Killzone: Shadow Fall PS4 E3 hands-on: losing the linear marks the series’ move to next-gen

It’s still big, chunky and brutal, and your character still moves a bit like someone’s poured cement in his combat boots as a hilarious jape. But that’s Killzone, and Guerrilla Games isn’t going to start messing with the defining features of their long-running and hugely successful shooter series just because we’re moving to a new generation. And although the Killzone model isn’t for everyone, this is definitely a good thing. We have enough shooters where impressively limber men defy the 50 pounds of gear strapped to their back and vault over scenery like bloodthirsty gymnasts, and Guerrilla’s adherence to their ‘war is slow-moving hell’ policy is both admiral and adds variety.

Killzone: Shadow Fall PS4 E3 hands-on

So going hands-on with the series’ PS4 outing feels immediately familiar on a mechanical level, but soon the expanded gameplay options start to come into focus. Again, file this under G for ‘A Good Thing’ (or A if you do your alphabetising like a Neanderthal). Because while the shooting has been rock-solid since the 2004 debut, there’s no escaping that most of that shooting has taken place in corridors or other environmental funnels. But this time things are a whole lot less linear.

For one, you have a new ability that encourages stealth. Tap up on the D-pad and you’ll send out an echo pulse which will make known any enemies around you, and allow you to see them through walls as red wireframe outlines. The longer you hold ↑ the wider your pulse spreads and thus the more of the environment you scan, but if you overdo it enemies are made aware of your covert tactics and your cover is blown. Once you’ve cased the joint you’re then able to use the trademark brutal melee moves (including dropping from above in order to perform takedowns) to remain unseen.

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Doing this I proceed through a small base which serves as the opening to my demo, after which I step out into the sunlight at the side of a huge dam-like structure, overlooking a forest in which lies my objectives: an aircraft crash site where a friendly vessel has gone down. But this isn’t what a Killzone forest might have looked like in days gone by – i.e. brown and red with rust coloured trees and bushes made out of bullet casings and hollowed-out skulls. It’s a verdant, lush locale. There’s also glorious sunlight on the horizon, and only the lack of gambolling lambs puts paid to the Disney Presents: Beauty And The Helghast vibe. It’s a far nicer place to be than previous environments, and getting away from the murkiness of past games is a key goal for the development team this time.

It’s in this next-gen wilderness that
Shadow Fall’s attempt to be free from
linearity starts to become truly clear

It’s in this next-gen wilderness that Shadow Fall’s attempt to be free from linearity starts to become truly clear, and this is largely down to the OWL. Which, perhaps sadly, is not a scatterbrain OAP who’s friends with a honey loving bear, but rather your new robo buddy. A flying drone that lives on your back when not in use, the OWL (which presumably stands for something appropriately badass) opens up multiple options when it comes to approaching objectives and combat situations. It has four main modes, which you choose between by intuitively swiping in one of four directions on the Dualshock 4’s touchpad.

The most commonly used is attack, whereby you point your cursor in a certain direction, tap L2 and the droid will fly off looking for people to bother using its mounted machine gun. Also on the offensive side of things is a pulse bomb: an area attack that will temporarily stun any enemies within range so you can finish them off with a nice lead high-five. Swipe downwards and a press of L2 will now deploy an energy shield though which you can shoot but the bad dudes cannot, providing some temporary respite once you enter a firefight or bracing you against an attack from multiple enemies. Last and probably least (but only because it doesn’t help you kill people), your OWL can also be used to create ziplines, allowing you to traverse gaps or slide down to lower terrain.

Using these options I’m able to clear out the Helghan troops marshalling the forest in a number of different ways – as much as it’s attacking abilities are useful, the OWL is also excellent at providing a distraction – ranging from stealthy to grenade-fuelled slaughter. If you do alert enemies they will attempt to call for backup using alarm aerials, which does make things far, far more difficult, but thankfully one of old OWLy’s contextual abilities is to silence these futuristic klaxons (or hack them pre-emptively so they can’t be activated).

After this it’s a case of using ziplines to climb down to the crash site where data needs to be download, contact needs to be made with the crew and – to prevent things falling into the wrong hands – the wreckage needs to be blown into even smaller smithereens. OR (it must be big when the caps come out), there’s the options of exploring the environment to discover and tackle secondary objectives. These can be done in any order, pre or post the core mission, or ignored all together, and they range from exploring and clearing bases in order to scavenge supplies, to longer, more involving quests. Told you linear had been banished to the naughty step.

It all bodes very well. The game, of course, is visually impressive: Guerrilla only makes good looking games, and doubly so when those games are on PS4’s sexy next-gen hardware. But it’s the evolution of the gameplay that is most heartening, with tools at your disposal that allow you to pick and choose your approach to objectives, as well as certain objectives that you needn’t tackle at all if you don’t want to. This is married to a far more appealing and vibrant colour palette, while the series’ big and chunky art style – plus big and chunky movement and shooting – remains in place. It’s Killzone as we know it, but now with more reasons for us to love it.