It must suck to be the developer tapped to showcase your company’s new hardware. To be the lead game at launch. To be told that in order to get your paycheck the following check marks must be etched off. Sony is especially infamous for this when it comes to their first party games. Uncharted: Drakes Fortune had you twisting the Sixxaxis around while turning pipe valves. Heavenly Sword had you moving the controller this way and that to steer a cannon ball in flight.
So now we come to the launch of the latest next generation. The dawn of the greatness that awaits. And Sony needed a game to launch with the system. They needed something that would showcase what the beast could do. Naughty Dog’s not ready, they just put the finishing touches on the PS3 with The Last of Us. Sucker Punch’s new inFamous title isn’t quite ready yet. So they turned to Guerrilla Games. Developer of the Killzone series. Holder of the sacred light. Err, right. Anyway, it’s up to them to show the world that XBox One is nothing. All those awesome looking launch titles the One has? Pfft, ignore em, cuz this is the hotness, right here. How’d they do?
So, you expect a few things from a Killzone game. The plot has to make zero sense. The graphics have to look nice. And your player has to move about like they are wearing cement shoes. So how we doing there Shadow Fall? 3 for 3? AWESOME!
The story actually takes a few missions to get going. For a little while I thought the game was actually going to be a series of unrelated missions where the developers doing an homage to their favorite games. The second mission starts off with a very Dead Space feel to it. But eventually it settles into the main plot, such as it is. A number of characters are written simply to move the plot of the game along. Oh we need someone to rescue you here. Oh and here we need this to happen, what can we do there? It’s scriptwriting 101, but it’s also quite predictable right until the end of the story, where the ending came right out of left field for me.
So that’s the plot. Onto the graphics. After the events of Killzone 3, the surviving Helghast refugees are settled on the planet Vecta, which is the home planet of the VSA, who are the “good guys” in this series. A giant wall is built between the two, and anybody on the wrong side of the wall is evicted. The difference between the two parts of the city are staggering in-game. On the one side you have a glittering futuristic city with glass towers and grass everywhere. Think Elysium if you’ve seen it. And then on the other side of the wall you have what I think of when I imagine North Korea. Gray. Dull. Suffering. Uniformity. Starvation. The difference between the two halves could not be more extreme. Like I said the Killzone games have managed to look pretty sweet. Even Killzone 2, with its controversial pre-rendered intro trailer wound up looking very very good. So expecting Shadow Fall to look good is almost a given. Starting up the game you’re not disappointed. The characters look better. The environments look vast when they need to look vast and tight when the developers want you to feel enclosed. And shiny. Oh boy. JJ Abrahms has nothing on this thing. Lens flares EVERYWHERE. I think they might have gone a little crazy here making things look pretty. Even the grime shines.
Of course, it’s not all lens flares. The basic game is designed around the special features your character has. Early in the game you are given your own personal drone. This drone will serve few different functions. Sometimes you will need to hack a computer. Target the computer and press a button. Or perhaps you need a zip line to move between areas? Swipe the touch pad interface and fire the zip line. Whoosh, off you go. Maybe you’re facing unusually stiff resistance and need back up. Swipe the touch pad and target an enemy. Off little drone will go to kill your enemies for you. And so it goes. Basically the entire game has been designed around the touchpad abilities. I was actually beginning to wonder about one of the abilities at one point, because I could not remember actually using it. But then I got to the point in the game that needed it and I started to understand why that was there. The mechanic of using the swipe pad is a little underwhelming. Too often I’d be in the middle of a firefight realizing that I could use the shields right now only to have to take my thumb off the analogue stick and swipe. I’d rather have been able to use the d-pad for these commands, because all you do is swipe left right up and down anyway. But the d-pad is already in use, so don’t make a game that relies on the touchpad for things the d-pad is better suited for.
Another feature of the game is the inclusion of audio logs that play through the speaker in the joystick. Honestly I could do without this feature, but I can see what the developers were hoping to achieve. Picture the audio logs in Bioshock that played when you picked them up. Sometimes they’d get lost in the background as combat continued. Well, that wouldn’t be a problem if the speaker it was playing through was on the joystick right? Well yes. And no. Because yes it works, its hard to ignore when you’re playing and suddenly your joystick starts speaking to you, but on the other hand the Dual Shock 4’s battery life is already shockingly short, I don’t need more power being sucked from it. I hope Sony releases a new version of the DS4 without the speaker. It’s not needed.
The music actually feels a little understated this time around. Where before there was a big orchestral feel now it’s more muted. Even the sound effects don’t impress as much as they did last game. Sure they are effective, but no longer am I standing around listening to the game. I suppose it could be that the rest of the industry has simply caught up. Whatever the case though, the sound is now merely an ok instead of an outstanding yes. The voice acting lives up to the pedigree thankfully, so there is no worry about having to listen to actors phoning in their lines. As the story takes place a few decades after the events of Killzone 3, virtually the entire cast has been replaced, with the exception of one. Malcolm McDowell’s Stahl returns, though Malcolm McDowell himself doesn’t. It’s actually a little amusing the lengths they go to as they make sure you understand that this is the same character.
Early on the game plays like a solid FPS. Your character moves a little slower than I’d like, but this is pretty common in Killzone games. The game makes good use of the tools you are given. Lots of places where you can deploy your drone to attack enemies or slide down your zip line from above. Towards the middle of the game, though, it starts to bog down. More than once you are forced to search for conveniently placed power cells to shoot. Even worse are the levels where you die before you even know what’s going on. Turn down this corner…dead. OK, let’s try…dead. OK this way. Hey that worked. No wait, dead. The final battles turn into a real grind. You wind up back on the planet Helghan towards the end, and it’s remarkable how much of the defenses have survived to piss me off, considering the planet was virtually destroyed at the end of the last game. Past Killzone games have been like this, so clearly it’s just Guerilla Games being sadists. I don’t want easy. I do want a challenge. What I don’t want is a game that makes me put my joystick down and never touch the game again.
The multiplayer functionality returns. Basically if you enjoyed the multi from 2 and 3 you will feel right at home here in Shadow Fall. The game brings back the classic Warzone gameplay modes, so capture the flag, team deathmatch, attack/defend bomb sites and king of the hill modes are all back. The menu screen is a bit difficult to parse, but eventually you will find yourself selecting what game types you want, what guns you want, and so on and then hopping right in. I was able to feel right like I had never left when I began playing. Killzone multi has always been a solid choice if you couldn’t get into Battlefield or Call of Duty, and Shadow Fall continues that trend.
Short Attention Span Summary:
So it’s a mixed bag. The game looks fantastic. The multiplayer is solid but not spectacular. The story is predictable but tolerable. A decent launch title to show off what the system can do graphically. If only the game was fun the entire way through.