One thought ran through my head while playing Killzone Shadow Fall: How beautiful can a cliché look?
It's no surprise that Shadow Fall is beautiful. The Killzone games that showed up on the PS2 and PS3 offered up some of the best graphics ever seen on those consoles. So, yes, the opening hours of this PS4 title — and many portions that follow — are eye candy of the highest order. Blooming light that dapples through obstacles in sexy hyper-realism. Dust so articulated you'll feel your nose itch. Randomised rain that will make you shiver.
Yet, for all their tech prowess, Guerilla Games haven't ever really made a title where the storytelling matched the engineering. They try to do that here — with a story that echoes the Cold War — but don't quite get there.
Shadow Fall takes place decades after the end of Killzone 3 and finds the remnants of the Helghast — the series' totalitarian space villains — sharing planet Vekta with their hated racial cousins. Players control native Vektan Lucas Kellan, who we first meet as a boy sneaking away from soldiers of the newly-established New Helghan regime. His dad gets killed by a Helghast soldier right in front of Kellan's eyes. Years later, Lucas is a soldier in a top-secret program designed to put down Helghan threats to the uneasy peace on Vekta.
That's just the first of many clichés Shadow Fall drafts into service. Certain sayings become clichés because they express truths that everyone understands, but they lose their power through overuse. And Shadow Fall is a parade of overused narrative tropes and FPS gameplay design ideas. Clearing bad guys car-by-car on a train in a big city? Check. A big sequence where your precious guns are taken away from you? Present. Running through a mega-chaotic battleground while hell explodes all around you? Yup, that's there, too.
And there's more, like the ol' 'biological super-weapon in wrong hands.' Likewise, enemy-among-us and 'the infrastructure of a more welcoming society being turned into weapons'. And you play through all of this the same way you've played through dozens (hundreds?) of other shooters: peek around cover, hide-and-heal, look for the rocket launcher. The AI don't really seem like they want to keep on living. Rather, they just want to make the task of killing them as annoying as possible.
Glimmers of interesting play ideas do exist on this Killzone game, however. The OWL is a remote drone that can throw up a force shield, hack devices, stun enemies or shoot at selected bad guys. It also revives you when you're downed and spools out a zip line when you need to reach another less-elevated area. Swiping in a certain direction on the DualShock 4's touchpad changes the task OWL will do for you. This input method felt surprisingly natural and I never felt like I was tripping over a new way to play the same ol' tired FPS missions.
The OWL stuff is fun and creates some opportunities for strategies — which can feel like single-player co-op — that differentiate Shadow Fall's single-player from other FPS campaigns. Some vestiges of that also pop up when Kellan partners up with another human, too. Nevertheless, it's not enough of a differentiation, though.
There's an element of braggart showmanship to Shadow Fall. It's as if with every mind-boggling vista or nutso-busy cityscape Guerilla is saying, "Hey, look at what we can do." But the problem with all the visual dazzle is that it makes the screen hard to read. Someone's shooting at you; but from where? You're supposed to climb a cliff; but which parts? The tricks that developers use to drive the eye to key parts of a game world get lost in a ton of visual noise.
The advent of next-gen hardware and the technological muscle-flexing that comes with it doesn't make shitty on-rails sections any better. All those motes of debris don't enliven an umpty-millionth 'shoot a minigun from a helicopter' moment. No amount of teraflops is going to make a bad game good.
And the focus on hardware maximisation also highlights what these game-makers can't do. Guerilla aims at nuance with the game's Cold War parallels but it's too heavy-handed. Certain sections of the game are outright snooze-inducing, especially the seductively slow camera pan shots where the player is supposed to ooh and aah at the shinies. The voice acting in Shadow Fall is either wooden or overdone. Character faces are more detailed but awkwardly animated.
The visuals of Shadow Fall's multiplayer compared favourably to its single-player when I played it Tuesday night at a Sony preview event. Impressive lighting was still in effect and the level of detail held up as the Vektan and Helghast factions fought for supremacy. But, there too was the damnable sameness that I felt in single-player. Capture-and-hold missions and deathmatches like in every shooter with competitive play. Frantic spawn-engage-die cycles that never cohere into anything. Yes, my limited time with Killzone's newest iteration of multiplayer came before the rest of the world gets their hands on it. But there was nothing that demanded further recommendation. I'll log some more time with Shadow Fall's online portion once the full retail version is out in the wild.
Another thought bubbled as I kept neck-stabbing and shooting through Shadow Fall: if this game wasn't so astoundingly gorgeous, I'd be bored out of my skull. It's a cliché that beauty fades and Shadow Fall's pulchritude is no exception. Once the wonder faded, it became clear that the game is a collection of missed marks and recycled design.
It's kind of a surprise, then, that Shadow Fall's ending is far better than I was expecting. Filled with war-justification speechifying and the tensest gameplay moments of the whole campaign, it's centred around the most shocking kind of political power shift. Shadows Fall's conclusion is the kind of finale cooked up by people who want players to talk about it. But by the time the ending rolled around, I already felt like I'd suffered through a ton of half-baked acting and combat encounters. One sorta-interesting level wouldn't be enough to redeem the whole experience.
Shadow Fall tries very hard to be a cautionary tale about warmongering, the politics of crisis and What's Going On in the World Today. And, y'know, maybe some 15-year-old will play this and Shadow Fall's 'the enemies are human beings just like us' shtick will give them pause. But this game's being aimed squarely at would-be PS4 owners, adults who have lived and played through that kind of revelation in other, better games and entertainments. They're also people who have different FPS games to choose from, even on a system as brand-spanking-new as the PS4. Killzone Shadow Fall succeeds as an example of how amazing a PS4 game can look but feels mysteriously devoid of the secret ingredient that takes games from great-looking to great-feeling.