Killzone: Shadow Fall takes steps to reinvent the franchise in a next-gen transition to wide-open areas, tactical shooting, and a slower pace–all told, a thinking man’s game. If you look too closely, it’s easy to see Killzone: Shadow Fall as a sum of gameplay, art, and design choices that have made shooters into mainstream blockbusters–inspirations from Crysis, Half-Life 2, and totalitarian settings are worn on its sleeve. But beneath the exceedingly shiny veneer (Shadow Fall is the best-looking PS4 game, after all), Killzone’s pursuit of innovation fall shorts of greatness and yields a hybrid experience both familiar and bold. When it sticks to the Killzone script, Shadow Fall meets or exceeds the series’ best moments. In its significant changes, the results are less positive.
Take the story, for example. Lucas Kellan is a Shadow Marshal, an elite class of ISA soldier that operate with a taste for espionage and working in the shadows. That’s not to say his mission is an entirely covert affair–your fair share of shootouts will be blasted through by game’s end. Rather, the most notable difference between Kellan and good ol’ Sevchenko of old is their combat responsibilities. Kellan operates almost exclusively on his own, communicating only with his superiors back at HQ when the mission demands a change of plan or reminder of objectives. Kellen walks a lonely road, and the player feels it too. Say what you will about Rico’s exhaustive profanity or the bro-tastic nature of most Killzone conversations; I found myself wishing for a companion, or even a more talkative radio mate, within an hour or two of starting the campaign.
I suspect this loneliness has something to do with the game’s vague signposting. Some areas of Killzone: Shadow Fall are exceedingly large, and little to no natural direction is offered along the way. You can always press Up on the D-pad to highlight your next objective marker, but the marker itself is tiny and often difficult to make out amidst the extravagant environments and their colors. But having to refresh my memory of objective locations isn’t really the problem. Rather, level design is somewhat vague and, in places, purposeless. I suspect there’s a subtle art to making a level feel humongous and multi-faceted without the player feeling lost and turned around by its many details. Killzone doesn’t have this magic, and while I appreciate the direction Guerrilla Games wants to push the series in, I’ve never missed having an AI companion to follow, or even war chatter to remind me of my mission, so much.
Without some of these design sensibilities to guide progression, it’s difficult to feel connected to the governing story and find any resonance in its attempts at emotion. The narrative itself is an interesting take on Cold War attitudes, both successfully explaining the 30-year time jump from Killzone 3 and setting the stage for important conflicts likely to come. As a series fan, I applaud how Guerrilla has expanded the mythos to include civilian life, companies, political fallout, and the kind of visual elements that really nail a sense of place and existence. In this regard, Shadow Fall sets a new standard for the series’ marriage of art direction and narrative, the latter of which mercifully plays off the less-desirable traits of both sides in the perpetual ISA-Helghast conflict. I didn’t care much about Kellan, his completely obvious boss Sinclair, or even Kellan’s Helghast counterpart Echo, before all was said and done. But I cared a great deal more about the series’ expanded universe, and for a franchise with an entire console generation ahead of (and behind) it, that’s saying something.
Guerrilla certainly took ambitious risks with Shadow Fall’s gameplay–open-ended objectives and sandbox levels not the least among them–but the change that pays off the most is Kellan’s OWL drone. This essential tactical tool rides alongside for most of the campaign, and its functions are valuable (if not outright necessary) to success. From covering fire to EMP blasts, from constructing a nano shield to hanging a zipline, swapping between the OWL’s functions is refreshingly simple thanks to the DualShock 4’s touchpad, and using the OWL to traverse the battlefield in a meaningful way or clear a room of otherwise unstoppable enemies is always satisfying. I’ve never been keen on AI companions healing me in single-player campaigns, but the OWL’s use of Adrenaline packs to revive you feels balanced against the game’s noticeably toughened difficulty. Killzone has never been a game for first-time FPS players, but Shadow Fall ups the ante considerably.
The parts of Shadow Fall that break away from the first-person shooting are low points, by contrast. Chalk it up to the quality of the shooting itself–still weighty, visceral, and absolutely satisfying–but zero-gravity and other twists, including a particularly aggravating mid-game flight section, were largely un-fun and made me feel robbed of time that could have been spent in exhilarating firefights.
But even moments with gimmicky gameplay are visually astounding, and scarcely a single moment of the game’s eight-hour campaign passed by without my attention being drawn to breathtaking lighting here, or an unbelievable level of detail there. If you only have time to show one game to your friends, a single title to communicate the power of PlayStation 4, it should be Killzone. When the game is firing on all the familiar cylinders that make Killzone great, when Helghast aggressively approach while you reload the STA-52 and light cascades over authoritarian architecture, the experience is brilliant; as good as anything in the games that preceded it.
One exception is audio. The game’s low-volume bassline and slow, measured beats are technically solid but rarely sync well with the on-screen action. It’s frustrating to be knee-deep in an otherwise captivating shootout, knowing full well the moment’s intensity could be heightened considerably by a soundtrack that adapts well to what’s happening or, at the very least, stands out at all.
The most apparent change to multiplayer–the shift from a ranking system to strictly challenge-based unlocks–is another risk without much in the way of payoff, mostly because rewards and the progress you’re making are somewhat poorly communicated and hidden in menus. In every other respect, multiplayer shines. Warzone is still the star of the show, placing teams on large-ish maps for a cycling of game types, but you can make deep and varied alterations to the formula for a match that’s wholly unique. From one life, knives only to low-health twitch fests, options are plentiful, and Guerrilla keeps the main multiplayer menu stocked with interesting playlists that rotate periodically. I’d like to see customization extend further–there’s little in the way of cosmetic items and many of the game’s weapons can feel too similar for my taste. But other multiplayer hallmarks, like network performance and map design, are rock-solid, fueling frantic action and suspenseful hunting in equal measure. Class-specific abilities are a riot, too, with Scout teleportation, Support spawn points, and others elevating Shadow Fall above your typical run-and-gun shooter in terms of tactical variety.
A decidedly mixed bag that will please enthusiast fans, Killzone: Shadow Fall takes bold steps in a quest for greatness but rarely approaches that lofty benchmark. Forged though it may be in the fires of next-gen splendor, a visual feast is lacking without narrative appetizers. Though repeat plays would alleviate concerns about level design and poor signposting, I probably won’t be returning to Shadow Fall’s good-not-great campaign for seconds. But multiplayer has my lasting attention, and customizable Warzones are the best way to get your fix of Killzone’s excellent mechanics and distinct feel. Graphics aside, you should play Shadow Fall for its atmosphere and the expansion of a universe that could serve excellent sequels. But you should stay for good times with friends and that weighty Killzone action. You’ll be glad you did.