Engaging in old fashioned, face-to-face firefights with glow-eyed bad guys in Killzone: Shadow Fall is a reasonable option. Often the most effective tactic when gunning down countless hordes of Helghast, though, is to summon a small weaponized drone called the OWL and point it toward your enemies while you play the inglorious role of Best Supporting Soldier In A First-Person Shooter.
As the game’s human hero, Lucas Kellen—yet another wearying example of modern games’ favorite character archetype, the dutiful government agent with a heart of gold—I spent a large portion of Killzone: Shadow Fall’s campaign ducking behind blown-out buildings and pieces of space debris until all comers were taken out by my handy flying death machine. It was entertaining for a time, but tedium set in quickly, and I’d imagine far-fetched scenarios where Lucas was taking smoke breaks or snapping sulky mid-war selfies on his iPhone 47 (it’s the future, after all).
The act of watching, not playing, is a common theme for the single-player portion of Killzone: Shadow Fall. When you’re not twiddling your thumbs as your Swiss Army Knife of a robot companion slays yet another faceless enemy or hacks into a computer terminal, you’re simply there to soak up the dystopian scenery. To be fair, it’s impeccably rendered, ultra-detailed scenery Like You’ve Never Seen Before, but the game takes a near-pornographic delight in slow, panning wide shots of planet surfaces and futuristic cityscapes while you patiently rest your hands in your lap and wait.
The game does at least pretend to have more ambition than its generic title would imply. (Killzone: Shadow Fall sounds like the name of some South Park parody of a violent first-person shooter.) The aforementioned Lucas Kellen is a covert operative who finds himself stuck in the long, grueling war between the human Vektans and the alien Helghast, a race that resembles a more menacing versions of Star Wars’ Jawas—bright orange eyes peeking through hooded robes. The Helghast homeworld has been destroyed by the war in previous Killzone games, so Shadow Fall begins on the planet Vekta some years after an uneasy truce has been crafted between the two civilizations. Now they both live in a sprawling city divided by a massive wall—with the native population on the gleaming wealthy side of the barrier and the aliens stuck in a ghetto with a smattering of human refugees. It’s a setup that evokes Cold War-era Berlin or the present-day Gaza Strip by way of the movie District 9—and Shadow Fall makes an effort to lay much of the blame for the deteriorating condition of affairs at the feet of the Vektans.
There’s a cynical, almost nihilistic bent to Shadow Fall’s portrayal of war and the way both sides seem hell-bent on pushing each other to the point of total destruction. The leader of the Vektan’s version of the CIA is like Killzone’s version of Dick Cheney, preaching the gospel of preemptive war for the sake of security and “we gotta protect our own” patriotic drivel. “I told them we are at war. They wanted to buy time,” he growls about the do-nothing politicians. “We should have attacked them first, never given them a chance. The blood’s on their hands now.”
Much like last year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops II, it’s also implied that the Helghast terrorist mastermind who rises up to murder innocent civilians is at least partially a product of the Vektans’ less-than-stellar foreign policies. But Killzone isn’t a diplomatic negotiation simulator, so the way to solve these systemic problems is for Kellen to use his gun. Lest the waters get too muddy, the game does away with moral ambiguity in the second act—introducing an obvious deus ex machina in the form of a super-weapon meant to destroy pretty much everything if used. Raise your hand if you want total annihilation! Anyone? No?
Fine. Guess it’s time to run through corridors and kill bad guys, then. Unfortunately, Killzone doesn’t even do boilerplate action sequences very well. Helghast soldiers are either slow to respond to your tactics or are way too perceptive, making the stealth option prohibitively difficult. There are also times when the world opens up, and decisions must be made about how to get from point A to point B, but it’s mostly a façade. Go outside of the game’s invisible logic and something dumb happens, like stepping into a small body of water and instantly dying. The OWL is equipped with a zip-line mechanism that lets you cruise over gaps, but using it is a comedy of trial-and-error as you click on random pieces of the environment until an error message doesn't appear. Then there is the short scene in which you’re forced to control Kellen as he haphazardly glides through a crumbling city to find a landing spot. After dying, by my count, 37 times on the easy difficulty, I wanted to toss my shiny new DualShock 4 controller into traffic.
Shadow Fall’s multiplayer mode isn’t as frustrating as the single-player campaign. It’s just uninspired. There’s a collection of various modes apart from the standard Team Deathmatch all-out shoot ’em up and requisite collection of weapons, perks, and awards, but none of them stand out from the shooter standard-bearers—the Battlefields and Call Of Dutys of the world.
Sony has invested the rough equivalent of a developing country’s GDP into their muscular next-gen system, and the company desperately wants to prove why we must upgrade. For all the talk during the lead-up to the PS4 launch about how a boost in processing power would magically unshackle developers from technical limits and usher in a bold new era of creativity in video games, the decision to feature the fourth iteration of this inessential series as one of the system’s flagship titles shows that perhaps the new boss is the same as the old boss. And so in the absence of any new ideas, Killzone: Shadow Fall exists as worshipful paean to the technical power of the PlayStation 4, not as a game to actually play and enjoy.
Killzone: Shadow Fall
Developer: Guerilla Games
Platform: PlayStation 4