“Last Chance to Play” takes a retrospective look at the hits and misses of the eighth generation of consoles.
The following contains some minor spoilers for Killzone Shadow Fall.
Launch titles are, perhaps, almost always consigned to a hit or miss fate. At their best, they can shape or define an entire console generation; such is the case when it comes to launch titles like Super Mario 64 or Halo: Combat Evolved. Though wildly different games in their own right, Mario 64 was celebrated and notable for taking a classic series and sending it into the future, casting its familiar gameplay in a literal new dimension, showing the promise of the future of 3d games. Halo, on the other hand, didn’t innovate so much by breaking into a new dimension as it did by bringing a genre once only taken seriously on PC to the console and introduced an entirely new universe of gaming with the story of Master Chief and the conflicts that surround he and Cortana.
When considering launch titles, this is the benchmark for success. Otherwise, the title is forgotten about or, worse, deeply criticized. Perhaps increased scrutiny is placed on these titles as they often come bearing the weight of justifying a $400+ purchase of new hardware (which, in the case of recent generations, was also hardware that would not be compatible with a gamer’s existing library of games.)
Launch titles may also pose a burden for the team developing it; with virtually no option to delay the game, as their development is often intrinsically tied to the epoch-setting arrival of a new console, development can be rushed, limited in scope, and stressed.
Killzone Shadow Fall, as a launch title, carried the burden of having to define a new generation in terms of its graphical presentation but also continued to shoulder the struggle of being Sony’s “flagship” first-person shooter, which it always lagged behind Xbox in until the recent shift in prioritizing the Call of Duty experience on Sony’s platform.
With its former competitor on Xbox, Halo, usurped by Call of Duty, and with FPS titles losing centrality to larger-scale open-world action-adventure titles that fuse together a number of affects from different genres, Shadow Fall was either going to be the birth of something new, or the final chapter not only for the series itself but also for the genre’s prominence as we knew it altogether.
Perhaps both of these outcomes came true; it is likely the case that Shadow Fall is the final Killzone–its developers, Guerrilla Games, seemed to be anticipating a different direction in the future anyway–and while first-person shooters remain top-sellers, they must now exist with or assimilate into shooters augmented by loot-based, RPG-mechanic driven hybrids like Destiny, Warframe, or The Division. Open-world adventures also dominated single-player experiences throughout the eighth generation–and Battle Royale has become a force of its own that has successfully managed to transform existing series like Call of Duty, and morphed the identity of others like Titanfall into the successful Apex Legends.
Shadow Fall might then be seen as a farewell to a series that always struggled in the “shadow” of its siblings and the closing days of a the time where FPS games set a standard. This makes it an interesting title to reconsider as this generation draws to a close. What did Shadow Fall bring to this generation, how does it hold up in 2020, and can we imagine how things could’ve turned out differently for this 2013 title?
If the original Halo brought first-person shooters to consoles from PC in a way they never had existed before, Shadow Fall is perhaps tasked with bringing another experience from the PC to consoles: that of a higher frame rate and resolution.
Beyond needing to prove itself in the first-person shooter dimension, Shadow Fall had to show what 8gb of DDR5 ram and more advanced processing power on consoles actually meant–and it had to do so in a way that demanded one to go out and spend nearly half a grand on a console and a copy of the game to experience.
It arguably succeeds here as, in 2020, Shadow Fall‘s graphics can still impress. Its visual fidelity and performance are certainly drastic improvements over the sub-30 frames per second experience that plagued the end of the Xbox 360/PS3 era. It’s not perfect, however. It doesn’t maintain a 60 frames per second lock and its resolution was the subject of a somewhat strange lawsuit that was ultimately dismissed.
This is a passable experience on base consoles today, but it was pretty transformative back in 2013 considering what the experience had been previously. It also represents the struggle consoles have had dating back to the seventh generation: the constant pressure of meeting the high-definition standards of the consumer market.
Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 had to struggle as 720p machines in a market that was positioned to favor 1080p screens. PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, however, barely managed to maintain a constant 1080p experience (to say nothing of the frame rate) when the market for televisions shifted toward affordable 4k displays. Shadow Fall demonstrates this as an experience that hits 1080p “most of the time” but struggles for it. Despite this struggle, however, Guerrilla’s technological prowess combined with its art direction still manages to deliver an impressive experience that is worth checking out even if its gameplay manages to never escalate beyond what is otherwise a pretty competent shooter.
