The First Law of Next-Generation Consoles states that launch games never, ever exceed expectations - no matter how enticing the franchise they may belong to, any games that are ready for the release of a new system are bound to be hastily executed and unlikely to make best use of that console's attributes. However, having played through Killzone Shadow Fall, we might have to rewrite the rule.
Curiously, one thing that works in Shadow Fall's favour is the fact that the Killzone series, despite its supposed status as Sony's prime exclusive first-person shooter, has never really captured the imagination. Its Helghast enemy, with their glowing red eyes, have always been distinctive, but previous Killzones have generally been dismissed as pretty generic shooters, with a bleak, monotonous colour palette composed mainly of blacks, browns, reds and greys. But with Shadow Fall, Guerrilla Games has torn the series from its roots and created something altogether more distinctive and memorable.
Things start off gently as the game sets up its general premise, combining scene-setting with a basic movement tutorial. You are cast as a member of the Vektan race (who look and act in a suspiciously human manner), protecting its capital city some eight years after a Helghast invasion. The foreigners have settled and a vast Berlin Wall splits Vekta's capital and segregates its native patrons from the refugees. A Cold War-style uneasy peace is about to crumble.
The first mission instantly leaves you in no doubt that Shadow Fall is a different type of first-person shooter than any Killzone you may have played before. Whereas you might have expected to have to pursue a single-path approach, moving from cover to cover and mowing down waves of Helghast, instead Shadow Fall places you is the side of a cliff, looking down at a flatter piece of land where a Vektan military ship has crashed. You're surrounded by patrolling Helghast and have to find your comrades, and how you go about that is conspicuously open to your imagination.
"The series has been elevated beyond mere running and gunning"
At first, a bit of patience is required, as you must learn to make the most of your Shadow Marshal equipment. The best aspects of Shadow Fall's gameplay derive from the fact that you play as a State-backed assassin, wielding useful gadgets such as a personal drone called the OWL. Controlling the OWL - or at least, telling it what to do - involves swiping the PS4 controller's touch-pad: swipe up, and it will launch an attack, right and it will fire a zip-line (only to lower ground), down and it will beam a shield in front of you and left will trigger an electromagnetic pulse.
This system works well, as you can hide, select what you want the OWL to do, point it at where you want it to perform that action, then trigger it with the left bumper when you're happy that everything is in place. In the heat of battle, swiping in one direction across the touch-pad proves easier and more accurate than it initially sounds.
One suspects that the touch-pad (which can also tilt, but Shadow Fall makes no use of that function) will be used for more imaginative tasks than as a proxy D-Pad in future games, but its OWL-controlling use makes sense in Shadow Fall as the game's control system is pretty busy. In addition, the OWL can heal you, as long as you have an adrenalin pack: the maximum you can carry is two, and the OWL needs to recharge after each task it performs, leading to nervy moments waiting to recover.
Strategies like this (how best to deploy OWL, how to approach objectives) is now a key aspect of Killzone. The series has been elevated beyond mere running and gunning. Along with the OWL, the other key aspect of the Shadow Marshal kit is an echo-scanner, activated using right on the D-Pad. This has a bit of a knack to it as you have to hold it down to get the full range out of it, but if you hold it down too long you'll alert enemies to your presence. The scanner highlights nearby enemies, plus traps and alarms, and you need to use it all the time in order to work out how to neutralise threats.
Killzone has always had a reputation for possessing pretty tough AI, and that's particularly true of Shadow Fall. As you swiftly learn in the first open-world mission, the Helghast are not bullet-sponges; they will outflank you, call in reinforcements and generally take you out with ease if three or more are around. You have to think your way through encounters.
First up, scan your surroundings, paying particular attention to alarms. If you find one, as long as you're within range, you can send the OWL off to hack it, which stops the Helghast sending reinforcements. Stealthy approaches and melee kills work well, or you can send your OWL in to engage enemies as a distraction, then take them out from behind. It's all about tilting the odds in your favour before resorting to the gunplay.
