Killzone: Shadow Fall Review
If you’re wondering why Killzone: Shadow Fall isn’t pulling down the scores its predecessor earned, I can explain it easily and succinctly— it isn’t as good as its predecessors. That feels very strange to say, especially considering the talent of the developer and the new PlayStation 4 hardware. I was expecting a shooter tour de force, a defining FPS experience, one that further illustrates the lacking of the competition (in regards to the campaign, at least). Instead, I found a merely competent albeit very pretty shooter that oddly doesn’t excel in the areas in which I fully expected it to excel.
There’s no denying the beauty of the visual presentation. Even though the gargantuan scope and wonderful design of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is close in terms of graphical achievement, Shadow Fall is the best-looking PS4 launch title. The richness and detail of the environments are amazing, the animations are tight and realistic, the effects are a joy to behold, and some of the more open vistas are extraordinary. However, I felt somewhat disappointed with the character modeling and body animations during cut-scenes, which don’t scream “next-gen” to me.
The audio suffers from a significant and disappointing balancing issue, in that the effects and music often drown out the much softer voices. There’s also a volume discrepancy between the soundtrack and battle effects, which I was able to improve by fiddling with the sliders in the options menu. The voice acting is solid but in truth, I thought the acting in Killzone 3 was better. This is not what I was anticipating from the PS4’s leading launch title, although the sweeping, often driving orchestral score is indeed impressive. Much like certain elements of the graphics, the sound leaves a lot to be desired from a next-gen standpoint.
Here’s the point, which lies at the core of this review: For a variety of reasons, Killzone: Shadow Fall is not indicative of a new era of interactive entertainment. It’s a good, even great, shooter. It can’t be condemned for failing to try new things, because it does try new things, even when those fresh elements don’t quite pan out. The mechanics are borderline flawless. The variety and effectiveness of the weapons are much appreciated, the OWL drone works exceedingly well in most situations, and the fun factor is always there. Oh, and let’s not forget that the campaign gives you more bang for your buck than either Battlefield 4 or Call of Duty: Ghosts.
All of that shouldn’t be ignored and throw out the window; hence, I can’t in good conscience score the game below an 8. It’s worthy of that score simply due to its sheer entertainment value and rock solid competence as a shooter. Exactly why it doesn’t reach expected heights is more complex. Simply, the game just doesn’t feel like it’s “next-gen.” Granted, that term is highly subjective and may mean something entirely different to you than it does to me, so let’s just say this— besides the graphics, the game doesn’t do anything that can be considered more advanced. That is to say, there’s nothing here that we haven’t already seen in the PS3/360 generation and in some cases, it’s a step back.
For instance, I don’t recall the AI being this lame-brained in either of the previous two Killzone iterations. Enemies charging blindly ahead, “hiding” right out in the open, sometimes perfectly tuned in to your location, other times completely oblivious to your movement. I’ve seen foes stuck in place, running near a wall, unable to break free. I saw one enemy who apparently couldn’t turn around to face me in time; he tried unsuccessfully to do it, and it was pretty funny. Squadrons of supposedly highly trained military soldiers head my way in a straight line, not even bothering to attempt to flank or conceal themselves. That wouldn’t even pass muster on the PS3, let alone the PS4, which is supposed to usher in a new level of gaming.
Then you’ve got the story, which is another major aspect of the game that sort of falls flat. It’s unfortunate, too, because I really liked each of the last two narratives in the franchise. This one has a lot of potential but it never really goes anywhere, and when it tries to be emotional and dramatic, it usually comes up short. For instance, in the opening sequence, you start off as a young boy, and you’re following your father in what will prove to be a vain attempt to reach The Wall. The ensuing tragedy is predictable but even so, it could’ve been done with more punch. Better timing and better choreography would’ve helped a lot; as it was, I felt almost nothing watching that scene unfold. It just felt forced and artificial.
Factor in the less-than-stellar voice performances and the merely average writing, and you get a campaign that just doesn’t grip you. Now, I know I’m making the game sound awful but in my defense, it was a bit of a shock to play something that only looks “next-gen.” When I think of a new generation of gaming, I think of an overall improved experience; better AI, better storytelling, better choreography and artistry, better core mechanics, more innovation, etc. It’s disheartening when what is arguably the most important title for a new console fails to be “better.” It seems content with just being good, and it doesn’t even try to remove the kinks and flaws that have plagued gaming for years.
