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Killzone: Shadow Fall (PlayStation 4) artwork

Killzone: Shadow Fall (PlayStation 4) review

"It's easy to praise Killzone: Shadow Fall for being gorgeous, but you'll have to search a bit harder to find other things to love about it."

During its 2013 media briefing at E3, Sony revealed the first footage I ever saw of Killzone: Shadow Fall. The brief interactive demo revealed an absolutely gorgeous scene. A futuristic aircraft of some sort--not quite a transport helicopter, but close--descended toward a magnificent city rising above a picturesque bay. Rivers ended in cascading waterfalls that were mirrored in the glinting reflection offered by towering glass walls.

Watching me work through that segment of the game this past week, my wife remarked that she wished she could live in a place like that. I nodded in agreement. The city as depicted in that brief moment truly is breathtaking, more beautiful than anything I can recall ever exploring on PlayStation 3. Itís a shame that such a spectacular backdrop isnít more fully explored with exemplary gameplay.

Killzone: Shadow Fall asset

When I purchased Killzone: Shadow Fall, my thinking was that I would definitely want to have a game available to me at launch that said ďHey, this is why you bought a PlayStation 4.Ē I longed for something beautiful, and that much I received. Textures are superbly detailed, the draw distance is exceptional, and the number of lighting and shadow effects on-screen all at once allows for a greater sense of immersion than perhaps ever before. Put all of that aside for a moment, though, and youíre left with a middling first-person shooter, a collection of generic shooting segments and frustrating exploration sequences made more interesting only by their visual splendor and the (sometimes problematic) use of the DualShock 4ís touch pad.

In Shadow Fall, you are cast as Lucas Kellan, a young ISA soldier with an understandable hatred for the Helghast. The game begins by exploring a key moment from your formable youth and then carries you forward to the present, where you are a hotshot soldier who people call ďSir.Ē Despite your obvious importance, you like to lead the charge rather than commanding from a safe distance. Youíve been kidnapped by the enemy as the story properly commences, and thatís how you meet a strange young woman who spares your life even though you are her foe. Over the course of the game, youíll come to question your place in the rapidly-escalating war (as well as that young womanís place in the same conflict), and youíll kill a lot of enemy grunts.

For me, the gameís plot only just barely made sense. Iíd never played a previous Killzone game and thus didnít have any real appreciation for a lot of the names that were being thrown around. Shadow Fall reportedly picks up a few decades after the events that brought Killzone 3 to its conclusion, but any allusions to that history were lost on me because I just wanted to jump in and enjoy some time in an unfamiliar world. I was finally able to do so only because the narrative focuses almost exclusively on a handful of characters and any broad themes are easily grasped. None of the events ever felt particularly compelling, but I was at least able to understand who was doing what and why.

Besides working with standard soldiers he will almost never see over the course of the gameís campaign, Lucas controls a special droid device called an OWL, which is where the DualShock 4 touch pad controls that I mentioned a moment ago come into play. Whenever that resource is available, you can swipe the pad in a given direction to switch modes, and then press the L1 button to initiate the desired protocol. In this manner, itís possible to create a surprisingly effective shield to protect you in a firefight, to aim an electrical pulse, to produce cover fire that distracts adversaries, or to fashion an improvised zip line so that you can safely descend through vertically-oriented areas.

Killzone: Shadow Fall asset

The ability to make that zip line is pretty cool, but itís not used especially often to any great effect. In one early scene, youíll need to cross a ravine as you explore a smoldering crash site, and you can also descend on guard towers and catch enemy units by surprise. I liked that mission and found my equipment useful. In another area, youíll be working along a series of train tracks suspended high in the air. You can move from platform to platform with assistance from your OWL. However, itís too easy--in that case, and in others--to then circumvent a helpful checkpoint. Shadow Fall presents you with a non-linear world wherein you can complete a variety of objectives in the manner that you prefer, then occasionally punishes you for doing so in an unexpected order.

