If it were possible to punch a video game in the face, Killzone: Shadow Fall would be sporting a giant shiner right about now. The first-person shooter – one of the exclusive launch titles for the PlayStation 4 console – will test the patience of the most excited new PS4 owner.
Shadow Fall is needlessly difficult – and the only reward for overcoming its toughest sections is a sense of gratitude that you'll never have to do them again. Until, of course, the next hard part comes along. Long load times, audio sync problems and a repetitive musical score just add to its sins. The story often strands the player without any clear idea of what to do next, or at its worst, it forces you to replay certain difficult sections over and over because of this lack of instruction.
Things don't start out so dire. The PS4's stunning visuals are immediately seductive – rain-slicked metal surfaces reflect nearby lights in ways that are incredibly real. The night-time skies are brilliant and immensely deep; gazing at them evokes wonder of a much larger, beckoning universe. Distant cityscapes, when viewed from a cliff-top, stretch on seemingly forever.
The graphics do much to add believability to the dystopian science-fiction future of the Killzone universe over the course of the game's 10-hour-or-so campaign mode. Shadow Fall is set 20 years after the events of Killzone 3, in which the benevolent planet of Vekta triumphed over the Helghast, a militaristic people who are essentially space fascists in dress, order and mannerisms.
With the planet of Helghan destroyed, its survivors have now somehow managed to take over half of Vekta, with the native population there either evicted or enslaved. A giant wall has been erected to separate the two populations.
Players take on the role of Lucas Kellan, a so-called Shadow Marshall who is tasked with liberating the Helghan side of the planet. No sooner does he go behind enemy lines than he encounters Echo, a rival spy, whereupon the two eventually develop a sort of Romeo-and-Juliet plan to unite the two peoples. From there, betrayals happen, old villains resurface and another sequel is set up.
The Killzone franchise has done a good job of using tone to distinguish itself from other FPS games, and Shadow Fall continues in this vein. There is a sense of oppressive dread that permeates the game. The Helghans themselves are cold and faceless behind their orange-eyed visors and they subscribe to the same sort of iconography and propaganda used by fascists here in the real world.
Everywhere Kellan goes, jingoism and psychological oppression drones from nearby loudspeakers. Faceless voices rally Helghan troops with encouragement – "You will succeed in everything you do" – while at the same time they disparage Vektan refugees, telling them their plight is hopeless.
The soundtrack contributes to this cold, authoritarian environment. It is almost always a downbeat dirge, with celebratory flourishes – even after Kellan emerges victorious from a particularly tough battle – nowhere to be found.
It establishes a tone, but then it goes overboard. Pumping dread at the player works if it's countered with the occasional moment of joy or levity, but there's none of that in Shadow Fall. Just unrelenting, unforgiving dourness.
Towards the end of the story, I noticed this was having a major effect on my enjoyment of the game. The same repeating dirge pounded on as I tried and repeatedly failed one big boss battle. Having to do it over and over, with that same depressing music on a never-ending loop, made me want to throw the controller at the screen.
Worse still was one section in which Kellan free falls through a crumbling city stuck in a gravity well. The game doesn't give you the faintest clue as to what you're supposed to do and the controls are finicky. I tried it more than 30 times before getting by (that is not hyperbole, I may be undercounting). While it's true that many of today's games are too easy, this was ridiculous.
That lack of instruction permeates the game. Pressing up on the D-pad ostensibly activates an objective marker during missions, but it's so small that it's hard to see on screen, especially with all the other high-resolution eye candy going on. Again, many first-person shooters feel overly linear in how they hold the player's hand through the game, but this is another case of going overboard in the other direction.
I also found the enemies to be abnormally smart, even though I was playing on medium difficulty. They would somehow always detect me, even though I was certain I was well hidden, and they would seemingly spawn out of nowhere, which in some situations resulted in unfair ambushes.
Beyond that, the Helghast also tend toward darker colours, which makes them hard to see and distinguish from allies. My wife, watching the action, asked me how I knew who to shoot, to which I replied: "Anything with orange eyes."
Shadow Fall's single-player campaign ends with a post-credits epilogue that is completely out of sorts with the rest of the game. While Kellan's story is entirely a shooter, the last mission shifts into more to a first-person stealth game, akin to Thief or Dishonored. It's a jarring transition that doesn't work very well, since it's insanely hard to sneak around in this game.
Multiplayer is somewhat better, if by the numbers. Online capability wasn't functioning prior to the PS4's launch, but I was able to test the mode out in the offline bot mode. As in previous Killzone games, Shadow Fall features Warzone, a sort of mosh pit of different missions, character classes, objectives and maps. You can fully customize the game, including what weapons are allowed and which objectives will be included.
However, just as with the single-player campaign, there isn't much in the way of character customization or upgrading to be done. All told, the multiplayer mode didn't hold my interest for long.
Killzone: Shadow Fall is a frustrating experience, which is too bad because it's the only real offering for core shooter-loving gamers with the PS4's initial launch. It's still worth a look to see the new console's graphical horsepower at work – just be aware that at some point, you'll get angry enough that you might wish you could physically fight the game.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story spelled Shadow Fall as one word, we regret the error.