Is this tomorrow?
Let’s be honest here: Launch games never amount to anything special. The moment Mario stopped being bundled with new Nintendo consoles pretty much marked the end of that. And because launch games exist within this weird nexus of transition, where advancements in technology are noticeable but not something any developer’s gotten the grasp of and thus nailed down, there’s an amorphous quality to their appeal. More so than any other games, launch titles have immediate appeal, but not lasting.
I am completely confident this is the case with Killzone: Shadow Fall. The weary, videogame-playing veteran in me recognizes how utterly forgettable Killzone’s next-gen debut will be—probably before we close the book on 2014. But the wide-eyed enthusiast in me hungry to make the leap out of the exhaustingly long lifetime Sony’s managed to milk out of the PS3 had a lot of fun with select chapters of Shadow Fall.
The story told over the course of Killzone’s 10 chapters is a vast improvement over its predecessors but still something plagued with terrible dialogue, half-heartedly performed voice acting, and barely interesting—let alone explained—plot devices. As Shadow Marshal Lucas Kellan, you’re tasked with keeping the peace between the Vektan natives and the Helghast refugees. But because both cultures hate each other with the cartoonish venom of coked up Allied and Axis commanders, war is always bubbling at the surface, justified by one-dimensional ideologies that strike me as incongruous to the sociocultural development space-faring cultures would probably achieve.
By the end of the game, when elements from Killzone 3 rear their unwanted, ugly heads, it becomes apparent that the series is encumbered by its developer’s need or desire to operate within established fiction rather than make a fresh start. The only arresting moments come from the handful of audiologs that can be found. In fact, some of the best writing—and acting—in Shadow Fall is relegated to these logs, which really exist for the sole purpose of pointing out how the DualShock 4 can output audio.
Most of where Killzone impresses is packed into its earliest moments. The first few chapters are varied in design, giving each one a personality of its own. After the introduction, you’re dropped into a sprawling forest in which mission objectives will take you from one side of the arena to the other and back again. The openness allows for variety in playstyle, from undetected stealth to Rambo-inspired loudness. Level design accommodates for both. After kicking in the front door to a Helghast compound and laying waste to its occupants, post-mayhem exploration turns up air ducts and alternate routes of access clearly designed with stealth in mind.
The next stage abandons this sense of space (although it does take place in space) but out of necessity, with concern to the setting itself. In its place, however, is an atmospheric experience that feels thoughtful in design. Here, more time is spent investigating, rather than shooting, and solving puzzles that aren’t laid out with hand-holding detail. Solutions are intuitive, especially to those who’ve been playing games most of their lives, and they feel rewarding to figure out—more so than gunning down another round of Helghast fodder. This lack of intelligence-insulting guidance carries into the next chapter as well, where HUD markers will point you in the right direction but leave it to you to navigate the environment and figure out how to get there.
After that, though, Killzone slowly starts to fall to pieces until, by the end, everything feels like a grind. If I had to guess, more time was invested into meticulously crafting the first half of the experience at the expense of the second. It’s not broken or even outright bad—it’s just unremarkable and not as honed as Shadow Fall initially seems. But even in its best moments, the game suffers from wild, vacillating inconsistencies. Enemy AI can go from scarily smart to self-immolating in stupidity. Set pieces go from something players can creatively interact with to backdrops that serve only as eye candy. Mechanics are introduced that are used once and never again until an epilogue sequence, and even that introduces something new and thrusts you into a situation that demands mastery over something you’ve never had to operate before. There’s never any iterative learning process. It’s sink or swim, and it will leave you with a very, very sour taste in your mouth.
Then there’s the OWL, Shadow Fall’s oft-touted companion drone. It’s a neat addition, and one that proves helpful in combat, but controlling the OWL can be a bit of a pain. Its four modes—attack, defense, stun, zipline—are toggled by swipes up, down, left, and right on the touchpad. Simple enough, but interacting with the DualShock 4’s new addition is, obviously, not second nature yet and requires the sacrifice of camera control to reach—which, in the heat of battle, doesn’t feel terribly wise.
Beyond confusion born of newness to the touchpad, Killzone proves the DualShock 4 an excellent controller for first-person shooters. The new, curved triggers feel great to pull and much more “right” to use than the L1 or R1 shoulder buttons ever did when playing shooters on PS3. And either there’s a noticeable absence of Killzone’s distinctive “pull” when looking around with the right analog stick, or the much-touted tighter dead zones of the new concave analog sticks were made with wizards, but control and movement in Shadow Fall never feels like a fight. Probably a bit of both, really.
In the here and now, in that weird space between twilight of one console’s life and the dawn of another’s, I don’t regret digging Shadow Fall, and I don’t regret saying it’s worth playing if you’re picking up a PS4. I think Killzone does more right than it does wrong as a first-person shooter, but probably an equal amount mediocre. But it’s mediocrity with a few choice moments dressed in a really pretty outfit. I guess that’s enough for me, at launch.
|Developer: Guerrilla Games • Publisher: SCEA • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 11.15.2012|
Killzone: Shadow Fall serves up decent sci-fi themed first-person-shooter action complete with teases of what the new console generation has in store for us. It’s not particularly inspired, nor is it anything to write home about, but as something to make your early adoption feel justified, I think Killzone does the trick.
|The Good||Almost everything about the first half of the game.|
|The Bad||Tacked-on epilogue a bad note to go out on.|
|The Ugly||Frustrating skydiving sequence.|
|Killzone: Shadow Fall is available exclusively on PS4.|