Saturday 29 November 2014

Pile of Shame - Killzone: Shadow Fall

The current generation of console has now completed the transition from being referred to as the "next gen". While PC games have been showing off "FullHD" 1080p and beyond for a while, consoles have now caught up, at least sometimes. Hardware prices have dropped from £430 and £350 at launch (which in the UK meant the Xbox One, due to exchange rate differences since 2006, released at a higher sticker price than the PlayStation 3) to sales around £300 with one or two free retail games a year after the PS4 released. 12 months of PlayStation Plus for those who own a PS3 and/or Vita have pumped up the number of titles you can play for free on the PS4 and is now extending to retail games as part of the Instant Game Collection. At the same time, used and sale prices on games mean you can pick up retail titles that cost no more than the previous generation (this is a UK thing, our SRPs for games are sky high but after the first year of a console's lifespan the retailers fights for volume and no one charges the SRP; older stock is shifted at heavy discounts). Even as a primarily PC user (playing games on that platform since the '80s), it's an ok time to follow the early adopters and check out some of the console exclusives. The first title I've found something to say about is Killzone: Shadow Fall.

You open up with the weakness of the (otherwise great) tech on display. The game has a slight issue with pacing of dialogue so sometimes actors will stall between sentences and you get a beat too much silence. The opening level is full of it, although later there are some longer pauses, much worse than the open. David Harewood is doing an outstanding job (and the facial capture isn't the best you've ever seen but is about where you expect for near-photorealism - desperately trying to get out of that uncanny valley) so it's a bit of a shame the game adds a rather extended *beat* between sentences here and there for no good reason.

For that first level it's a kid walking simulator and the game does an ok job of giving you a guided tour of how the game controls and introducing the pivotal event for the player and the world. Years before the main story, you see the rain-soaked world about to be split in two, with the blue palette you'll later associate with the faction you fight for. Tutorials that double as world-setting are pretty standard but it certainly beats a movie telling you what happened.

The story gets more heavy-handed as it goes on (and it doesn't start off the most subtle as it kills your father in front of you) but it's a story of military espionage between civilizations on the brink of war two decades after a massive conflict. You know what to expect with "maybe we are the monster" and "war is bad for everyone". The voice work is consistently good, even when the lines aren't always. But it's better than most military shooter game plots and limits the "Hooah!" chanting to bad guys & their pawns following blind nationalism to it's genocidal conclusions. By the end everyone is fucked and everything is broken but you've been to lots of places to get there.

Cut to years after the first level, the child is now a soldier. You walk out into an open, broad, forested area filled with a massive dam and crawling with outposts, patrols, and lots of chances to use stealth and your dynamic zip-line traversal to get to lower locations. It almost feels like they should have added in a prone mode to crawl around, making sure not to get caught out by patrols or roaming snipers. The objectives are mostly linear but your path certainly doesn't have to be and the entire map can have enemies arriving into it with dropships when an enemy manages to reach an alarm station. Take on a group of three foes and two hold you down while the 3rd runs. Now you've got to find a terminal to babysit as your drone hacks the alarm off to stop reinforcements coming in.

It's a developed system of alarms that have to be switched off to avoid being totally overrun if you're found, stealth movement, and an "ear to the ground" scanner to track patrols (and see if someone's waiting the other side of that door when you're inside). In the same way that Gears of War put a minigame into reloads, Killzone offers the pulse scanner as an ever expanding sphere that will overload if you hold it down too long. Every scan is a judgement of how far away you want to be given second sight vs holding it down too long and alerting everyone in the vicinity to your exact location.

Some of this game is a corridor F.P.S. but mainly when you end up fighting in more enclosed spaces, I get memories of F.E.A.R. from the way fights develop around blocking lines and small loops in combat arenas given the veneer of believable structures. The whiteboxes for several arenas in most levels have clearly been tuned to give a challenge at the Hard difficulty level before being converted into an interesting setting to look at once you're done shooting.

