“We want you to control which kind of roller-coaster you go on”, says Killzone Shadow Fall’s director Steven ter Heide, explaining the new direction behind the shooter’s next-gen outing. And this is a very different experience to previous games. Gone are the big shouty war corridors and focus on moving forwards while shooting. This is a Killzone where I spent quite a lot of time in air vents. Not because I had to but because I like air vents. Or at least the opportunities they provide for more sneaky attacks from unexpected angles. Nothing upsets a Helghan more than being killed from behind the checkpoint he’s carefully guarding.
Killzone: Shadow Fall and PS4
“It’s important that we give the player control,” explains ter Heide. “One of the overall goals we had when we started this project was to make sure that the player is in control. More so than ever. We want you to control the flow of the battle. We want you dominate your enemies in a way that you find fun”.
It’s something that becomes apparent within seconds of playing my first level – a hostage situation in a Vektan tower block. Using the new Tactical Echo to send out a sonar-like pulse reveals a vent. While the supporting ISA troopers talk about rappelling to the floor below I investigate the hatch and fall through to the lower level, a burst of radio chatter telling me that I’ve been ‘inserted’ and accidentally started the mission. Crucially, though, I’ve done it without alerting the Helghans, a second Tactical Echo highlighting them through the walls, obliviously patrolling. “If you have a building you need to attack, you have multiple entry points and they all get you different rewards and different ways for playing through it,” ter Heide points out.
“We want you to control the flow of
the battle in a way that you find fun”
Another change is that this time you’re playing as a Shadow Marshall (the same spec ops style soldier as Luger in the original game) rather than the usual frontline grunt. So that means more specialist jobs rather than planetary invasions, mainly, says executive producer Angie Smets, because the team, “wanted to build a hero character”. A decision she believes takes a break from, ”the tradition of having the character be in a squad”. The new role also sits better with ter Heide’s “Cold War theme” underlying the story.
It’s 30 years since the end of Killzone 3 blew up Helghan and left the Helghast homeless like angry Vulcans in crash helmets. As a result the survivors now co-exist on Vekta in a walled off city enclave. “They live together in a very uneasy peace”, explains ter Heide. Which is why a Helghast called Tyran has taken a bunch of Vektan office workers hostage. His motives aren’t clearly explained in the section I play but he’s on the ‘pantomime Renfield’ end of the crazy spectrum and someone the Vektan Security Agency director Sinclair (Homeland’s David Harewood) wants really dead. The phrase ‘head on a stick’ is mentioned at one point.
The mission to locate Tyran also emphasises the difference between the two groups as you cross from the shiny clean Vektan city into the dark, industrial slum of the Helghan quarter. The grim border control apparently passing you from a city built by Apple to a version of 1984 with way more body armour and space Cockneys. The distinct visual style of the Helghast overlaid onto the Vektan world creates a oppressive take on Blade Runner crossed with the Combine structures of Half-life 2. The Cold War setting however promises a far less clear distinction than these obvious differences in architecture. “The Vektans and Helghast have always been at war”, says ter Heide, “but there’s always been this grey middle ground: who really are the bad guys? You meet all of these characters that have there own agendas, their own goals. Everybody’s protecting their own home but they go about it in different ways. You’re not really sure who to trust. Who has the best way?”
My way, when rescuing the hostages, involves kicking open doors and sending in the owl. This robot death Frisbee is one of the chief tools a Shadow Marshal has to play with and comes with a range of abilities to liven things up. In this case I use it to deliver a flashbang-like stun blast so that I can slip in afterwards and take down the blinded Higs as they stumble about. It’s a satisfyingly successful tactic. In fact the only dampener on the whole operation are the slightly wooden hostages who don’t quite seem to realise the next generation has happened and they’re in it.
However, for a companion that doesn’t talk or have any noticeable affectations, the owl is easy to get attached to simply because it works. Send it out to directly attack enemies and it’ll provide a reliable and lethal second gun to your fight – a swish up on the touchpad to select the mode and a tap of L1 to target and it’s off. It never seemed to let me down, either as a direct assault tool, portable shield or provider of zip lines. One of my favourite tactics is to send it into a crowd of Helghast and, while they’re busy, move to a flanking position or sneak around behind to mop up what’s left. Assuming it leaves anything standing that is. On more than one occasion it finished everyone off while I was en route.
The wider potential of the levels and flexibility of the owl mean the ideas ter Heide presents for Shadow Fall seem to be working. The second level I play, in the Helghan city, takes an almost Deus Ex like approach: poking into corners and seeking out air vents to subvert the obvious level layout guiding me into checkpoints and obvious attacks. I play much of it like a stealth game, searching around the enemy’s periphery and picking off the exposed edges a little like Far Cry 3’s base camps. Of course if you want to shoot the hell out of everything, that works fine just as well. I never really felt pressured either way – using stun blasts one minute to bum rush patrols and knife them without raising an alarm. Or sending the owl in blasting next, the papery buzz of its mini gun cutting down soldiers in an instant.
I’m not sure I felt the entire breadth of Guerrilla’s more open world promise with the two levels I played however. The idea is for ‘gameplay bubbles’ rather than full free roaming areas, with a previously revealed level showing multiple objectives in a large forest. The parts I saw focused more on choosing between stealth and action. While the only real side objective seemed to have little real impact on events as I wiped an informant’s files to help hide him. I’d like try a more expansive mission before I judge further.
It is interesting though that the studio should be attempting to make such broad changes to a formula it’s refined over three main console releases. Especially when Killzone 3 seemed to work hard to take on board some of the criticisms of the previous game – slightly faster movement and a wider colour pallet for example (both of which are evident here). Something all of the team seem to be in agreement with however is that the changes are because of PS4. “The PlayStation 4 allows us to create a game with larger environments that allows for picking objectives in whatever order you want, and that gives you a lot of choice”, explains managing director Hermen Hulst. It’s something that, “required [Guerrilla] to develop a lot of proof of concepts to develop the gameplay in these open settings”. An experience Hulst claims was, “a learning process”.
“You can be creative as you don’t know where the boundary will lay with the new machine”
Smets thinks the changes are more than just technical and refers to the early days of development, at a time when the PS4′s final configuration had yet to be finalised. “The designers, the artists, are very used to thinking within a set of boundaries. Used to thinking about the number of enemy types, draw distances. If you’re a launch title [when] at that point it’s not clear yet what the hardware will be, those boundaries are taken away. I think it triggers a whole new form of creativity. That’s what I loved about doing Shadow Fall, it’s sort of liberating because you can just be creative as you don’t know yet where the boundary will lay. With the new machine there isn’t a boundary really. I think it’s because you feel you can do new things. That gives you, on a psychological level, the freedom and maybe the balls to do it”.
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