Let’s get the awkward bit out of the way, Killzone: Shadow Fall reminds us of Halo. Rather a lot.
It’s mostly the grass. Two generations ago we welcomed a new console by staring agog at the crisp grass textures of Bungie’s ringworld, and now we’re doing it again, staring wide-eyed at the lush foliage of a quasi-open forested environment, the downed wreckage of an allied craft sending up a smoke plume in the distance and multiple objectives sprinkled across the valley beneath our feet. That the set-up of our Shadow Fall demo recalls the second level of Bungie’s game might be a coincidence, but a welcome one all the same.
The game itself doesn’t quite offer the reactive sandbox of AI, explosions and physics enabled objects you see in Halo – it’s a slower, more methodical shooter. But still, Killzone: Shadow Fall equips players with a variety of tools and enables a host of approaches – and lets events spool naturally from the players’ own decisions. Watching others play through the same demo we see the same skirmishes play out in a host of different ways, and that’s a reflection of the varied skillset at their disposal.
One new toy seems designed to make traversing these opened-out environments easier. Swipe right on the Dual Shock 4’s touchpad (or alternatively, you could do the easier-but-less-novel thing and call up a selection wheel) and you can aim and activate a zipline, which we use in this instance to glide from our rocky perch all the way onto a guard tower for and instantly takedown the Helghast soldier manning it. At this points, our options genuinely open out. There’s a downed ship we need to reach as a primary objective, but if we assault a Helghast base nearby we’ll be able to shut off the Helghast’s alarm system, ensuring they can’t call in back-up if we’re spotted.
We don’t want the Helghast calling in back-up because Guerrilla’s orange-faced Space Nazis have become particularly lethal in the thirty intervening years between Killzone 3 and Shadow Fall. We’re not sure what difficulty we’re playing on, but both times the Helghast spot us and reach a nearby alarm terminal we’re barely able to survive the wave of reinforcements that follows. They’re aggressive and terribly keen on surrounding you when alerted to your presence. They’re just tough enough, in fact, to ensure you make use of every last one of Shadow Fall’s tricks.
As well as the zipline, which can be presumably be used for quick getaways as well as advantageous positioning, Shadow Fall offers the series’ traditional energy shield – now divorced from its previous role as a secondary fire function and able to be summoned at will – as well as a clever take on the increasingly ubiquitous X-Ray vision that ranks up there with Gears Of War’s active reload as a clever subversion of a familiar trope. Hold up on the d-pad at any time in Shadow Fall and you’ll get a sonar-aided glimpse of nearby Helghast’s locations, who appear as orange-coloured silhouettes, even through walls. But hold the button for a fraction too long and they’ll be alerted to your presence. It’s a finely crafted risk-reward mechanic that can easily turn the moment in which you plan an assault into the moment where everything goes wrong.
Many of these abilities are technically functions of your OWL, a floating little droid which can be used to distract and attack enemies and interact with mission objectives from afar. Its presence over that of a traditional AI companion gives the player more direct control, and adds another tactical layer to combat: as well as simply using the floating bot to bolster your own firepower, you can send the droid out to draw enemies’ fire while sneaking round to flank them, or use its EMP stun attack to disrupt nearby electronics.
For all the changes, one thing Killzone retains is its unusual sense of weight. Your character moves slowly – almost sluggishly, in fact – which ties in with the general lethality of the Helghast patrols to ensure we’re extra-careful in planning our route through the valley. The gunplay itself feels as savage as ever: Guerilla’s knack for fashioning cruel-looking, brutal sounding weaponry remains unchanged, as does the studio’s near-perfect feeling combination of weapon feedback, hit detection and sound and splatter effects. Shooting things in Killzone: Shadow Fall feels weighty and gratifying, while the increased focussed on stealth gives encounters a tension and drama easily lost in the previous game’s endless assaults.
Sneaking through this wide open valley, stealthily taking down Helghan en route while Ziplining from guard tower to guard tower, we find ourselves outside a control room with a console inside that must be shut down. Our gun’s alternate fire mode (a charged sniper blast) could be used to pick off the guards from afar, but it requires an instant reload and will bring nearby guards running. We decide to find out exactly how many guards are inside the structure via the sonar-vision mode. Naturally, we end up holding the button for too long and alert the squad of (quite numerous, it turns out) soldiers inside.
Sending our OWL to disable the alarm system, we rush from our exposed position on the hillside into the structure itself, taking cover beneath a stairwell and deploying our shield to protect our exposed right flank. From this position, we use grenades to keep the Helghast at bay while waiting for the OWL to return. When our floating droid returns to active duty, we use it to ambush any soldiers coming down the stairwell above us while concentrating fire on the enemies outside. It’s a brief, intense battle, requiring thoughtful use of our available tools.
Plenty of Shadow Fall’s battles will take place in tighter environments, but from our limited time with the game it seems these opened-out environments and new abilities have given the series’ always-crisp gunplay a sense of tactical context. Shadow Fall doesn’t threaten to upturn notions of what an FPS should be, but it looks like enough a departure for the Guerrilla’s franchise to justify that bright, colourful makeover.