Still Playing: Killzone Shadow Fall – why its disappointing AI is indicative of a wider malaise

Shadow Fall’s impressive technical feats are mostly visual, its enemy AI remaining firmly last-gen.

About halfway through Shadow Fall’s campaign, you and Echo, your NPC companion, hold down an elevated position at the end of a map. Echo has hacked a couple of mech walkers, and you’re tasked with directing their fire against a few of their own kind, which are slowly clunking their way towards you. While your robotic helpers reload, you fend off infantry with a sniper rifle. These grunts keep on coming, spawning endlessly at the far end of the arena, charging down the same strips of open ground. You snipe a handful, turn your attention to the walkers for a few moments, then repeat the process. The enemy troops are oblivious to the fact that they’re literally following in the footsteps of the dozens of their comrades whose heads you have popped off from across the map. They never learn.

When we talk about the best in videogame AI, we talk almost exclusively about old games. The 12-year-old Halo is still held up as a high-water mark of enemy behaviour; so is Monolith’s FEAR, which came out eight years ago. The former had a varied array of fixed AI routines to suit its mix of enemy types. Your foes were predictable, sure, but every encounter was different – a puzzle in need of a solution. Specific actions produced specific results: kill an Elite, for example, and Grunts fall back. FEAR’s AI was, by contrast, celebrated for its unpredictability, with enemies that adapted to situations like humans in multiplayer matches. These are case studies for excellent AI, but with every passing year shooters seem to edge further away from best-in-class behaviours – and Shadow Fall is a case in point.

Early Killzone games were praised for their AI. Guerrilla’s tech leads were frequent sights on the conference circuit, sharing how they’d squeezed believable enemy behaviour out of the tight confines of PlayStation 2 and 3. But Shadow Fall, with its endless stream of enemies practically lining themselves up in your rifle’s sights, feels like a step backwards, despite the greater processing power that PS4 affords. When given the choice between a handful of smart enemies and wave after wave of dumb ones, Guerrilla chooses the latter option every time.

“You have to wonder why the Helghast bother; they’re too dumb to win a war,” we said in our Killzone Shadow Fall review.

And they really are dumb. One of the first Killzone’s AI pillars was the way enemies evaluated their positions and moved tactically from one piece of cover to another. One of Shadow Fall’s most frequent sights, however, is an opponent leaving safe cover and running in front of your reticle. Gone, too, are the days when your foes would pin you down with suppressing fire, allowing their comrades to flank or rush your position. Now they shoot you once and then stop, politely giving you a second or two to work out where you’ve been shot from.

It’s easy to see why improvement in enemy AI has stagnated. It’s a resource-hungry process, but unlike hi-res textures and fancy visual effects, it can’t be sold in screenshots. Shadow Fall’s broader level design may play a part, too: flanking is easier to implement, and more of a threat to players, in a network of corridors than it is in the open. But Shadow Fall is far from the only guilty party – the trend reaches back much further than the launch of Xbox One and PS4. The longer it continues, the more it invites the question of whether singleplayer shooters are becoming dumber by design.

When the first Killzone was announced, it was both positioned and interpreted as PlayStation’s answer to Xbox’s Halo. Little wonder, then, that AI was the focus: it needed to be seen to be in step with the competition, and AI was Halo’s USP. These days, Call Of Duty is king, and its success has nothing to do with believable, intelligent enemy behaviour. The biggest game in town is the dumbest shooter on the market, one of endlessly respawning waves of brainless enemies. They shoot once, then stop. They run from cover to cover in plain sight, with no regard for their own safety, in order to let you know where they are. COD’s challenge comes not from your enemies’ intelligence, but their number. The parallels between it and Shadow Fall are obvious.

We said in our Call Of Duty: Ghosts review that its singleplayer AI “spends the first two-thirds of the game politely shooting you once to let you know where the threat is, and the final hour dropping cooked grenades on your toenails.”

But Killzone is misguided in following this leader. COD’s functional AI serves as a gentle introduction to its mechanics and as a warm-up for the hundreds of hours Infinity Ward or Treyarch expect you to spend in the multiplayer game. It’s teaching you core skills: how to quickly identify where you were just shot from and how to react speedily to an enemy running across open ground. You learn that you shouldn’t get cocky when outnumbered, that you must retreat behind cover to let your health recharge when hit, and that you need to get up and move quickly when a grenade falls at your feet. It is a six-hour multiplayer tutorial dressed up as a blockbuster campaign, and is entirely in keeping with the pace of the multiplayer, where encounters are brief and he who shoots first typically emerges victorious. Killzone, with its slower pace, requires a different approach, but its singleplayer AI encourages the same sort of fire-and-forget tactics. You just have to hold the trigger down longer to account for bigger health bars.

Perhaps it’s simply a matter of focus. Pre-existing AI routines are no good in a game that eschews the maze of corridors of yore in favour of more open level design, that expands the player’s tactical options with the OWL drone and that at least tries to make stealth a viable option – and all while setting a visual benchmark for a new generation of console hardware. With all that going on, perhaps it’s little wonder the Helghast are so easily confused. But it’s another instance of FPS AI being sacrificed at the altar of scope and spectacle.