Killzone: Shadow Fall and the power of PlayStation 4

Guerrilla Games has revealed a new Killzone game alongside new PlayStation hardware before, and it didn’t go quite so well.

Where once we saw ‘target footage’ of what Killzone could be on PS3, at Sony’s PlayStation Meeting in February, we saw Guerrilla’s next gen shooter demoed on stage in real-time, with gameplay footage captured live and uploaded to Facebook there and then.

Mindful of what happened before, Guerrilla wanted to do it right this time around. Did this feel like redemption? “Absolutely right,” begins managing director and co-founder Hermen Hulst. “That was one thing where we went ‘Okay, next time around we’re going to be on a stage we’re going to make sure it’s real.’”

Guerrilla’s technical director Michiel Van Der Leeuw was similarly keen to remove any lingering doubts over the demo’s veracity. “We actually made a point of not even claiming it was real, it was as a matter of course that it was real,” he tells us. “And I think everybody was onboard with that, there was so much drive for people to make things real. We were working with central in London and the guys in Japan, fixing the firmware to make sure that the Facebook upload would work. It doesn’t get much more real than that.”

“We said ‘no back-up videos’ either,” continues Van Der Leeuw. “And we fixed three bugs in the last day that were very, very rare and only happened like once in a hundred playthroughs, but we knew that three of those bugs were in there. So theoretically, there was like a three in a hundred chance of a crash. I was very nervous seeing Stephen playing on stage and a lot of coders here in the Amsterdam office watching live-stream were also really, really nervous. But we made it through.”

Guerrilla will surely be pleased that the questions surrounding Killzone: Shadow Fall are about the game itself, rather than the authenticity of the reveal footage. So first of all, why Shadow Fall, rather than Killzone 4? “I think for context I like 1, 2 and 3, personally, but with Shadow Fall it’s a new platform, it is, in a way, a new start for the franchise with the new look and the new style of player character,” Hulst says. “I think the name now, as a Shadow Marshall operating in these shadows that are cast by this wall that’s separating the two factions… it just felt right to call it that.”

Shadow Fall’s live demo showed a brighter, more colourful Killzone than we’ve seen before. This partly reflects the greater power at Guerrilla’s disposal and a subtle shift Guerrilla’s approach to the series’ environments, says Van Der Leeuw. “One of the things we weren’t able to do [before] is on this scale create this vibrant, living city and then in typical Killzone style, of course, we wanted to have it come under attack. We wanted to introduce a few things that are different.”

“One is a new conflict, where in the past we took inspiration from World War I and World War II type conflicts, this very much is a cold war setting, so you saw the city divided by this wall. It looks different, our take on how we wanted to progress the franchise going into PS4 and also the player’s character. You’re now playing as a Shadow Marshall, part soldier, part spy. We wanted to really set the player up to now take on the powerful enemy properly.”

Studio director Hermen Hulst describes that setting, Vekta City, as the core of Killzone: Shadow Fall. “We have multiple environments, clearly, but this is a key part of it. We really liked the architecture of it. We certainly picked a setting that allowed us to show off things like what we can do with lighting and reflection and I guess that makes a difference. But most importantly, we just wanted to make something that was truly beautiful that shows off what our designers can do and what our artists can do.”

“When you have that contrast between this kind of beauty it shows you a world that truly is worth fighting for, and then you see that explosion and the nasty Helghast that arrive… I think that contrast is what we were after, to really juxtapose that nastiness with something that’s so beautifully designed.”

Guerrilla says it has thought carefully about how Vekta functions, right down to the city’s infrastructure. We ask whether the vast cityscape we saw flashing below us in the demo was part of the game, or just background scenery.  “Well, you’ll visit parts of the city, but it’s not like an open-world city that you’re flying over,” says Van Der Leeuw. “It is, in that case, made for that view and to give a sense of the world that you’re in. But you’ll visit parts of the city. I don’t think we should go into too much detail on which parts you’ll visit, because that might reveal a bit too much of the story. But you’ll go there and at the same time, whilst we don’t want to claim it’s going to be an open-world type game, we should emphasise that the spaces are much larger and you will visit some of them at a later stage. There’s a lot of space there.”

So does the game’s greater scope reflect greater ambition and shifting priorities at Guerrilla, or merely technological advancement? Van Der Leeuw says that “the drive and the reach for a larger environment has to do with more choice, more options, how you traverse being able to play a level in a different way, making it less corridor-y.”

Hulst, meanwhile, says it’s now much easier to build large environments than before. “It’s not like it was un-doable, it just took such a huge amount of effort to do it at the detail level that we strive for,” he says.

“I think the last time we visited Vekta was in Killzone 1 and you see the difference in how much better an environment like this comes out on the next generation. It’s enabling new stuff for us,” says Van Der Leeuw. “Climbing was not something we were able to do before. With the combat there’s now more choice, you can climb up and take the battleground in before you go in, so we’re trying to make it more intelligent, so you prepare yourself before you go in. All these things we take into consideration when designing a world.”

Hulst confirms to us that the demo was running at 30fps, before Van Der Leeuw elaborates on how Guerrilla is shifting all of that power inside PS4 around. “I think we were running on all the different cores for all the different systems, including AI and gameplay which we’ve never done before. We’ve never utilised the CPU power we’ve had like this. We had about sixty guys running around in the demo which is far over what we’ve been able to do before – that’s about three or four times more.”

“Animation networking quality was much higher, I think it’s just basically been proven that the amount of time it takes AI programmers to get their code up and running in parallel is so much easier that it just enables us to do much more. Of course we were optimising towards 30fps, making sure we didn’t drop a frame – or that we dropped a few frames but not very many – basically just making sure it ran smooth. And this is a launch title, we’ve just got new hardware and we weren’t using some of the hardware acceleration for stuff like audio at the time we did the demo, which we have now done. So I think there’s a lot more left in the system.”

“I think we’re stretching and upping in all of these areas and there are still trade-offs, but the trade-offs aren’t as constrained as what they were before,” adds Hulst. “That’s what I believe really creates a more compelling gameplay experience – you saw some games on current gen that had a lot of people on the screen, but in combination with the animation and the fidelity and the responsiveness, everything together, that will create that vibrant world. It’s that believable world that we’re after.”