Killzone: Shadow Fall review: Goodbye, gray sky

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This is not a review of futuristic architecture, thank God, but if it were I would have reams to write about Vekta City, the angular gem that serves as the heart and showcase of a big PlayStation 4 exclusive, Killzone: Shadow Fall. Its skyscrapers form an endless field of crystals and carbon, mantled in blue skies and fly-by lens flares. The game will let you admire the view from time to time, even with its finger extended and ready to prod – you've got some shootin' to do, remember.

This is a peculiar kind of disappointment, because it speaks highly of the environmental fidelity in Killzone: Shadow Fall. The guns are the only thing approaching pollution in Vekta's pristine metropolis, which conveys far greater depth than is available when bullets are whizzing by. Then again, it's not as if "Killzone" is dishonest about its choice of genre – and the action is worthwhile when the shooting is as boisterous and tinged with tact as it is here.

Your options in combat are grafted to your status as shadow marshall, a covert operative of the Interplanetary Strategic Alliance. Clandestine employment grants you access to the OWL, a cute but weaponized aerial vehicle that naps on your back. It also permits you to travel between Vekta City and New Helghan, a noxious, industrialized tumor of a city, fit for the Helghast refugees that lost a war and their planet.
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Killzone: Shadow Fall (Review)

Your action-packed path runs on both sides of the uneasy wall erected between the two civilizations (and a few other spectacular locales), with Shadow Fall injecting you into sensitive standoffs as a means of illustrating the anger and displacement felt on both sides. The game sees this as an opportunity to switch gears, too, thrusting you into a multi-level hostage rescue in Vekta City, and following with an assassination attempt in New Helghan's neon-lit underbelly. You're wiping out Helghast terrorists for the most part, and they've yet to shake off their red eyes, gas masks and Nazi veneer.

The acting and writing isn't delicate enough to pull out an emotional moment from this brewing conflict (there are certainly attempts), but at least your motivation in Shadow Fall exceeds that of simply being a soldier, as it often is in games like this. You're meant to stand between your fanatical boss, Sinclair, and a slender Helghast spy named Echo, both of whom have an interest in pointing a mysterious weapon over the wall.

The weapon of choice in Killzone: Shadow Fall is the OWL, your little backpack with a minigun. It has four different modes, accessible with swipes on the Dual Shock 4's touchpad, and each enforces a useful strategy in Killzone's responsive, slower-paced shooting. The OWL can attack and distract while you charge up a satisfying kick from your scoped rifle, or unleash an electrical pulse to make the Helghast squirm. In the game's latter half, when it considers you accustomed to your repertoire, the OWL is essential in removing stationary shields and keeping enemy medics away from your felled opponents. It can also shoot out a zipline for quick downward traversal (it did not seem reliable from a non-elevated position) or deploy a shield when you've commandeered a hallway or obvious choke point.

OWL abilities have costs, which is what makes Shadow Fall less of a power trip and (slightly) more tactical in nature. Your hovering buddy must return to recharge or heal itself on your back, and cannot revive your bullet-riddled body if its energy is depleted. You'll also lose it while it hacks computer terminals or disables alarms, which risks summoning additional soldiers into Shadow Fall's large arenas. In the worst firefights, OWL deployment leaves you feeling exposed.

The span and visual density of Shadow Fall's cities, forests and wastelands are nearly encumbering, but a sonar-like pulse will highlight enemies through grass and behind walls. Again, there is a cost: Hold the button for too long to increase the range of the pulse, and it emits a buzz that lets everyone know you're there to stab them in the neck. (Get used to seeing that in the game's unflinching first-person view.)

All these tactical parts don't always feel properly balanced or choreographed – the OWL's energy shield can be planted in a doorway, for instance, to grant a trivial victory, and its minigun is a bit too effective on the game's regular difficulty. Still, your decisions retain value and have immediately visible results, with the Helghast scrambling to counter your moves and barking advice to one another.

Killzone: Shadow Fall has a handful of alternate and undoubtedly pretty action sequences to spice things up, but these tend to be idiotic in how they abandon the skills you've built up over the game. One particular, soon-to-be-infamous sin has you steering yourself in a free fall, slamming on air brakes (you have those?) to avoid debris and falling buildings. I'm warning you about this now, because you will be tempted to press the PS4's Share button in angry disbelief.

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With gun in hand, though, and an excellent soundtrack growling to life, Killzone: Shadow Fall is smarter about introducing sci-fi twists. A visit to a space station invites the sun to get close and angry, viciously melting the interior – and your enemies, if you know where to shoot – as you make a spirited escape. It's so much better than the aforementioned dread-fall.

There is less influence from film in Shadow Fall's multiplayer Warzones, which unlock all guns immediately and promise to deliver additional map packs for free. Experience points and unlockable gun attachments sustain some of the traditional grind (sorry, progression system), but the matches appear uncluttered and focused on the enjoyment of moment-to-moment competition between just three classes (Assault, Support and Recon). As before in the series, a map can be appropriated for multiple objective-based modes, without heading to a lobby between tasks. The fluidity is welcome, though I suspect mode changes can't always stop a handful of repetitive choke points ("DeathPlaces" if you will) arising across several rounds.

Killzone: Shadow Fall adds a robust mode editor and, true to the PlayStation 4's commitment to social activity, a way to share your gametypes, no matter how daft they are. Invisible, shotgun-touting sprinters everywhere? Okay, sure, but keep in mind that not everything feels fit for Shadow Fall's slower pace and asymmetrical maps. The more frantic modes didn't feel quite right in the game's spectrum of movement.

Killzone: Shadow Fall loses its sheen at times, usually when pursuing moments that are cinematic but not sensible. As a shooter, it's better at thriving on eye-catching environments and supportive combat abilities that don't just come for free. It also can't help but blow up its pristine cityscapes before you get to know them, but that just goes with the territory, here on the border between good and great.

This review is based on review code of Killzone: Shadow Fall, provided by Sony. Multiplayer was tested for several hours at two separate events with other members of the press.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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