Later, you discover the importance of scanning for traps and improvised devices built by the Helghast, like street bins packed with spider-mines. And while the initial level takes an open-world approach, the gameplay varies considerably throughout the course of the game, featuring levels with an element of puzzle-solving (generally involving powering up objects with petrusite capacitors), a surprising amount of space-shooting, fixed-gun sequences, free-fall (complete with a whole engine that lets you control your pitch and yaw), sniping and semi-boss-battles. There are even levels where you have to paint enemies so your partner can snipe them - and at times return the favour for her.
"If you've become jaded with first-person shooters recently, Shadow Fall's campaign should challenge your cynicism"
Plot-wise, Killzone Shadow Fall's doesn't fare too badly - clearly, more attention has been paid to that side of the game than is usually the case. We wouldn't want to spoil anything, but there is a parade of plot twists, along with an apocalyptic weapon that throws up some moral dilemmas and an expected narrative on the false divisions between between friends and foes. The twists and turns primarily exist as a means of generating inventive and varied new forms of gameplay, which is commendable but doesn't necessarily lead to any great continuity.
And one issue we do have with the game is its stilted dialogue. Fortunately, it is mainly confined to cut-scenes. Sinclair, in particular - your supposed boss - is a deeply annoying character.
Graphically, Shadow Fall borders on the impeccable - there's certainly no sense this could be a PS3 game. It is packed with little next-gen-justifying touches, such as glass and fabric that look far more convincing, and cliffs that don't appear as though they were constructed from solid blocks of virtual stone that were then chipped away a bit. Even more exciting, Killzone Shadow Fall leaves you with the feeling that, if this is what can be done with a PS4 launch title, then we're in for some wondrous visual masterpieces over the coming years.
Running throughout the game's campaign is an incredible sense of verticality and space. The Helghan half of Vekta behind the wall, for example, is an incredible suspended expanse of containers, and a spaceship you thoroughly explore is a vertical tube several hundred metres high. And New Helghan, a city torn apart by the petrusite deposits beneath it, is in a constant state of vertical upheaval, which is stunning to observe and also impacts on the gameplay, as you can ignite petrusite outcrops and turn them into anti-gravity wells.
The level design is unbelievably good - we can't think of any recent shooter we've played which beats it. One wonders whether Guerrilla's decision to go for tactical and considered gameplay is because the team knew it had team which was very strong at crafting such experiences. More importantly for the Netherlands studio, Guerrilla has broken free from its perverse love affair with that dreary black-and-brown colour palette, with vibrant and handsome levels (although the stark visuals remain behind Helghast).
There is less imagination in the gunplay. Shadow Fall's weaponry isn't perhaps its strongest point, but neither is it shabby. We found ourselves mostly using fairly standard assault rifles most of the time, which are easy enough to find at pretty much any weapons stash or pick up from a dead enemy, but there were periods when we availed ourselves of both chain-guns and, in the latter stages, a sort of electrically-charged weapon which packs a real punch, but only fires in short bursts, requires both hands and has a glacial reload period.
Some great sniping sequences punctuate the assault action, but mostly, you find yourself picking a gun based on the trade-off between magazine-size and stopping power. EMP grenades prove useful in the latter stages (giant enemy crab-like drones, for example, can only be damaged when stunned by EMP blasts). Each gun features an alternate fire mode, with maybe a couple of shots maximum, which tends to only really be useful when you have a clump of enemies standing close together. A missed opportunity.
But overall, Killzone Shadow Fall is a pleasant surprise. It doesn't seek to reinvent the FPS, but it does inject a much-needed infusion of creativity and originality into the genre. It looks as fantastic as you would hope, and even better, Guerrilla has managed to buck the trend of its previous games and move beyond generic aesthetics.
If you've become jaded with first-person shooters recently, Shadow Fall's campaign should challenge your cynicism. It is undoubtedly the main draw among the PS4's launch line-up, and makes the likes of CoD Ghosts seem one-paced and two-dimensional by comparison. That's certainly going beyond the call of duty for any next-gen launch title.