If the game were a bit simpler, the occasional missed checkpoint wouldnít pose a problem, but I found that the enemy units were surprisingly capable to the point where it sometimes felt cheap. In particular, theyíre good at making their way around cluttered architecture that I often found disorienting. I would head down a corridor, scanning for enemy life and trying not to make my approach obvious, and then suddenly Iíd be gunned down by an enemy unit hiding in a passageway off to the side that I had no way to even know existed. Thereís no persistent indicator to let you know where threats await, so you really need to pay attention to your immediate and even your more distant surroundings as you advance. If you donít, itís easy to serve as the guest of honor at a massacre. You can carry a few adrenaline packs that allow quick revival if you fall and your OWL isnít out of commission, but youíre able to drag along only a very limited amount of ammo and supplies. Clearly, youíre expected to play smart, rather than simply charging through enemy resistance (though making a run for the next checkpoint is also a viable strategy in some instances).

Thanks to the awkward checkpoint system and the infuriatingly capable AI, Shadow Fall often feels more vindictive than most similar titles do, to the point where some soldiers point and laugh at your corpse. Iím okay with the AI taking a moment to revel in how clever it is, but some sequences also are tedious enough that Iíd prefer not to experience them often on my way to something better. There are a number of situations that require you to leap along ledges (sometimes while avoiding speeding trains or whirling mechanical arms), and in some instances you must endure swarms of enemy soldiers for a set period of time. Late in the game, thereís a downright brutal sequence where youíre freefalling through a volatile zone and--as far as I can tell--the best way to get through it is to memorize patterns and hope for the best. I really have no idea how anyone on the development team thought that was executed well enough that it should be included. Elsewhere, I would activate a checkpoint with no remaining adrenaline packs, and then I would almost immediately be gunned down each time I resumed play. In one case, I would rematerialize inside of a cramped elevator bay, looking out toward a bunch of enemy soldiers who were shooting me as if I were a fish in a barrel. In another scenario, I was pinned between groups of enemies on either flank, with wretched cover and nowhere to go that wouldnít lead me directly into still more enemies.

Killzone: Shadow Fall asset

If you tire of dealing with the campaign, thereís also the expected multi-player mode. There, you play through a series of events called Warzones, which can be created by players too. Youíll go through a series of maps, with various objectives that require you to capture and hold positions or defuse bombs and the like. Multiple classes are available, with a variety of loadouts, and the goal is to do well enough at the varying objectives that your team squeezes out an overall win before advancing to the next map. Along the way, you can earn awards for accomplishing certain feats, such as knifing someone or gunning down a certain number of opponents, but the real reward is practice in the various arenas, so that you can fair better the next time around.

Killzone: Shadow Fall is beautiful. During the PlayStation 4ís launch window, thatís true enough that anyone anxious for a pretty shooter will probably want to give it a shot and then keep playing just to see what spectacular vista lies around each new bend. The multiplayer modes add some welcome longevity to the overall experience, as well. There also are a bunch of trophies that should keep obsessive gamers busy for a long while (including one for surviving through the whole campaign without dying once, which I canít imagine myself doing in this lifetime). Given the relative lack of gorgeous shooters available for the platform for now, this newest Killzone is a perfectly reasonable stopgap until something more refined comes along. If only it offered a consistently enjoyable experience to match its persistent beautyÖ


honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (November 17, 2013)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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Linkamoto posted November 17, 2013:

This certainly sounds like a frustrating game. I hate when shooters become tedious, and when that happens, I typically don't finish them. Good, detailed review, Jason. Seems to be about the general consensus of the game, although you disliked it a slight bit more than most.
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honestgamer posted November 18, 2013:

Thanks for reading! I haven't paid attention to the critical consensus on the game, but it doesn't surprise me to hear that I'm close to the consensus. The game certainly has interesting elements and I can imagine a lot of people buying it and being happy with it once it becomes a "Greatest Hits" title or whatever, but I can't recommend it at launch purchase except as a means of filling a quota and holding people over until something inevitably comes along that's much better a few months from now. It would make a terrific rental, as well. ;-)

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