The actual moment to moment combat is good. The weapon selection is varied with weapons having alt modes to give you a bit more range in what you're carrying than just the two slots, because that lightning sniper rifle is also an assault rifle in the other mode. Push the sensitivity up to 70% and you can actually turn round decently while those DS4 sticks show off how good they are, you move so precisely when you push them slightly - they're certainly more than the equal of 360 sticks for shooters. When you need to fight it feels good. The FoV is too narrow for my preference but you get used to it after a while. That's probably a rather PC-centric thing to complain about as it's no worse than other console shooters, but I'd love a slider to give it a bit of a nudge out.

The third mission finds you launched into space, so you're now in quiet Dead Space environments. This is where I got the F.E.A.R. starting to creep into the feel of the gunplay and encounter design. Lots of down-time between combat where you're alone interspersed with combat arenas. Early on you get taught that moving through the ship is facilitated by putting your gun down and carrying power rods to turn on or off stuff as the place it coming apart. They could have done more with that, especially as it gets introduced by a rather boring jump-puzzle around a reactor you're spinning up (causing bits of it to literally spin and so force you to time your jumps), but this creates some alternative paths through the space station for emergent storytelling and existential dread between the combat encounters.

The forth mission starts with the big explosion they showed in the pre-release trailers. After the plot progression you get some combat where you learn that walls can be things to put bullets through and then follow with your body (taught with glass walls). The level goes on, via some less than great train dodging and shooting, to a hostage rescue situation where you're making an assault (where you pick the entry point) on a well-fortified civilian penthouse using a shotgun that goes through the drywall. That Rainbow Six game looks more impressive, but this is good stuff. The pulse scanner that allows you to see enemies through walls makes this level a joy, showing how the core tools get reused throughout different encounters as the game keeps on offering fresh ideas rather than an endless chain of mans to shoot.

Each mission is a fresh look, from blue Vekta rising up to the white and oranges of the rooftop penthouses to the green forests to the red of New Helghan. The gameplay variety is what you'd expect from a team who have learnt the lessons of Half-Life 2, so they mix up the look and what you're doing with enough tools to keep that from being just static set-piece content. Sometimes the variety is a bit "CoD gimmick gameplay" in places but it generally falls on the right side of that divide. The least exciting activity was an Aaaaaa! section, but it did teach me that my preference for inverted sticks doesn't extend to that activity. The wingsuits and the shooting both kept my console standard for inverted (thinking about the stick as the neck of the protagonist to manipulate) but give me a drop and I go back to my uninverted mouse preference of a virtual cursor (stick as eyes to lead). At least the game made it painless to switch controls on the fly for the few drop sections over the hours of varied mission.

I'm no console shooter expert but the variety in the chapters and engagement of the combat arenas held my attention and encouraged me to play through on Hard. This does mean the game desperately lacks a Legendary because Hard is as much as I can possibly handle but people better than me need to be challenged with less health & enemies being more of a sponge. Each mission is divided into sections; each section counts death as falling to the ground with no health (with adrenaline packs in your inventory you can recover from this and get back up so you don't necessarily have to go back to the nearest, well-spaced, checkpoint) and this is tallied in the chapter select screen. This opens up a difficulty option to play the game on a "no deaths" Hard run, which enforces mastery of each combat arena. To succeed in this mode, adrenaline packs should be popped before you fall to the ground to trigger a slo-mo last stand (more memories of F.E.A.R. emerge) that doesn't count as a death but if you take more damage you will go back to a checkpoint (with a death on your counter) rather than being recovered. You can only carry limited packs but the levels are reasonably happy to hand them out every few arena blocks.

I played through each mission on Hard to get a feel for the level and master each encounter using the plentiful checkpoints and possibly falling to the ground but taking an instant recovery when I had adrenaline packs to spare. Then I went back to any sections I hadn't completed with no death to do them again, chasing that no death Hard run. Lots of learning a section using my drone to distract the enemies, refining how to go through it and where I actually should start combat, and finally getting the plan right to execute perfectly. Anyone who tried the CoD achievement Mile High Club knows how this can feel to know the exact plan and then pull it off. Killzone never got that hard, but I refer to my previous statement on my lack of top tier skills and how this game really needs a higher difficulty for those better than me, but that's not an issue for my enjoyment as Hard was just the challenge I wanted. Good level design and reactive AI & enemy waves/events make you want to repeatedly refine your play in those arenas so it's not repetitive - it's the game if you decide to opt into this difficulty.

