While the first-person shooter field has had its biggest stars show up year after year, Guerrilla Games has always used a patient, tempered approach when releasing new entries in the Killzone franchise. Even though it's been around for nearly as long as Microsoft's Halo series, Killzone hasn't quite reached the same stratospheric status among gamers. With its latest entry, Killzone: Shadow Fall, Guerrilla once again revisits the conflict the villainous Helghast bring wherever they go, only this time it's in conjunction with the launch of a new Sony console. Though the choice of exclusives was slim at launch, Killzone: Shadow Fall is a more than worthy way to kick off the PlayStation 4's emergence. Even if it is a bit dull at times.
Set a few decades after the events of Killzone 3 and the destruction of Helghan, Shadow Fall finds the remaining Helghans relocated to Vekta. The Vektan population has to share the planet with the refugees, and erects a massive wall separating the two. With Helghans being Helghans, it isn't long until the tempers flare and they get tired of being treated like a deranged stepchild stuck in the corner for punishment. Where many of its contemporaries are concerned with plot merely being a device to move you from explosions to even better explosions, Shadow Fall has a more measured approach in its storytelling. The narrative isn't always exciting, but the focus on more political aspects of war, particularly those concerning the remaining members of Helghast's society, are definitely intriguing.
Now that's not to say Shadow Fall is lacking in action. There are some massive set pieces at play, but the crescendo to those bombastic, smoke-filled bullet frenzies is much more gradual than those found in the likes of Call of Duty. When they come around, you truly appreciate the mayhem, as will you grow to like the slower pace of the remainder of Killzone's action. Here, the lone soldier, Shadow Marshall Lucas Kellan, doesn't face incredibly insurmountable odds and survive. The conflicts are often much more intimate, and thus believable for one man to undertake. When you do have a major throwdown, there are typically plenty of other soldiers (inept as they are) on the battlefield with you, and the scale is much more appropriate. Still, there are times when the lack of movement, in the story or gameplay itself, can be a bit boring. This is particularly true if this if your first Killzone game. Longtime fans will appreciate the depth of Shadow Fall's contribution to the series' lore, but newcomers may wonder why everything happening is worth caring about.
Fortunately for those either bewildered or nonplussed by Shadow Fall's story, the presentation is absolutely gorgeous, and the shooting mechanics are as tight as they've ever been. The cityscapes of Vekta and New Helghan are wildly diverse, and both offer a ton of eye candy boasting the power of PlayStation 4. On the Vektan side, the clean, utopian architecture shines bright with seemingly miles of glass and white concrete lining the city streets. There's healthy plant life, and the lighting design leans towards the heavenly with bright beams of white cutting through the urban landscape.
On the other side of the wall, things are markedly different, and it's quite curious to see a visual representation of utopia and a dystopia side by side with nothing but a twenty mile-high wall separating the two. Things are much more oppressive in New Helghan. Where Vektan society seems to cultivate life, the Helghast have done their best to ensure the city keeps the population complacent. The trademarked red and orange hues illuminating the over-populated locale are oppressive, and there's so much basic steel and cold metal it's almost impossible to feel anything except sterilized. Going back and forth between the two civilizations is jarring, but it's supposed to be. It's not easy seeing how the other side of the wall lives, and it's really amazing how many different feelings Guerrilla is able to elicit with pure mood and aesthetic.
Without competent controls though, even the prettiest of games would be relegated to meaninglessness. As Shadow Fall is a more tactical, thought-out shooter, there are a few more controls to keep in mind on the battlefield beyond aim and shoot. The d-pad offers you the use of health packs, objectives and echo location tech, which is very important when trying to navigate in secrecy or when looking ahead for an ambush. However, the biggest tool in your back pocket is the new OWL drone. Only available to Shadow Marshalls like Kellan, the OWL offers a multitude of options including attack capabilities, a shield, a zipline or even an EMP pulse to weaken shielded enemies. All of the OWL's abilities are handled by the touchpad, which works well and makes you feel a bit like the Predator. All that swiping and tapping on the pad gives the feel of a future technology that might not be so far away, and adds a bit more immersion into Killzone's world.
The actual gunplay itself is much better than it has been in Killzone's past. In earlier iterations of the franchise, shooting often felt cumbersome. In Shadow Fall, that's no longer the case. The different weapons all have a distinct weight and feel, with various states of recoil you'll need to be aware of when facing off against Helghast troops. Oddly enough, the Helghast armaments are typically much better in a fire fight than Kellan's own default rifle, though there are enough options to ensure you'll be able to find the correct gun to suit your tastes. You're only ever able to carry two weapons at a time, but the OWL's assistance as an assault drone does act as a third option in a pinch. Often we'd just let the OWL roam ahead as a floating turret while we picked off Helghast soldiers from behind cover.
Just as Killzone: Shadow Fall's campaign is a more paced experience, so too is the multiplayer. The classic Warzone mode returns once more, and offers the tried, true and tested multi-objective battle the franchise has built is multiplayer around. The class-based online system works well, too, offering players different ways to play and earn experience. Though there's not a traditional leveling system in place, each class has its own set of weapons and accessories to level individually. The more you revive people as support, the better your healing will become. The more you kill people with machine guns, the more machine guns you'll unlock. These challenges do give incentive to play as more than one class, but if the rest of your team isn't acting together, you might get stuck seeing little improvement match after match. Additionally, though there are 10 different maps available to start, many battles often take place close to spawn points, and you won't get to explore much at all. That's not a fault of the game's design, but rather the community, but still it's an issue nonetheless.
You might have some trouble getting invested in the political landscape of Vekta and New Helghan, but Killzone: Shadow Fall is still a rather enjoyable first-person shooter that offers something different from its contemporaries. Though it's still not quite the elite franchise Sony and Guerrilla keep pining for Killzone to become, Shadow Fall's strengths lie in doing something different from the beaten path.
This review was completed using a purchased retail copy of Killzone: Shadow Fall for the PlayStation 4.