It’s interesting to contemplate what a Killzone experience might have been had it not had to suffer these expectations and demands; that is, were it either not a launch title, or were it okay hitting only 720p, it might be an experience that during play doesn’t sometimes feel like its barely keeping its head above water.
There’s something odd about Shadow Fall in terms of how it feels. Overall it’s fine: you pull the trigger and the guns shoot. But sometimes shots miss in a way that just doesn’t make sense; or you try to aim down sights and something feels off in a way that sways between sloppy jitters and unresponsive sluggishness. Battles can get chaotic in Shadow Fall, and despite it being a quicker and snappier experience than its predecessors, it still delivers Killzone’s love-it-or-leave-it “weighted” feeling. Whether this is a tech issue or the result of a game with an identity crisis, caught between needing to speed its experience up to compete with other titles while still wanting to maintain the gritty, slower-paced identity it had for three games prior, is uncertain.
Shadow Fall is a fine shooter, but it stops there. The experience stagnates, but the more negative connotation of that term shoudln’t be the conclusion; disappointingly, it never reaches a more thrilling sense of mastery or climax, but it never fails to deliver the tone it sets early on and its because of its promise in both gameplay and thematic presentation that its hard to not want more. Its augmentations to the standard formula of modern shooters hold some promise–mechanics which could’ve been better implemented had it more time in development, or if future installments continued to improve upon it.
Beyond being a somewhat faster take on the Killzone experience, Shadow Fall introduces an AI companion that can assist the player with a variety of actions in the form of a drone known as an “Owl.” This is mixed up a bit further in the campaign by a sniper companion that helps the main character get through Helghast territory after escape from imprisonment.
The Owl can attack and stun enemies, provide cover with a shield, revive the player (provided adrenaline packs are in your inventory), and transport the player via a zip line. The zip line, in fact, is the most promising yet disappointing addition as it tends to be useful in segments that might’ve otherwise been scripted sequences and isn’t always a guaranteed safe route. Given that Shadow Fall tries to encourage more stealthy gameplay, it would’ve been nice to have seen level design that accommodated this more.
Stealth is another interesting twist to the Killzone formula. As the protagonist is a “Shadow Marshal,” the game’s theme concerns that of roguish, black ops style play–yet the rarity of silenced weapons and reliable ways to evade and elude the enemy’s awareness, means that the best bet is to just treat it as you do every other shooter: run in and shoot the place up. It’s not that playing stealthfully presents a challenge, but more that it just doesn’t feel like the game was really designed for this, or that more time needed to be spent crafting level design and weaponry that fit this theme–it instead just exudes the spirit of “stealth” without comitting to it. Even the primary weapon the player is always equipped with is remarkably loud for a member of a unit that’s supposed to be an unseen killer. I can’t help but think that this is a missed opportunity; more thoughtfully designed levels and weaponry might’ve dramatically changed this experience for the better.
It’s worth mentioning that the method of selecting the Owl’s behavior involves the DualShock 4’s touchpad, and represents perhaps one of the more interesting uses of this controller’s feature, as it becomes a secondary directional pad engaged with through the use of swipes of the thumb. The experience is rarely as intrusive as, say, forced motion controls, and is a more thoughtful use of this controller’s feature than its typical splashy “pause” or “map” button use in other games.
While Shadow Fall doesn’t necessarily succeed with its attempts to modify the shooter experience, that it attempts to is what makes this an interesting game to check out. Guerrilla Games could’ve delivered a bare-bones, aim-down-sights-shoot-the-enemy experience, but they chose to be a bit more experimental; it doesn’t always work, and there are ways it becomes a wasted effort, but the thought of how these types of mechanics could add more versatility to a well-trodden genre is interesting to explore.
One area in which the Owl might’ve been improved would’ve been to give it some personality–this of course leads into Shadow Fall’s narrative presentation and thematic essence, which I’ll get to in a moment. Though it has some signature animations and robotic sounds, the Owl is otherwise a lifeless drone. While it may have been uncharacteristic by Killzone’s standards to make the Owl more akin to that of Destiny’s Ghost or perhaps like Doom’s Vega, perhaps a twist like this might’ve added more personality and charm to what is otherwise a pretty straightforward presentation that, like most Killzone games, relies on the characterization of its Helghast troopers and graphical fidelity to deliver personality.
