Wednesday, November 20, 2013

REVIEW - Killzone : Shadow Fall.

Killzone : Shadow Fall is one of a scant few first-party games appearing at the launch of the PlayStation 4 (along with Knack, Resogun and DC Universe Online).  With a respectable twelve-to-fifteen hour single-player campaign and a very robust suite of easy-to-use, streamlined multiplayer, Shadow Fall is a game that's easy to recommend and an early highlight of the PS4's fledgling library.

The Sickle shotgun, the OWL drone and a rich science fiction world.  Life is good.

At its debut, the Killzone franchise was dubbed by the media as Sony's "Halo killer," simply by virtue of its position as a first-party sci-fi first-person shooter on a platform that competes with Microsoft.  The first Killzone (2004) was no Halo killer (still isn't), but it was a solid, respectable and rather unique FPS (still is), thanks largely to its weirdly weighty mechanics in which you felt the inertia of movement and the heft of your weapon.

Classically, the Killzone titles separated themselves from the mainstream competitive FPSs by way of that sweetly immersive sense of weight, but gamers complained that it rendered the games "less responsive" than the competition, and developer Guerrilla has been toning it down for the last two iterations of the franchise.  As such, Shadow Fall represents the yet-greatest departure from what Killzone was, but with its visually dazzling rendition of two factions engaged in a cold war on planet Vekta, it's also a promising example of what Killzone is becoming.

After all, there are a ton of first-person shooters.  There are a ton of military-themed FPSs and a heckuva lot of neon-bright sci-fi by way of Gene Roddenberry FPSs - but within that sci-fi sub-genre, there aren't many that bring to mind the darker, more contemplative science fiction of Ridley Scott.  That's the type of sci-fi Killzone: Shadow Fall is.  A fiction so near to our own lives you feel like you could reach out and touch it, and a world so fantastical your jaw drops, regardless.

The underbelly of New Helghan. 

A Quick History of Killzone
Once upon a time, there was an interplanetary community.  Sorta' like The Federation in Star Trek.  One planet - Vekta, a beautiful Earth-like world - had some of its citizens rise up against the community and attempt to declare independence.  In response, the government cracked down and kicked all the rebels off Vekta, banishing them to the forbidding, toxic mining planet of Helghan - where they survived, thrived, and grew into a military-industrial state.  After years of war between the two planets, a squad of Vektan soldiers on Helghan successfully intercepted the Helghast ultimate weapon and inadvertently detonated it, effectively wiping out the entire planet in an eerie green holocaust.  Now, the survivors of that calamity live on Vekta in a walled-off city-state dubbed New Helghan.  An uneasy truce and Vektan guilt hold both sides at bay... but for how long?

Killzone 2 and 3 reveled in placing the player in the midst of a large-scale military campaign, fighting alongside countless AI allies against innumerable Helghast forces.  It was as much a science fiction exercise as it was a military shooter, but Shadow Fall backs far away from the hoo-rah military pastiche with a much more intimate though no less visually stunning campaign.

It follows the exploits of Lucas Kellen, a (special ops) Shadow Marshall with the Vektan military.  Kellen has all the reason in the world to hate the Helghast - during the forced relocation of Vektan civilians to make room for the Helghan refugees, he witnessed Helghan soldiers murder his father, only to find himself saved by a Shadow Marshall named Sinclair.

Fifteenish years later, Sinclair runs the Vektan military and Kellen is his top elite soldier - a good dog who'll do whatever he's told - until a beautiful, goth-y Helghast assassin reminds him that the only good reason to go to war is to win peace.

Echo.  Echo is awesome. 

Shadow Fall suggests Killzone may be moving towards more personal, involving campaigns than the franchise saw on the PS3, where immersion is gleaned from the player's attachment to the game world and its characters, as opposed to the tactile physicality of movement and weapon handling.  It's not quite where it needs to be, jarringly broken up as it is into clear chapters and lacking the endearing, casual conversations of successful story-heavy games like BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us.  Instead, here characters only speak when they have something important to say - usually detailing how they feel about the cold war between Vekta and New Helghan.

While the narrative, at face value, isn't up to the standards of presentation the rest of the game enjoys, the universe it shuttles you through is exemplary.  You'll stroll along the idyllic man-made plateaus of Vekta, slink through the slums of New Helghan as starving civilians beg for help (or curse you, you Vektan scum) and explore abandoned ghost ships that served as laboratories for the next man-made apocalypse the cold war is incubating before things go straight up sci-fi-fan joygasm.  First person shooters rarely get their art direction cited as a proud strength, but Shadow Fall is a gorgeous game in style alone.

So the campaign doesn't quite attain the involvement you feel Guerrilla is reaching for, but it does engage to the point that when the plot twist comes (if you want to call it that), you'll feel like you just got gut-punched.  You'll sit there dumbfounded, trying to understand why the game would do that and what it means, and there's only one thing you'll want the game to give you, afterwards.

