Sadly, while that scope is exploited, it’s not always exploited enough. Having hit you with a taste of the future, Shadow Fall keeps on retreating into the past and a more restrictive, scripted approach. This isn’t necessarily a disaster – each level has a different feel, there are sequences on abandoned starships and in grimy Helghast prisons, and all the set piece battles you’d expect are there. The Helghast can be surprisingly tricky adversaries, doing their best to seek you when you’re hiding or outflank you when you’re cowering behind a barricade, and there’s just enough risk and tension to make each skirmish engaging.
Some sequences even try for a departure from the norm, rendering you defenceless and reliant on support from an accomplice, or giving you a means to control tiny crawling drones. Yet there always seems to be a tension between wanting to open things up yet not wanting to lose control, so that you seem constrained as to where you can use your gadgets and what you can do with them, or even where you can go.
In the meantime, some of what made Killzone unique has been lost. The secret agent guise and a change of aesthetic means that Shadow Fall can feel more generic than, say, Killzone 2, and while the Helghast are still there, goggles a-glowing and thuggish Brit accents all in place, they sometimes look a little lost away from their totalitarian architecture and sci-fi Stalinist décor. It’s no coincidence that Shadow Fall is at its most atmospheric when you’re deep in Helghast territory, or where Helghast shock troops erupt into the heart of Vektan culture. Though Shadow Fall wants you to sympathise with the enemy, it hasn’t entirely forgotten what made them such a great enemy in the first place.
It’s frustrating. Shadow Fall could have been the game that defined the FPS for a new console generation, but it hasn’t got the courage of its convictions, and in the end that holds it back. You’re left with an always solid, often brilliant shooter where some levels drag on after the ideas fuelling them have run dry. It’s big, it’s beautiful, but it’s nowhere near bold enough.
Still, at least it has the multiplayer to fall back on, which was the best thing about Killzone 3. The crux of the online action is the Warzone mode, where two teams are deployed on a map, and then the game cycles through different game modes under the guise of a commander dishing out objectives. It’s good, well-paced and nicely-balanced, with three classes that feel different and complementary and a selection of well-designed maps. You can play with bots while you get up to speed, and it’s hugely customisable. You can create your own custom Warzones, removing the game modes you don’t like, restricting classes or equipment or nailing the game down to a subset of the maps.
It’s slightly disappointing that the fundamentals haven’t moved on much since KIllzone 3, and it’s a struggle to get too worked up about 24-player team deathmatch on a console where you can play 64-player Conquest maps in Battlefield 4. Yet Shadow Fall still has some great weapons and some quirky gadgets and abilities, including recon drones, ziplines, cloaking devices and turrets, and the great thing about Warzone is that the ever-changing objectives keep the experience fresh, so you never get stuck into chokepoint-focused wars of attrition. If Shadow Fall doesn’t rewrite the online gaming rulebook, it gives the community enough stuff to have a good time with, and the tools to craft their own great variations.
Launch titles nearly always disappoint, and the negative way of looking at things is that Killzone: Shadow Fall doesn’t buck the trend. For all its stunning visuals and its attempts to rebuild Killzone as a more open and strategic action game, it doesn’t quite go far enough. Yet there’s still a solid single-player campaign with a handful of fantastic levels, and the multiplayer is fast-paced, thrilling and easy to customise to your own tastes. Is Killzone: Shadow Fall the PS4’s killer app? Not quite, but is it a launch game worth getting? Definitely.