The combination of developed stealth mechanics and rewarding combat ensure each arena is rather more varied as you decide where to first be seen compared to typical F.E.A.R. encounters where your choice of initiating was somewhat more limited. When you're learning there are so many tools to let you avoid redoing content you've already perfected (revival consumables, good checkpointing) and then you move onto doing the no deaths run and even the reload chapter load time is really short if you mess up a run. The chapter select made this all very painless to know what you've got to do and what you've already completed. Fans of Hardcore modes might try a second playthrough of the game doing it as one "continuous no death" run but I've not got the skills to pull that off.

As the missions continue, the palettes keep on shifting both visually and in gameplay terms. Some of these opening mission styles are revisited over the ten levels but you'll also find yourself skulking around inhabited areas; crossing the great divide between the city; and taking on the role of spotter, sniper, massive bot killer, and interloper. I find it hard to reconcile the launch reviews with what I played. The one exception to my enjoyment would be a boss on the ninth level that was tricky to work out how to beat without reaching for a revival item on Hard. I'd figured out a style that almost consistently worked except for when it killed me by what seemed like bad luck. It's under a 5 minute fight if my method actually worked but it took a while to figure out how to pull it off and then 20 minutes before I got a run that actually worked. With revives then it's easy enough on Hard once you've figure out what to do and what specials you've got to nullify but, when trying to do it without revives for a no death run, all that falls away. It was the one point I considered giving up on this extra difficulty constraint but at least the chapter markers meant it could be done in isolation.

Killzone: Shadow Fall burns a bit of variety towards the end but is perfectly even in the serviceable story to bring you to the close (no big twist, you can easily speculate on how it ends by about a third through the game but it does dodge some potentially really clichéd endings in favour of something that crystallises the message of the writers). That's not to say it lacks variety in the later stages, this is a child of Half-Life 2 (in quite a few ways really) and that includes mixing things up on both scales (section to section and level to level both keep you engaged by never leaving you doing one task over and over). It's not a corridor shooter as it does stealth mechanics with alerts (guard a point for some seconds to turn the alarm off otherwise infinite reinforcements will plague your day for letting an AI run to an alarm button - the thing you also use to turn it off) and there's more F.E.A.R. arena blocks than corridors but some of it does narrow down a bit for stretches of combat on some levels.

If PS4 owners (who like a bit of stealth shooting) are still on the fence about this, I'd say go track down one of those cheap copies now out there. It doesn't hurt that this is a very decent looker, especially in places as you jump around a world of endless reflections and bright lighting reflected off painted walls to shade each area. It's certainly pushing hard to match what you'd expect from a good PC and with some nice direction behind the technical achievement and the realisation of a variety in visuals goes will with varied gameplay. It's probably 7-10 hours of good HL2-derived shooting; or you can opt for 9-12 hours of FEAR-quality encounters by going to Hard; or 12-30 hours of iteration, refinement, and achievement if you try no death Hard (you can probably work out if you're into the gameplay enough to try this by starting out just playing on Hard).

I pinged the trophies for Hard Completed, (hidden) Last Level Completed, No Deaths, & (hidden) Final Level Total Stealth as I completed it for the first time. I note there is also a (hidden) trophy for killing 20 guards in the final level that is really rare, 1.5%, vs 8% who get Total Stealth and 23% who complete the game (3% on Hard, 0.5% No Deaths). So the quarter of people who get to the end of the game seem to be significantly more likely to be stealth rather than bloody for this final (stealth) mission. They have understood what this game is offering, and it's not a mindless shooter that some reviewers may have gone into the game expecting.

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