Killzone is an interesting series to think about when considering the narrative and thematic nature of modern first-person shooters. Unlike Halo, or its sister-series on PlayStation, Resistance, Killzone is a story involving humans fighting humans in conflicts that don’t rely on hyper-advanced science fiction or fantasy concepts. It’s a series that’s never drunk on its own maguffin.
True enough, Killzone is set in the far future where faster-than-light travel is possible, and it involves some interesting weaponry and other concepts that exceed what we, in reality, know to be possible (Killzone 2‘s antagonists demonstrate an ability to use lightning as a targeted weapon and Killzone 3 sees the player get access to a weapon almost comparable to the BFG in Doom). The series, however, never involves ancient alien fortresses, parasitic alien lifeforms, or even advanced, super-soldier tropes. The main point of conflict between the Helghast and ISA (known as the VSA in Shadow Fall) centers around control over resources and what constitutes a people’s right to sovereignty. Shadow Fall’s plot concerns a struggle for control over a manufactured bio-weapon that in some cases gives off a kind of “Alien” vibe, but it treats this not as a central thing to obsess over, but more as just a way that these two forces are trying to kill each other–the conflict and those caught in between is what’s central. It literally could’ve been anything else–the point isn’t the weapon, but that weapons are still being made after so many years of bloodshed and conflict.
That’s not to suggest it necessarily offers any insight or bold statements here; it’s still mostly a game about shooting soldiers with glowing red eyes. But, unlike Call of Duty, it’s not using real-world conflicts as a backdrop and license to tell its own story which may distort the existing signifiers. Killzone’s Helghast are certainly reminiscent of many totalitarian regimes throughout history and the present day, and Shadow Fall’s use of a dividing wall between the Helghast and VSA settlements is one shade of science fiction away from the Berlin Wall, the Korean Demilitarized Zone, or even the Israeli West Bank barrier. The Berlin Wall in particular was somewhat of an inspiration for Guerrilla given their European location. But, importantly, it isn’t trying to directly emulate any of these things for the sake of topical entertainment.
The game doesn’t necessarily try to offer answers, however, to this kind of behavior we see manifest throughout history and our current realities–nor does it seem to be interested in winning any sort of notoriety for trying to do so, as was the case with Deus Ex: Mankind Divided‘s appropriated use of “apartheid” and “augmented lives matter.” It’s way above my pay grade to suggest whether or not Shadow Fall’s presentation of this issue is appropriate or not, but what I can observe is that it isn’t directly using a real-world signifiers as fodder for its fiction, and isn’t trying to claim that it has some answer to what to do in these situations. I don’t know if it’s appropriate to suggest it handles these themes more intelligently than it is to suggest that it certainly comes off as more mature or sober about them than other shooters tend to be.
This plays into something Killzone has always had in its periphery: which is that its red-eyed, fascist enemy isn’t a cut and dry bad guy. The “lore” of Killzone paints a very different image of the “good guy” force of the ISA. The long and short of it is that the Helghast were more or less forced off the planet of Vetka and pushed to live on the inhospitable planet of Helghan over disputes concerning the control of natural resources and the management of them. This is very dry stuff, (certainly in comparison to a plot like, for example, Halo) but it serves as the flashpoint for the Helghan people to develop an overly-hardened will to overthrow their oppressors, or at the very least to gain greater control over the situation they were forced into. Again, the parallels to history and contemporary struggles are obvious here, and any notion that the Helghast are a “different species” seems more to be the result of a rationalized form of racism than it is based in any kind of reality–as the Helghast are quite literally human beings whose biology has been affected by different environmental conditions–much like The Expanse’s “Belters.” It becomes an excuse, a way for those in power in this game to say “we hate them because they are literally the other.”
Shadow Fall reveals this more than any other Killzone game–especially where it concerns its main character. Lucas Kellen is a very forgettable personality–and in a way that plays into what makes this story work. Kellen is essentially adopted by the VSA military as his father was murdered by Helghast forces. Taken under the care of Thomas Sinclair, an agent of the VSA military who, over the course of the game, reveals the desire to eradicate the Helghast people from the face of the planet through literal genocide, Kellen is expected to do as he is told from childhood on, to become little more than the weapons he wields–he is quite literally asked what separates his own identity from the gun he holds toward the middle of the game. When he finally deviates from that identity, he is killed by the man who has tried to shape him into an unquestioning weapon. It suggests that he was never supposed to have a personality, he was never supposed to be a person.
