Hands-on with Killzone: Shadow Fall: a launch title legend in the making

Killzone: Shadow Fall is the launch title PlayStation deserves.

I say this because, to date, Sony has yet to score an unrequited shooter hit–something on the mainstream-milestone level of Halo, Gears of War, or even a Half-Life. Sure, you can get the latter on PS3 (and rumors are swirling that Gears of War will come to PS4), but despite its rabid popularity among PlayStation’s core audience, Killzone has yet to attract the kind of industry-wide buzz and excitement that makes a deep impact on our collective gamer consciousness. “What was the best first-person shooter of the last generation?” one might ask. I doubt you’ll hear “Killzone 2” or “Killzone 3” from most, though both make strong cases as excellent, highly polished games.

Pardon the exposition to my point: Killzone: Shadow Fall could be that game, because it’s a joy to play, visually arresting, and has an impressive suite of multiplayer to boot. After a hands-off single-player demo and a couple hours of hands-on multiplayer time, I’d place Shadow Fall squarely in the realm of comfortable iteration, but surprises still sneak up on you. If you’ve played Killzone 3, or even the more recent Killzone: Mercenary on PlayStation Vita, you know what to expect here in terms of mechanics and options, but atmosphere and moment-to-moment gameplay have evolved for the better. The endlessly dreary armageddon of the series’ PS3 outings is gone; 30 years out since Killzone 3’s ending, there is optimism, tenuous peace, and perhaps a wider color palette than all preceding games combined. Consequently, the single-player campaign is more interesting, as storytelling isn’t constantly traded for heavy-handed grit. Multiplayer feels cheery, upbeat–even a generous helping of neck-snaps couldn’t darken the tone of competitive fun for fun’s sake; of Helghast and VSA killing each other for bar-bragging sport rather than war.

Shadow Fall’s only unknown is its story. At home this week, I’ll be playing through Guerrilla’s latest and offering our full review by week’s end. But if Shadow Fall nails its narrative beats (which are already promising, thanks to its Cold-War-in-space inspiration), we may have one of the best launch games ever on our hands.

But let me expand on multiplayer, as it’s the aspect of Killzone: Shadow Fall I’ve had the most time with. At a review event earlier today, I sat down with tons of strangers and played several Warzone variants. With custom game types, you can tailor Shadow Fall multiplayer to your liking, whether that means a pure experience with very strict weapon sets, knives-and-snipers-only with one life to live, or anything in-between. Between this customization, deeply varied environments, and nostalgic level design–my Unreal Tournament 3 days sprang to mind–I feel like Killzone multiplayer is taking itself a little less seriously this time around. That’s a very good thing. I like a side of tongue-in-cheek with my killing, and the three aforementioned elements make me feel like Guerrilla Games had more fun than ever making Shadow Fall’s multiplayer.

Of course, there’s plenty of familiarity. You still have Warzone as the flagship game mode, and it’s still a 20- to 40-minute match of cycling game types that sees teams earning points toward an ultimate victory. You have two familiar factions with familiar gripes, and the loadout system–which seems to offer three customization sets on top of the default set for each class, which leaves a total of 12 loadouts. Team Deathmatch, Search and Destroy, Capture Connect, and other such competitive standards round out the offerings for players with a preference. But on top of these standards, iteration yields a game that’s instantly comfortable. Long gone are the days of Killzone’s heavy, sluggish past. In its place is movement that’s faster and more fluid than ever, with precise aiming, perfectly tuned sensitivity, and absolutely zero input delay. It’s a testament to how right the experience feels that I adjusted so quickly to the immediately noticeable absence of snap-to targeting. Aim assist is the bread and butter of console shooters these days, compensating for the supposed sloppiness of analog-stick aiming, but I credit Killzone with being so finely tuned that I was comfortably aiming and scoring kills in minutes, not the expected hours.

And those graphics. Wow. If you haven’t seen Guerrilla’s download-only trailer, give it a watch and come back.

Yeah, it looks and feels that good in action. Sun rays cascade over metal and rock, casting lifelike shadows everywhere you’d expect. The hands and gun in front of you look detailed enough to reach out and touch. Animations look absurdly natural, and there’s nary a fault or hiccup to be found. And lighting is so universally excellent that it transcends window dressing and becomes a part of the stage: on at least two occasions, I was taken aback by the eerie brightness of an interior light or the sharp rays of afternoon sun. The effect was such that it was advantageous for me to move, putting the light source behind a wall or object so my line of sight was less obscured.

In the same way that Shadow Fall’s graphics convey a very compelling sense of place and presence, the consistently excellent user interface communicates a great deal more information than its predecessors. At the respawn screen, weapon stats are displayed when you hover over loadout options, with green and red portions of the bar that compare the selected loadout with your currently equipped loadout. The same stats appear when you run over a weapon in the battlefield, telling at a glance, from a numbers perspective, whether it’s better than what you’re holding. A visually simple top-corner minimap is a boon for navigating Shadow Fall’s aesthetically dense environments. In fact, every corner is occupied, with D-pad abilities displayed in the bottom-left, but these elements are never in your way. On the whole, HUD design is simple, clean, visually pleasing, lore-friendly, and highly communicative, compiling everything you want in a multiplayer shooter: stunning graphics and comfortable, precise gameplay.

All of this discussion–everything that impressed me about Killzone: Shadow Fall–should apply to the game’s single-player campaign as well, but you’ll need to wait a bit longer for that particular talk. Stay glued to PSU this week for impressions of PS4 launch games, the console interface, applications, and more, all leading up to our first live review, simulcast on the PSU homepage and Twitch TV. While you’re waiting, drop a comment below with your Killzone questions; I’ll do my best to answer them while reviewing the game in the coming days.