But as I previously clarified, the game is still well worth playing. Movement has some weight to it; not to the level of Killzone 2, but it’s still noticeable. Sprinting, crouching and aiming down the sights is all crisp and responsive, and I love that no weapon seems useless or superfluous. You’re always encouraged to try new weapons and you’re also rewarded for exploring your environment. With areas that are significantly larger than ever before, this really opens up the adventure. Not only are there a variety of collectibles to nab (newspapers, comic book pages, etc.) but it adds another dimension and dynamic to the standard FPS combat.
It’s too bad that the AI doesn’t seem to take advantage of the more open landscape, but that doesn’t mean you can’t. You can stealthily approach or you can go in guns blazing; you can try to surprise the enemy, or you can snipe from afar. In this way, there’s more battle diversity than we’ve ever seen in the series. That variety is enhanced by the OWL drone, which I was convinced I’d dislike but in fact, I love it. I find it only slightly annoying that I have to use the touchpad (I think I’ll always despise touchpads) and the OWL not only proves helpful, but invaluable. It can attack foes, hack enemy terminals, act as a shield in times of emergency, and even offer a handy-dandy zipline. All four functions are available at the start, and all are just a swipe away. I have yet to encounter an issue with this setup.
Going in, I was worried that the team would be too much in love with the OWL and consequently overuse it in the campaign. But that isn’t true; in fact, they don’t use it enough. Then there are some fresh segments – such as the one that has you floating around in zero-grav – and these are interesting, but not especially well implemented. The campaign is quite rewarding because the challenge is relatively significant and you never feel that you’re doing the exact same thing twice. Despite the lacking story, this is one campaign that you won’t regret playing, and that’s worth saying for any FPS. The single-player doesn't feel like an afterthought.
As for the multiplayer, I think it’s great. In many ways, it’s even better than the single-player adventure. I haven’t come across much in the way of instability (which is always key for a new game), and playing with friends is a blast. The balancing seems to be just about right, and the diverse modes are wildly entertaining. Warzone is where it’s at, because it lets you toss a bunch of different modes into the mix. Guerrilla really shines when it comes to map-making, and these 10 maps are all absolutely exceptional in my estimation. There are plenty of different corners and avenues to explore, and learning the ins and outs of each map is wicked fun.
The amount of customization, particularly with Warzones, is catnip to online multiplayer aficionados. Alter the parameters, change the number of capture beacons, specify classes and weapons; basically, tailor each match exactly how you see fit. There are so many options that you could play for months and still experience plenty of freshness online. This is critical because these days, the multiplayer component absolutely needs such quality and variety. I was concerned that the multiplayer wouldn’t stand up to Battlefield 4 or Ghosts but actually, I’d rather play Shadow Fall online than either of those other shooters. It’s just more dynamic and interesting, despite the sad removal of the jetpack.
Killzone: Shadow Fall is a good game, and it hints at a rosy future for shooters and video game in general. I remain disappointed at the surprisingly outdated drawbacks, such as audio balancing, silly AI and occasionally unconvincing acting, but the result is still agreeable. The graphics are a definite highlight, the OWL drone works very well, and the more open and immensely detailed landscape infuses the campaign with branching, compelling energy. The multiplayer succeeds in delivering a stable, highly diverse experience that most competitive buffs will really enjoy, and the map design is unparalleled. I don’t overlook the shortcomings, but if all that isn’t worthy of a positive review, nothing is.
The Good: Beautiful, extremely detailed environments. Majestic and effective score. Great weapon selection. OWL drone is a big plus, and should’ve been used more. Appreciated attempts at new gameplay mechanics. Combat is well paced and wildly entertaining. Multiplayer is diverse, energetic, and addictive.
The Bad: Default sound balancing is way off. AI is dated and disappointing. Story and some of the acting is ineffective. Doesn’t “feel” next-gen.
The Ugly: “Enemies stuck in walls? Come on…really? This is the all-sortsof-fancy PS4, right?”
11/18/2013 Ben Dutka