"Killzone: Shadow Fall" faces some killer pressure. The latest installment of the solid but underachieving shooter franchise launches right alongside the PlayStation 4, a system clearly tasked with reclaiming the console throne for Sony.
It's tempting, then, to evaluate "Shadow Fall" and the PS4 concomitantly. Is the game truly next-generation? Is it worth the $400 adoption fee? Is it a system seller?
Those are questions I won't spend much time answering. It's just unfair to criticize a game as not only its own experience, but also the emblem of an expensive hardware transition. For the record, though: No, "Shadow Fall" does not meet those lofty criteria. No, it's not worth buying a PS4 on its own. But how many games would be?
Guerrilla Games' latest outing does, however, provide a thoroughly fun shooter that's prone to some missteps. And at 1080p resolution and 60 frames per second on the PS4, it also happens to look more fluid and pocked with detail than any of its console peers.
Embracing the PS4 owners who may not have owned a PS3, the story of "Shadow Fall" wisely moves past the Helghast/Vektan war. All you need to know is that the two sides have been blowing each other up since forever — and now that the Vektans annihilated the planet Helghan in "Killzone 3," the races have been ordered to cohabit Vekta.
As Vektan Shadow Marshal Lucas Kellan, you're thrust into the black ops skirmishes that, yeah, will erupt when you force people who hate each other to move in together. Even having played "Killzone 2" and "3," I have no idea how anyone could have thought that was a sound peace plan. Still, it lets Guerrilla load "Shadow Fall" with resonant images and ideas. It's hard not to think of Sept. 11 when a Helghast terrorist attack shatters window glass and worker bee calm. And the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is an obvious real-world touchstone for a story of sectarian violence with no end in sight.
Kellan's journey groups him with a half-Vektan, half-Helghast soldier named Echo who looks a little bit like a goth Rachel McAdams. Introducing her may be the real coup of "Shadow Fall" — her pacifism and split sympathies could finally give "Killzone" the humanity it failed to find in the brutish Rico and the bland ciphers Sev and Lucas.
For now, though, you're Kellan, wading through 10 surprisingly wide-open campaign levels in "Shadow Fall." If you're lost, you can press up on the D-pad to highlight your destination. But the sense of discovery, of wandering into bunkers and destroyed buildings for no other reason than curiosity, is a welcome change from the linear shooter design that dominated the previous game generation.
The play itself stays varied, and that's where "Shadow Fall" sometimes comes up short — or just misses the mark entirely.
The actual shooting ranges from routine to thrilling. Your average Helghan dogfight is a modestly fun challenge if you know how to use cover and the new healing, time-slowing adrenaline power-up. It's when "Shadow Fall" breaks away from that — a mad scramble to paint mechs for aerial targeting under gunfire, a cat-and-mouse dash to demolish the power junctions of a mortar turret — that the game kicks into a higher gear.
Then there's first-person free-falling, which works well enough in a sequence that plunges Kellan through the rotating skeleton of a space station. But later, during a finicky glide into a crumbling cityscape, it's the source of much frustration and many, many restarts.
With the enormity of the game's maps, stealth sometimes comes into play, too. Kellan's OWL — a droid that can attack enemies, disable their shields and fire ziplines — is a handy tool here, especially once you figure out the Helghast's selective alertness. Feel free to stomp right up behind them, but don't count on foliage shielding you from their tangerine eyes at a distance of 50 yards. (Also: You can switch the OWL's firing mode with the Dualshock 4's touch pad, but a function that could so easily be performed with the D-pad doesn't exactly hint at the pad's potential.)
Stealth is also but a fraction of "Shadow Fall's" wonderful multiplayer. It's one of a few abilities available to the sniper rifle-toting scout class, which itself is one of three along with assault and support. Instead of a leveling system, players unlock attachments and other equipment by progressing through more than 1,000 challenges related to kill counts and objectives like seizing control points and planting explosives. The curve is slow, but not so steep as to discourage new players. With dot sights and basic abilities available to everyone, it's rare that you feel truly outgunned.
The matchmaking is fantastically open-ended. Along with Guerrilla's standard team deathmatch and five-round, multiple-objective contests, players can create their own unique tilts from the easy warzone tool set. The only major problem I encountered was asymmetry in the game's squad-building: Most matches I played ended with a 5-0 score.
Some of "Shadow Fall's" other multiplayer quirks are nice — like protected spawn zones. Some aren't — like the lack of in-game chat unless you party with teammates. For a battlefield so loud with visual detail, it's a little too quiet.