Thirty years after the destruction of Helghan in Killzone 3, the planet of Vekta is partitioned right across the middle, with half going to refugees to form New Helghan, a state which collapsed under the Vektan half's sanctions and has, like planet Helghan before it, fallen into poverty and militarism. The early parts of the game set the player up for a standard KZ story about the noble VSA (former ISA) and the morally bankrupt Helghast. However, midway through the game, you're introduced to just how horrific life on the New Helghan side is. Depicting the squalor and lack of basic necessities on the other side, the hesitance in Helghast Chancellor Visari, and the unrelenting racism of Vektan politics, Guerrilla Games managed to do something that has eluded them for the past three games - they've made the Helghast human and brought the Vektans down from the ridiculous pedestal they were sitting on. While the story goes through familiar beats, it never feels as forced as many other games with similar plots. Tom Clancy, this isn't. Even the graphics serve to tell the narrative of this fatally flawed set of nations, with the idyllic, paradise of Vekta and its mostly ignorant, upper-middle-class citizenry routinely contrasted with the grimy, rusted hell of New Helghan, where people are often gaunt, sick and malnourished. The story of one side keeping everything for itself and leaving the other to rot is effectively conveyed through the incredible visuals without the lazy wholesale vilification of the more privileged side that often haunts stories like this.
While the story grows and evolves from what is expected, the gameplay remains mostly what has been seen in Killzone games before. Those looking for quick, run'n'gun shooting should look elsewhere: the action is much more deliberate, even compared to Killzones past. Especially at higher difficulties, you'll be spending as much time setting up laser trip-mines, picking people off at a distance and sneaking about as gunning enemies down in a blaze of glory. The last stage is especially punishing, but serves as a perfect cap, leaving players gasping for more.
The biggest addition, the drone buddy players have for most missions, could have been better utilized. There are just too few places where zip-lining is needed, there's often more than enough natural cover to go around, and shielded enemies don't show up until the last third of the game, leaving the drone relegated to support gunner and hacking tool for much of the campaign. Even the attack mode isn't really needed until near the end if you're playing on lower difficulties. That said, what use it has leaves the imagination wondering what's in store for future installments of the series.
As good as the single player is, however, the multi-player soars in this game. The main offering is Warzone, a smorgasbord of various game play modes wrapped up into a single match, switching off at five-minute intervals. Constantly switching to and from modes like team deathmatch, neutral CTF, domination and others keeps the action fresh and makes it harder to be bored mid-game. The maps are also very intelligently designed. They're not so large as to leave players with nothing to do for long stretches like Battlefield, nor are they so small that you're killed almost immediately after spawning half the time (unless you spawn at a support player's poorly-placed spawn beacon, but that's another issue). Instead, the maps are filled to the brim with nooks and crannies, and the objectives are spread out such that you'll be visiting most of the map by the time a full Warzone is completed.
Most refreshing, the unlock system is actually not weighted to favor veterans at the expense of newcomers. All the weapons and abilities for each class are unlocked off the bat, so players are instead really only looking to unlock attachments and improvements. Instead of a generic EXP system that requires already being God's gift to murder to get anything, sensible challenges are placed as goals for unlocking upgrades: A support character's revive ability takes less time to cool down between revives the more it's used, or a spawn beacon will last longer the more people spawn from it, or a set number of headshots will unlock a scope. It's a highly intelligent system that helps to make players feel like they're actually getting better, rather than just filling up EXP bars.
Launch games tend to get a bad rap, and often it's deserved. They're usually lacking features taken for granted in other games, and have technical issues up the wazoo, in addition to being short and shallow. However, Killzone: Shadow Fall is none of these things. It's a fun, challenging and meaty title that would be well worth any PS4-owning adrenaline junkie's time, just different enough so as not to feel like the game's just going through the motions.