Multiplayer launch verdict
In the 21st century, the majority of first-person shooters live or die on the quality of their multiplayer suites - and that's especially true of flagship titles.Thus, there's little doubting that Guerrilla Games has poured an awful lot of passion and effort into its Killzone Shadow Fall's online offering (tellingly, Sony asked the press not to score reviews until multiplayer modes had been fully tested).
Much like the single-player game, Shadow Fall's multiplayer modes feel distinctive, nicely fettled and thoroughly compulsive. There are a few familiar modes to suit traditionalists, notably 24-player Team Deathmatch and Search and Destroy, but the game truly shines in the excellent Warzone mode.
Essentially, Warzone isn't just one game type, but a huge, sprawling and very absorbing amalgam, in which you're assigned a faction (Helghast, natch, or Vektan VSA), then need to pay attention since, every five minutes, your mission will change. You may start off having to retrieve beacons and take them to certain places, then switch to capturing and holding three areas, then switch to a spot of team deathmatch, before seeking enemy objects, setting charges and defending them until they are destroyed.
One aspect of Killzone: Shadow Fall's multiplayer that has generated much attention is that it eschews conventional XP in favour of a Challenges system. It contains no less than 1,595 Challenges, ranging from the trivial to weapon-specific obscurities. This sounds a bit odd, but it seems to work; it definitely encourages you to explore an all-round, varied approach rather than, say, endlessly camping and cloaking. It does take a while before you start seeing any rewards by the way of unlocked guns and abilities, and the chance to upgrade those weapons and abilities.
But the very essence of Killzone: Shadow Fall's multiplayer is its class system, and it pays to examine that closely before you get stuck into any actual gameplay. There are just three classes: Scout, Assault and Support.
"When it comes to multiplayer environments and arenas, Shadow Fall is immaculate"
Assault is, as you would expect, an all-round class, in which you get an assault rifle and handgun as standard. But the crucial aspect of the load-outs is your ability selection: in your base state, you're allowed two - one fixed and one optional. The main Assault ability is a shield, which you can construct, and which will persist for one minute, allowing your colleagues to take advantage of it. Then you can choose between a speed-boost, an attack drone (by far our favourite) or stun blast.
Scouts are given a tactical echo as standard, and can choose between cloaking, a stun blast and teleport. Most players opt for cloaking, as that renders them invisible except to other Scouts employing the tactical echo, so they tend to pop up and melee you.
The Support class is particularly interesting, especially for those who wouldn't class themselves among the fast-twitch elite. It comes standard with a revive drone, so your team-mates will always appreciate your presence. And you can augment that with a spawn beacon - particularly useful in certain Warzone missions when you have to reach a certain point on the map and repel the enemy - a turret (also useful for defending areas) or air support.
You can change class whenever you respawn, and save several load-outs per class, which are easily selectable. And you get the feeling that Shadow Fall wants everyone to class-shift; if you do that intelligently, you can give your team a real edge.
When it comes to multiplayer environments and arenas, Shadow Fall is immaculate. The maps are large, gorgeous to behold, vary from countryside to bombed-out cities and slums, and many have pinch-points, while others encourage mass shoot-outs in large rooms. They all boast plenty of Shadow Fall's trademark vertical elevation, and some, but by no means all, are familiar from the single-player game. They're sufficiently distinctive that learning them is a breeze, too.
Devoted online fps-players are a notoriously picky bunch, with very fixed tastes, so could find fault with pretty much anything, particularly if it attempts to break the established mould. But there's plenty for everybody in Killzone: Shadow Fall when you take it online, it's nicely balanced, beautifully fettled and oozes quality.
At launch, Shadow Fall's online modes mirror the ambitions of the game's campaign with a suite of modes and mechanics that are conventional at the core, but display a distinct personality of their own - and they're thoroughly entertaining. Guerrilla has upped its game considerably here.
Shadow Fall doesn't seek to reinvent the FPS, but it does inject a much-needed infusion of creativity and originality into the genre
- Beautiful visuals
- Masterful level design
- Multiplayer offers new ideas
- Weak dialogue
- Often unimaginative gunplay