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Killzone: Shadow Fall Review

Everyone knows that launch titles are going to be rough.  They have to nail a target date, don’t get much breathing room, and aren’t supposed to sell themselves as much as sell the finer points of a new system.  Killzone: Shadow Fall is the perfect example of what being a launch title is all about.  The game shows off the new PS4 hardware and finally gives fuel for console gamers to argue graphics with PC owners.  However, while there are moments where Shadow Fall is visually stunning, it falls victim to other missteps.  The Killzone series has long had a narrative toolbox that would make any writer jealous, but only ever managed to churn out rote, narrow-minded stories.  The only thing more cookie-cutter than the game’s narrative is the checklist of gameplay mechanics that, when at its best, are copying better games.  Fortunately, there is something deeper to this sleeping beauty, as the game offers some decent ideas in its competent multiplayer.  Shadow Fall comes with unfair expectations of every other launch game, while it may disappoint in many aspects, it does offer PS4 owners the best first-person shooter experience on the new console.

No one waited four hours in the cold for Killzone: Shadow Fall, the game’s high profile is position obtained by simply getting released on the same day as the PlayStation 4.  There might be a handful of people quick to shove it aside in favor of Battlefield 4 or Call of Duty: Ghosts, but they would be doing themselves a disservice as Killzone has, thus far, offered the best experience on the PlayStation 4.  Strangely, the best thing to say about Killzone: Shadow Fall is that the game works, not only works, but works well.  All options were available from the start, PlayStation Network found matches quickly and keeps you engaged by maintaining stable servers and a consistent experience.  The only frustration to be found in the game, is your opponents.

To be fair, the game itself can be a bit frustrating, especially the single player campaign, which is sorely lacking any sort of couch co-op.  As we forge ahead into the next-gen future, developers are often unwilling to sacrifice any screen space or fidelity to accommodate a second on-screen player.  It is understandable, but it also make it difficult for two friends to enjoy the beauty of next-gen together, as someone is going to be left eating popcorn while their friend has all the fun.

Shadow Fall’s controls can be cumbersome at first, but the series has finally ditched the PlayStation-centric ideas of clicking R3 to zoom in, and opted for a more traditional layout. Having this traditional layout is nice, but frustration comes from the new OWL mechanic. Unlike previous Killzone games, players will spend almost every mission on their own, acting as a special agent rather than part of a squad.  Shadow Fall compensates for the lack of teammates with an AI companion called the OWL, which can assist in stunning enemies, going on the offensive, healing the player, or traversing the terrain with a zip line.  There are two problems with the OWL, the first–and smaller detail–being it is controlled using the PS4 touchpad, which can take some getting used to.  The larger problem is that the OWL is unintuitive, never reacting to enemies movements.  Often you will aim the OWL at an enemy to use as a stun weapon, only to have the enemy jump away and waste your shot.  There’s no way to recall the OWL or change its target once its been commanded.  It is surprising to find so many issues with this mechanic when it was done previously in Killzone Mercenaries for the Vita earlier this with little issue.

Aside from the OWL, Killzone’s gameplay is your standard fare.  Throw grenades, duck for cover (which is glitchy at times), and shoot anything that moves.  This translates into the level design, which feels almost paint-by-numbers.  For a science fiction world, featuring a giant wall to separate two nasty enemies, very little is actually experimented with.  The original Killzone felt like a reaction to Halo, using alien worlds and other dark sci-fi elements; this Killzone feels like a reaction to Call of Duty, featuring highly interactive set pieces that are pretty to look at, but boring to play.  Shadow Fall has all the first-person shooter “greatest hits”, like stopping the train with a bomb in it and stealthing your way to a sniper position.  The problem is that whenever Shadow Fall tries to get creative and change things up, the mechanics don’t support the ideas.  Flying through space and shooting incoming drones should be fun, but the mechanics are almost copy and paste from other parts of the game, so moving is clunky and the shooting is inaccurate.

The story is just as rote as the gameplay.  The game often tries to paint the Helghast as evil hellians, attempting to destroy the good people of Earth-like Vekta.  They show the Helghast torturing and pillaging, just as always-evil bad guys do.  There’s no gray, there’s no depth, even when they attempt to add some weight the “good” Helghast is–of course–half-Vektan.  The game seems to assume that no one is interested in learning about the conflict and more interested with using its mediocre shooting mechanics, almost like its worried people will get offended if they try to feel something other than mindless blood-lust.

The saving grace to the whole package is the multiplayer.  As stated before, Killzone’s multiplayer was running the day the PlayStation 4 launched and has never had a misstep.  Killzone offers a Warzone mode that combines five different game objectives, keeping things fresh and preventing the experience from becoming boring.  It also encourages players to use different playstyles in the same match.  You might be conditioned to go in guns blazing in a team death match, but when the objective changes to defending bombs from your opponents, it puts you back on your heels.  Warzone is a nice sample platter, allowing you a taste of all that Shadow Fall has to offer.  The multiplayer continues to be unique in its leveling system.  Players no longer can rely on the experience to simply unlock any desired upgrades they want, but have to complete certain challenges to unlock equipment.

This has been a rough year for the traditional first-person shooter, while the market is flooded with mediocrity from the biggest franchises, this seemed like the perfect time for Killzone to establish itself as a legitimate alternative to fans looking for something different in the next-gen market.  Unfortunately, Killzone lacks the necessary chops to warrant a coming-out party, instead it simply floats to the top by being functionally mediocre, hardly a ringing endorsement.  The reality is that when you pick up your PlayStation 4 you might as well get something to play on it and if it has to be a shooter it might as well be Killzone.  The game runs well, it demonstrates the how good the PlayStation 4 can look and is a fairly competent shooter.  Killzone may not be a great game, but its not the worst of the PlayStation launch lineup either.

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