Killzone Shadow Fall – Guerrilla explain how PS4′s tech changes the series, & the FPS, forever
From the moment the curtain went up on Guerrilla Games’ new shooter during February’s PS4 reveal, Killzone: Shadow Fall wasn’t just going to be exciting in its own right as an eye-wateringly high-fidelity episode in the shooter series: it was also our first look at the future of FPS gaming.
Killzone Shadow Fall
How does all that whirring and buzzing technology beneath PS4’s hood translates to new, strikingly detailed visuals. What it means for environmental effects like fire and smoke, both prominent cast members of the game’s explosive debut. How the extra processing power will change AI behaviour. Most fascinating of all: that snatch of gameplay on Vekta, an appropriately guerrilla attack by disguised Helghast on an uptown neighbourhood, shows us not just what PS4’s capabilities are, but how the first wave of developers are using all those gigawatts, nanohertz and bionic FLOP unicorns of next-gen to create, as executive producer Angie Smets puts it, “a more human drama… something a lot more personal and emotional.”
There are fundamental capabilities of PlayStation 4 that hit you right in the face the second you start that healthy and safety-flouting flight around uptown Vekta City past all those glassy monuments. Things the trusty old workhorse that is PS3 simply can’t hack. “The first thing that people notice is fidelity,” says game director Steven Ter Heide, speaking exclusively to OPM. “It’s running in 1080p, whereas the last game was running in 720p – that immediately makes a difference. The particle resolution had to be very low [on PS3], but because we’ve got loads more memory [now] we can have higher particle resolutions. More HDR lighting gives lots more range in the type of light we have in this level; both the amount of post-processing effects, and the quality of these effects. That’s the kind of thing people notice when looking at the difference between PS3 and PS4. The games look prettier.” Ter Heide is clearly grateful to be working with this expanded toolset, but he also seems uneasy talking about Killzone: Shadow Fall just in terms of number crunching. No one wants their game to be seen as simply a tech demo with extra neck stabbing, after all.
“It’s running in 1080p, that immediately
makes a difference. We can have higher
particle resolutions. More HDR lighting,
[more] post-processing effects”
Smets hammers that point home: “Prettier, but also more vibrant. I think the world is really coming to life much better than our previous games.” She’s right: it’s much easier now than in previous Killzones to imagine the everyman of Vekta living his life, nipping out to buy a Pot Noodle and a lottery ticket from the corner shop, and staying the heck clear of the gigantic, terrifying wall that separates them from the displaced Helghast refugees seething on the other side. And, well, we all know how well that uneasy neighbouring works out.
Vekta’s appearance of being vibrant and bustling with life succeeds because the areas you’re shown before the attack are actually populated with a believable number of Joe Publics. On PS3, few shooters really give us a crowd. More often than not you’re presented with an inexplicably deserted city, dockyard or public building, and asked to use your imagination to fill in the gaps. Bioshock Infinite’s shops on carnival day and Far Cry 3’s villages – we’re looking at you. Something PlayStation 4 can offer beyond high-detail textures and pretty particles, we learn, is a higher headcount. “I think we have about 60 characters on-screen at any one time and that helps with a more vibrant city,” says Ter Heide. “Of course, there’s a lot of clever trickery going on,” he concedes. “Where you’re looking, we make sure that that’s appropriately populated.”
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Even with this example of how Guerrilla is using PS4’s extra horsepower to build a bigger, better Killzone, you can see how first-person shooter design is changing. There’s always been an element of scene-setting, throwing crowds at the player like The Truman Show did to its star while other areas of the city lay barren. But with more sophisticated hardware, “we can create the illusion of a living world a lot more this time,” explains Ter Heide. “If you have to rely on faking it in the distance and you don’t have the numbers up close to make it feel real, it just kind of falls down.”
Naturally, it also falls down if you’re surrounded by drooling simpletons whose daily routine consists of walking into a waist-high obstacle for 24 hours. Believable AI is a crucial attribute of anyone you aim a gun at, but it’s also just as important a quality in your friendly neighbourhood NPCs. It’s the reason you still haven’t forgotten the guy you met in Zelda II (it’s fine, we forgive you) who said “I AM ERROR” before you backed away in horror out of his Hitchcockian nightmare house. “You can see the characters respond to you as the player,” says Smets. “I think that all adds up to the feel that there are real characters, and the city is really populated. On PS3 there was always a trade-off between the number of NPCs and their behaviour, Ter Heide tells us. But on next-gen, you can have your cake and tell your AI exactly how to eat it. “Rather than saying, ‘Okay, we can’t have 60 characters, but eight with great animation,’ this time around we can have 60 with great animation and do some other stuff as well,” he says.
Again, there’s a game-changer evident in Killzone: Shadow Fall’s attentive ISA grunts and (rightfully) worried-looking Vektan citizens: “Specifically the things that we’ve added from a design perspective [are] making characters more responsive. They know where danger is, or where attractive things are to interact with.” It lightens the load for the cut-scene guys for a start, he points out, as they don’t have to pose each NPC frame by frame – they just trust that each citizen acts naturally enough to enhance the scene rather than pull the rug out from underneath it.
The local townspeople are getting smarter at the same rate they’re getting better looking, then. And in the distance you might not find hundreds of NPCs explaining the Higgs boson particle to each other in real time, but you will see more of the world in Shadow Fall than you’ve seen in Killzones past. “We’re trying to create this more epic scale,” says Ter Heide. “As we’ve always tried to in previous Killzone games. We’re creating a more vibrant and living world around you. We want to give you a place that you want to protect and that you want to see more of [rather] than just being confined to corridors. We want you to have these larger vistas to understand more of the world around you.”