Killzone: Shadow Fall review: half-bred

The Killzone franchise has always been caught in a struggle against early expectations. First billed as a "Halo killer" in the PS2 era, then needing to live up to a pre-rendered lofty "visual target" in the PS3 era--Shadow Fall now has the burden of being Sony's biggest exclusive launch game for PlayStation 4. And while this is Guerrilla's fourth step at bat, it appears they've not learned the lessons from their previous efforts, making the same missteps of Killzone 3.

With Shadow Fall, Guerrilla has once again upped the ante in all the ways you'd expect: the graphics are even more colorful than before, with enough lens flares to blind J.J. Abrams. From sweeping vistas of a futuristic city, to scenes with dozens of dazzling light sources, Shadow Fall is designed as a visual feast, meant to celebrate the arrival of a new generation of consoles--and it largely succeeds. As a technical showcase, Shadow Fall makes good to showcase all of PS4's fancy new tech, including the sometimes-gimmmicky new features thrown into DualShock 4 (your controller will turn red when low on health, and you'll swipe the touchpad for additional commands).


Killzone became a very different game with 3, shifting from a "military shooter that happens to be in space" to something more akin to Call of Duty. Shadow Fall manages to find a balance between the deliberate weight of Killzone 2 and the everything-is-running-in-fast-forward design of Killzone 3. You have a good sense of self as you play, sometimes being able to see your limbs and oftentimes being able to see your own shadow. There's a good sense of weight as you dive into cover, and the weapons feel equally hefty. Whereas the weapons of Killzone 3 were all interchangeable, the introduction of very-different firing modes makes each weapon finally stand out.

Perhaps the biggest addition to Shadow Fall's gameplay is the OWL, a tactical robot that can be summoned at whim. It has four abilities: provide suppressing fire, create a temporary shield to hide behind, destroy enemy shields, and deploy a grappling hook. The latter is the most interesting, as it introduces new ways of traversing the game's larger environments. Some of the earlier stages almost feel like an open world, with players given a massive map to explore and objectives to complete as-they-see-fit. It's a nice contrast to the linear setpiece-to-setpiece design the genre has devolved into.

Unfortunately, Shadow Fall doesn't take long to fall into the same traps of the modern FPS. Every brilliant idea is countered by another moment of frustration, anger, or boredom. The second half of the campaign is especially frustrating, as the gameplay (once again) devolves into a mindless shooting gallery. As the game transforms into corridor shooter, the incentive to use OWL disappears, relegating its purpose to "make this door open" instead of opening up new tactical approaches. That really cool grappling hook? Prepare to pretty much never use it again.

The game's excessive reliance on arena-style "shoot everything you see" segments quickly outstays its welcome, especially when Shadow Fall's lackluster checkpoint system rears its head. Oftentimes, your save kicks in while you're in a gunfight, meaning there's no real way to change your approach to a conflict.

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At the very least, Killzone 3 offered a playground of new toys and new enemies that dared to take the series somewhere new. You were fighting the Predator and dodging a fire-breathing dragon-robot-thing in one level, while liquifying soldiers shooting electricity in a low-grav space station. Oh, and let's not forget the jetpacks. Unfortunately, Shadow Fall does away with all of that. Instead, the few moments where the game tries to break away from the mold end up being some of the worst moments in the campaign. One level has you skydiving, but the controls are so atrocious that I nearly snapped the DualShock 4 in half.

Guerrilla takes the same heavy-handed approach with the story as they did in Killzone 3. Once again, there's a feature length film's worth of cutscene tucked away onto the Blu-ray disc. However, Shadow Fall's story is definitely better than the storytelling. I found the portrayal of the Helghast interesting, and the addition of a new half-breed character has interesting ramifications. However, the performances are difficult to sit through, especially when listening to the main character. It would've been nice if the cutscenes were shorter or skippable in some way, but I suppose Guerrilla really wants you to see their new facial animation tech.

The stylized HDR lighting, the overabundance of color, and the sheer variety of locations really make the game a treat for the eyes. As with previous Killzone games, the most compelling reason to soldier through the campaign may be just to see where the game takes you next. For gamers that need to justify their PS4 purchase, the visuals make a compelling argument. It's too bad that the best-in-class visuals are wasted on what's possibly the worst of Killzone's campaigns yet.

Like other high-profile shooters this year, the campaign is simply a way to get into the real meat of the experience: multiplayer. Once again, there are three classes: scouts, assault, and support. However, unlike most shooters, pretty much everything is unlocked from the get-go, making it a rather intimidating experience to jump into. Guerrilla eases players into online by offering their own "beginner's playlist," which restricts the kind of equipment you can use and what maps you'll play on.

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The way that warzones can be customized is one of Shadow Fall's biggest strengths, letting players customize a map rotation, allowing specific weapons and abilities to be used, and tweaking other match features: number of lives, bots, objectives. Cycling through the games being played on servers right now, it's clear that people are coming up with exciting new ways to play.

Perhaps the biggest downside of this open-ended nature to warzones is that you simply won't have the appropriate loadouts for custom games. When you attempt to play a warzone with equipment that isn't allowed, you'll just find yourself launching with a gimped loadout. It can be difficult to discern what can and can't be used, especially when the warning message is so vague.

Combat feels especially great in Shadow Fall's online, mostly due to the faster framerate that multiplayer employs. While the campaign may make for better screenshots, one could argue that the multiplayer feels more impressive--especially as it retains many of the campaign's visual tricks (lighting, especially). Like in the campaign, the weight of the weapons seems to be in between Killzone 2 and 3, with players feeling not-as-nimble as in 3, but still having to deal with the heavy recoil of certain weapons.

I applaud a lot of the decisions Guerrilla has made for Shadow Fall's multiplayer. Getting rid of the XP system and replacing it with "challenges" makes sense. I like how they're grouped together, effectively becoming an ongoing tutorial for the various aspects of the online offering. Being able to incorporate bots is also a nice touch which is too often ignored in shooters nowadays. Finally, Guerrilla promises that future maps will be released for free--a refreshing change of pace from the $60 Season Passes that seem to be the norm nowadays.

But beyond a clever mission mechanic, Shadow Fall struggles with not really having an identity of its own. The shifting objective-based Warzone has been Killzone's staple since 2, and it hasn't really changed much. In some ways, Shadow Fall's offering feels like a step back from 3, which offered mechs and jetpacks to change things up. Perhaps most frustratingly, people are still not using headsets to communicate--odd given that one is included with PS4.

Ultimately, Killzone: Shadow Fall once again falls short of the lofty expectations placed upon it. In spite of its gorgeous visuals, Shadow Fall is not the "system seller" Sony would like it to be. Multiplayer may be fun, but it plays too safe to overcome the genuinely disappointing single-player campaign. [6]

This review is based on early retail PlayStation 4 code provided by the publisher. Killzone: Shadow Fall is now available on PS4 at retail and as a downloadable title on PlayStation Network for $59.99. The game is rated M.