its conclusion. It is a monumental achievement and a true coding show-piece.

Yet, it stumbles as a gameplay experience, at points failing to grasp simple sign-posting and design mechanics that have been delivered adequately throughout the last generation. What use are highly-defined gun models and impressive facial tech when you simply cannot become invested in the hammy words coming out of NPC’s mouths, or the reasoning for the bullets expended from your gun? This is an enjoyable game, and confidently the most visually arresting title of the Next-Gen Show so far, but it falters often.

The game is set 30 years after the events of Killzone 3 as a young Lucas Kellan gets his first taste of Helghast brutality. Over the years he grows to become a Shadow Marshall for the ISA, and sets off on a mission to expose a terrorist threat. Vekta has now become divided following the destruction of the Helghast’s home planet, and as an olive branch measure, the Vektans have offered Helghan refugees a new home. It sees the planet’s capital divided by a great wall. Health and prosperity are found on one side, while oppression and indoctrination thrive on the other. Understandably, the Helghast are not happy.

Your job is to avert another war by infiltrating the wall and exposing the Helghast scheme. Where Killzone 2 and 3 placed you as a vital cog in a grand, planet-wide conflict, Shadow Fall pulls a Call of Duty and has you running around as a one-man army capable of defeating scores of well-trained, heavily armed attackers, no questions asked. The feeling of raw muscle and urgency displayed in the opening stages of the second game is nowhere to be found here, replaced instead with covert ops and smaller skirmishes. I missed the heft, the decay and mass destruction of previous games.

It starts promisingly though, with a long, stealthy and purposely ‘drab’ section similar to the first hour of The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion. It’s not long before you’re taking steps outside, and into the shimmering sunlight of a glorious forest. It’s at this point that the PS4’s technical grunt really hits home. I honestly sat there thinking, ‘Fuck me, this is it.’ This mission sees Kellan charged with taking down some Helghan AA guns and assisting some ISA troops. It’s set in a wide area that sees you given free reign over how you approach objectives, and even throws you an optional chore as well. Weirdly, I found it similar to the open map system in Desert Strike.

I quickly became frustrated with the sign-posting. There is no mini-map, even when using the PS Vita’s second-screen function. I tried it and it did nothing. All you get is the ability to tap up on the DualShock 4’s d-pad to call up small HUD markers that place a small dot and distance stat over your objectives. How do you get here? Who knows? You just meander around, looking for a piece of scenery to climb on, or the correct vent shaft or corridor to walk down. The stage after the forest takes place in a complex space craft filled with stairs and walkways. It’s a mess of design that leads to pointless, frustrating meandering.

Last weekend, I invited some friends round to have a shot of both next-gen consoles, and I watched as they became frustrated with Killzone’s environments. I had to verbally guide them through several missions because they simply couldn’t be bothered searching every nook and cranny for the correct path. It didn’t bode well. It’s not just the stage design either, as simple tasks often get muddled in the mix.

All too often an NPC will advise you to pick up a certain object or attack something specific over comms. You may find yourself spinning around on the spot trying to identify what they’re talking about. This shouldn’t happen. One mission sees you free-falling through orbit while dodging skyscrapers and falling rubble. You’re given barely enough time to adjust to the awkward flight controls before you risk slamming into a wall and dying, which forces you back to the start of the section. You will die here often, I guarantee it. It’s an excruciating lesson in patience.

Checkpoints are often too far apart, and the later stages mistake difficulty curves for simply throwing more men in the room to shoot and giving them increased bullet damage. It’s the same problem BioShock: Infinite had. You may retry some of these sections often, simply because you fumbled when trying to figure out where to go, or what to do, but this isn’t to say that Killzone: Shadow Fall lacks enjoyment. Far from it. I just feel that the above points may irk some gamers. When Guerrilla gets the pacing and gunplay correct, it really does come into its own.

Weapons are as chunky as ever, offering savage shotguns and shield-sapping cannons to name but a few. Your most-trusted asset is the OWL, a small drone attached to Kellan’s back that is commanded using the DualShock 4 touch-pad. This essentially serves as a second d-pad. It sets the OWL into different modes depending on which way you swipe, and with a simple tap of L1 you can have it attack foes with its turret, stun them with an EMP blast, douse you in shields or deploy a zipline down to lower levels. It’s a neat toy, and it works a treat.

Enemy AI is pretty savage at points, so you can be assured of a tough time when the enemy count rises. Luckily you can slide into cover by holding crouch while sprinting, pop in an out of cover by aiming at it, and if all else fails, a machete to the neck at close quarters is always hugely satisfying. The bare-bones shooting game beneath Guerrilla’s gloss is functional, slick and at times, exhilarating, but there are too many annoyances beneath the sheen. While the plot failed to grab me, I did feel compelled to soldier on, just to see what the next visual delights would be served up in the following stage.

It’s a banquet for the eyes. It does things no console game has done before. But it’s also the best example of what happens when visual fidelity outranks functionality. Killzone: Shadow Fall may be the first in a long, 7-10 year production line of PS4 titles, but if this is Sony’s starting point, it effectively sets out the stall for everything else that follows. If you’re considering buying the console this year, Guerrilla’s shooter should be on your purchase list, no questions asked. Just don’t expect the mother of all shooter campaigns and you’ll be fine.

Disclosure: To assist in writing this piece, Sony sent Dave a PS4 and a copy of Killzone: Shadow Fall. Expect a multiplayer opinion blog once the EU servers start behaving themselves.

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