Clarity is an interesting thing, having many facets in life as well as games. In the latter, its things like what to do and where to go, the UI presenting all the information you need in as clear a fashion as possible, what each weapon does (not just kill people), what happens in the story and the character motivations and thoughts. This is not an exhaustive list either, so its a shame that Killzone: Shadow fall does very little of any of them, but it sure looks pretty.
The latest game from series creator Guerrilla Games, Shadow Fall finds the two factions at the centre of the mythology, the Vektans and the Helghast, now living on the same planet, since the Helghast homeworld was all but destroyed. What this should provide is a tense story where everything you do could make the war erupt in a big way at any moment, where loyalties are tested and both factions come to an uneasy truce. This is not the case.
To be fair, the game does start with the uneasy truce. A massive wall divides the Vektan half of the city from the Helghast half and for obvious reasons this proves problematic. The character you play was removed from the Helghast section when he was a child, resulting in his father being killed in front of him. A man named Sinclair takes you in, and shockingly you end up in the military as a shadow marshall. Exactly what that means is totally unclear, I think it is some kind of special forces, but since there is only one, I think, I am not sure.
The game from a mechanics standpoint works fine, as competent a game as any Killzone before it. There is a weight to the movement rarely present in other titles, and it certainly gives it that distinctive Killzone feel. The ability to scan your environment to see enemies through walls and plan out your next move is a welcome one, and becomes invaluable later on.
A big addition to the game is the OWL. This device is a small drone that lives on your back, and when ordered it can attack, fire an EMP pulse, shoot a zip line or create a shield. It is actually kind great, because it gives you back up when you need it and varies your tactical options in a combat situation. It also revives you if you go down, assuming you have an adrenaline pack in your inventory. That can get annoying, as the combat can get hectic and you can easily forgot to find an one. Since you can only carry two at a time, you can quickly run out and it makes the game feel really unfair in spots.
Clarity, as I talked about at the start, is in short supply during the campaign though. There were multiple occasions where hitting the objectives button will tell what you need to do, but not show you where that objective is. A lot of the time, mission critical text will get lost because its colour is similar to the ground you're looking at. I had a couple of weapons where the alt fire mode wouldn’t work because I had no idea what it did, and it was a couple of chapters later that I finally figured it out.
Story segments are just as muddled and lack any kind of clarity. It revolves around a biological weapon that will target only Helgan’s, and you have to stop it cause that is what is right. I think anyway, character motivations are sketchy at best, but having said that there are sparks of a decent story running throughout the single player campaign.
It’s a universe where the underlying reasons for the war have become kinda lost, and it is just expected that the Vektans and the Helghast are at each others throats. There are a few instances where the hatred that is so ingrained into this conflict could turn the story into something special, an emotional journey where the very nature of the war is looked at, and just who is the ‘bad guy’ out of the two factions.
Those sparks fade quickly though, and the campaign becomes boring, almost to the point of mediocre. The environments you fight through are varied and quite big, but that size provides little reason to explore aside from collectibles and there are various times were enemies seem to respawn from nowhere, but that is not the games most egregious fault by a long shot. The story is almost inexcusably bad and the lack of clarity in some spots just creates frustration for the player.
I had hoped that the multiplayer would be the saving grace of Shadow Fall. Previous games in the franchise have been excellent in this area, and provided an interesting distraction to the fast paced and brutally challenging nature of similar games. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case and while all my online experiences were silky smooth and worked well from a technical standpoint, I just found it boring.
The brilliance of similar games is that you are constantly getting feedback on how you are doing, what you are working towards. When you level up, you know, right then and there and it provides this little endorphin rush that spurs you on. Killzone doesn’t have that, in fact, it was not clear that I was even gaining any kind of experience half the time, let alone what that experience was getting me. I played for several hours, and as far as I can tell I have yet to level up. That is bad, because it keeps telling me I have moved towards some accolades, but doesn’t tell me what they are, what they do or unlock and without digging down into the menus I don't have any idea how to complete them.
Its a poor implementation of a system that should keep you wanting to come back for more, to keep playing for that next level, that next weapon or upgrade, but you never get that feedback loop, and it call comes back to clarity. Without a clear path to follow for leveling up or unlocking new kit, you get bored quick, and end up putting the controller down, never to pick it up again for another round of Warzone.
Console launch titles, generally speaking, aren’t great. While Killzone: Shadow Fall provides a brilliant showcase for how pretty the PS4 can make games, the gameplay simply isn’t there to back it up, and the story is just dire from start to finish despite having the potential to weave an interesting tale. It’s a shame, but if you want to show how pretty your new console can make things look, you can do a lot worse.