Shadow Fall certainly seems to be invested in exploring what the effect of war and militarization has on a people, introducing it literally at the point of childhood for the protagonist as he looks out from his bedroom window to observe his entire world change, forced to leave behind his youth, the literal objects of his youth, toys, video games, the privacy of his childhood bedroom. He is shaped into a soldier, it seems, without much say of his own. Things simply happen to him and he accepts it because he has no power to do otherwise, and the player has no power either. We don’t even get a sense that Kellen is concerned with avenging his father’s death, merely that he has surrendered to the situation around him; the military gives him an identity because nothing else was around to do so, implying also that the military apparatus of the VSA took advantage of a vulnerability in him and likely others like him; he never seems to even empathize with Sinclair’s irrational and racist hatred of not merely the Helghan people, but becomes an agent of that hatred–up until the situation changes.
It is interesting to observe that it is the intrusion of a woman into Kellen’s life, a life defined mostly by men in charge, that a change is put into place. While Echo’s character could’ve deserved more development, and certainly could’ve been more of a factor in the gameplay (a short, mid-credits sequence has the player take control of her, but that’s it), she does represent a shift in the gendered tone of the game–which often involves masculine aggression in both the cutscenes and the gameplay. Even though the Helghast are under the rule of a woman herself, Hera Visari (the daughter of Scolar Visari, the previous “Autarch” of Helghan and the mother of Echo herself–though this connection seems to be more of a plot device to explain why the Helghast wouldn’t just execute an unruly soldier like Echo), the threat of the Helghast is actually revealed to be from Jorhan Stahl, who has survived the events of Killzone 3.
This isn’t to suggest that Echo might be some kind of feminist icon in first-person shooters, but I do believe it is important that she never falls into any kind of “damsel” tropes or romantic interests for Kellen or the player. She’s never someone that the player has to rescue–and limited segments where an area must be defended while Echo “hacks” an objective have more to do with game-design staples, and Echo can never actually die during these segments. In fact, Echo somewhat reverses these tropes by rescuing the player/protagonist half-way through the game and is the very reason that Kellen disobeys his orders and by extension, ends up foiling the mutually destructive interests of both the VSA and Helghast. Shadow Fall seems to be more about a woman looking to prevent what seems to be inevitable destruction and doing what she can to stop it than it is about a man with a gun who’s going to shoot his way to peace.
As is the case with its presentation of conflict and war, I don’t think it’s easy to make inherently positive conclusions about what Shadow Fall is doing with its characters. It is, however, undeniably doing something different with them and demonstrates that Killzone was and still is a place of serious potential when it comes to both gameplay and narrative in first-person shooter games. If Shadow Fall is to be the final Killzone game, this is, perhaps, a fitting way to say goodbye.
To play Killzone Shadow Fall in 2020 is to observe many of the characteristics that defined the birth of the eighth generation of consoles; it showcases an evolution in visual fidelity, while still demonstrating the centrality with which first-person shooters once held–and specifically first-person shooters of this variety, linear single-player campaigns followed up by indefinite multiplayer sessions (Shadow Fall’s multiplayer is still active as of early 2020 and games are still somewhat populated). Killzone never managed to permeate the consciousness of gaming culture the way Halo or Call of Duty did, yet even though it failed to do so, the presentation of this game is undeniably powerful and the promise of the narrative it was always trying to tell was one that was interested in telling a different war story, one not concerned with conservative portrayals of heroism through brute force and subjugation to military order, but that conflict and bloodshed are the unfortunate results of desperate attempts to control and shape society, the concentration of power in the hands of the few who wield the most of it.
Behind every bullet fired in a Killzone game might be the question as to whether or not this is the right way to solve this fictional world’s problem; the war that has been waged over multiple games continues because, it seems, the only way people are trying to solve it is to wage more war (and only the introduction of Echo begins to question that, but she too becomes another lethal instrument in Shadow Fall‘s story and conclusion)–but of course it being a first-person shooter, this is what it has to do as a product; is there any other way? A more meta way of viewing Killzone is to even suggest that the conflict that exists in its narrative exists because we have an appetite for this very product in our culture–that we desire portrayals of violence and warfare. If one listens very closely to what Killzone is demonstrating, we might even hear Liquid Snake’s voice from Metal Gear Solid, taunting us that we desire this experience and that it exists because we “enjoy all the killing, that’s why.”
Killzone Shadow Fall is widely available for the PlayStation 4 and can be easily found at a bargain. It has a limited edition steelbook collector’s case that seems to have been exclusive to Europe. Multiple eBay listings reveal that this item might not be terribly rare.