Then, it gives it to you.  It's very satisfying, and a great set-up for what's coming next to the Killzone universe.

Whatever that turns out to be, I can promise you it will be gorgeous.  Shadow Fall is without question the most stunning game I've thrown in to my PS4 thus far (Battlefield 4's thick effects work and animations are remarkable, but the reliably excellently rendered detail of Shadow Fall's world win out).  The game looks ludicrously sharp and runs like a dream, the quality of its textures often startling in their fidelity.

If you want a game that shows off what the PS4 is capable of, Shadow Fall is it.

Instead of listing multiple examples, permit me one - note the puddle beneath the enemy in the middle.  This is not a bullshot. The first time you notice it, Shadow Fall's liquid effects are shocking.  The way the ground registers individual drops of rain as they hit, offering a brief liquid shine and depth before they seep into the ground.  The sheen and tangible wetness of the blood that pools from your body when you're shot down.  The way a hazy reflection of the soldier can be seen in the puddle above.

How does it play?

Pretty good!  Not perfect.  The weapons all handle perfectly - while the "weightiness" is gone, it's replaced here by an absolute sense of control on the part of the player.  You won't even notice that - unlike every other console shooter on the market - there is zero auto-aim in Shadow Fall, because the Dualshock 4's more-precise analog sticks don't require it.

The worst complaint I can level against it is that Shadow Fall is terrible at telling you where to go next.  Once a gun was in my hand, I was stuck in the very first room - a small, circular thing - for what felt like five minutes as I desperately scratched at the walls.  A waypoint marker hovered in the distance, somewhere below me, but it still took what feels like an eternity to find the hole in the floor that allowed me to drop down and move forward.

Your first time through the campaign, this trial will present itself multiple times.  Shdaow Fall's just not that savvy at communicating what it wants from the player.  The game will say something like,

"Your next waypoint is 500 meters up that sheer cliff."

"Okay... thanks for that, Shadow Fall. Any... any tips on how to get up there?"

"Your next waypoint is 500 meters up that sheer cliff."

"Goddamnit, this is gonna' take me ten minutes to figure out."

"It'll be better on your second playthrough."

"Fuck you, Shadow Fall.'"

As vicious and lethal as its enemies are, Shadow Fall is probably the easiest Killzone I've ever played (the games are generally extremely punishing), thanks perhaps to the inclusion of the OWL drone.  An automata Swiss Army knife, the OWL is your answer to pretty much every challenging scenario the game.  A group of enemies with personal energy shields?  The OWL's energy pulse will take care of that, and stun anyone in the blast radius besides.

Need a distraction?  Swipe your thumb up the touchpad, set the OWL to attack mode and send it straight in while you flank the Higs for an easy kill.  It hacks enemy consoles, it can deploy an energy shield and it's even got a built-in zipline to quickly navigate environments.

The OWL is Guerrilla's attempt to turn Shadow Fall into less of a gritty sci-fi war campaign than a player-choice driven first-person playground.  It gives you a ton of options, and that is, perhaps, part of why Shadow Fall's waypoints can be so infuriating.

Almost BioShockesque, Shadow Fall's environments are very open, with multiple routs to success and multiple options available to you.  The game world and the OWL are designed to offer the player a lot of choice in how they accomplish their goals, and Shadow Fall's design only falters when it closes itself off and requires the player to guide themselves to a fixed point at the other side of a door they don't understand how to open.

On the bright side, the game is much better on a second playthrough.  Once you understand the expectations the game so poorly explained, you're free to dance about with a mighty weapon in one hand while the other directs your purring little drone about the battlefield, setting up traps, zigging when they expect you to zag and feeling terribly powerful when it all works out as planned.

It's at its best in wide-open sections like this, where the player's bag of tricks permits them a gracious allowance of strategy to experiment with and enjoy - and, at the very least, when it descends into linear exercises, it's almost always with a jaw-dropping set piece on the side.

That being said,

May it live in infamy.

whoever designed the skydiving sequence is a jerk who hates fun, and wanted the player to have as little as possible during this visually delightful section of the game, dying over and over and over.  In that, they were entirely successful, accomplishing all goals as no fun whatsoever was had, and gamers everywhere could only stare, angry and amazed that this awful sequence was included in an otherwise great game.

And it is a great game.

It's sci-fi in the vein of Blade Runner and The Fifth Element.  It's a world of oppressively huge megastructures that, with a wink, knowingly references Judge Dredd.  It's a fun, capable game with far more strengths than weaknesses.  Like all Killzones, it's no Halo killer.  It's no Doom and it's no BioShock - nothing that will challenge our perception of what a first-person shooter can deliver - but for a beautiful game to accomplish its mission well is still cause for celebration, in my book.

It's Zoolander.  It may not be the smartest game in the room, but it knows how to do its job and it's really, really, ridiculously good-looking.

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