In fact, the very first mission in Killzone: Shadow Fall could almost serve as a lesson in “How to design a level that'll make new players quit in frustration”. Here’s a stage that’s presumably been designed to show off the all powerful Playstation 4 – to make you go "Wow". It’s expansive, set in a sparse forest, with plenty of giant, glistening fortresses to explore – and more than a few enemies to avoid. Your goal here is to basically move from one end of the forest to the other – but you’ve got more than a few obstacles in your way, most of which are completely stupid.
Firstly, the forest is crawling with enemies, but in order to make your job that little bit more awkward, they aren’t marked up in any way. That’s arguably fair enough, but when they can spot you with their hawk like eyes, while you’re left trying to figure out if that oddly shaped grey bit you can see on the horizon is a tree branch or a person, it can feel a bit unfair. Luckily, you have a special move up your sleeve that's intended to level the playing field – a radar pulse thingy that you can deploy by holding a direction on the d-pad, that’ll send out an invisible wave that marks any enemies it touches in orange on your display. The only problem is, it can only go so far before it overloads, causing an outburst of static that warns any nearby enemies of your presence. And that makes it utterly, utterly useless in the forest - or anywhere other than a tight, narrow space-corridor, for that matter. If your enemy’s close enough to be picked up by your radar-thing, they’re close enough for you to see, with the only advantage to the radar coming from the fact it can spot enemies through walls. Which, oddly enough, there aren’t that many of in a forest.
So, having snuck up behind a tree, and crouched behind it stealthily before trying to see if there’s any enemies nearby using your radar, you’ve accidentally managed triggered a static burst that let every single Helghast nearby know exactly where you were. Whoops. But not to worry – all you have to do is deal with the few soldiers within hearing range and be on your way, right? Wrong. Instead, the sneaky types will undoubtedly have triggered one of the level's many alarms, which in turn, will send a never-ending stream of enemies your way – and that’s not an exaggeration. Literally, as soon as they press that button, the Helghast call upon an infinite supply of willing troops, who will keep coming at you until they've left you for dead. This is next-gen, you see. It's all about the realism.
In fact, the best part about this is that the game doesn’t actually tell you that the alarm’s been triggered. There’s no obvious thing on screen telling you an alarm’s going off, and for the most part you can’t hear it (although helpfully, the music in the background does have a section that sounds just like an alarm going off, to make up for the game), so the only way you’ll find out that someone’s triggered an alarm is when you realise you’ve just killed about ten enemies and they don’t seem to be stopping coming. When you do eventually realise someone’s triggered an alarm, there’s no way to figure out where the alarm is that’s been triggered – there’s no arrow pointing in its direction, so all you have to do is look around until you stumble across the device in question. And then you have to disable it.
Not being the most skilled at technology (your character seems to prefer smashing things instead), you can only actually disable the alarms by sending your little robot friend, the OWL to do it. The only problem is, your OWL is anything but loyal. Send him off to hack the alarm by pressing R1, and he’ll start decrypting it – but only until he gets shot. If the OWL takes too much damage, he’ll come scuttling back to you with his non-existent robotic tail between his legs, hoping you’ll protect him from the big bad baddies. Of course, the OWL obviously isn’t very intelligent, or it’d realise the only way you can survive is if it does its damn job, and disables the alarms, thereby turning off the infinite tap of enemies that are coming your way, rather than turning and running at the first sign of gunfire.
So, to recap, we have a level in which the enemies can see you, but you can’t see them; with alarms that cause an infinite supply of enemies to head your way, but which there’s no way to tell they've been triggered, or even where they are; and your only tool to disable said alarms is a massive scaredy-robot that turns and runs at the first sign of danger. Can it get worse? Oh yeah – there’s the checkpoints.
Here’s a level that we'd spent the best part of two hours playing through. We triggered the alarms and disabled them, we fought back against the enemy hordes, we'd battled for every inch of territory, and we pushed the enemy back. We kept dying, but every time we did, we were respawned not too far away from where we snuffed it, and better yet, the enemies we’d killed stayed dead. But then, we ran out of time. Real life was calling, and we had to leave the PS4. “Don’t worry”, we thought to ourselves, “it’s obviously saved, because of where it respawned us". So, what do you think folks. Had it saved?
Of course it hadn’t!
Instead, the next time we turned our PS4 on, we were back at square one, right at the very beginning of the level. Seemingly, the “checkpoints” the game made us think we were getting were only “soft checkpoints" rather than “you’ll restart your game from here” checkpoints – only it didn’t bother saying that. Instead, it let us throw almost two hours of our gameplay down the drain because it thinks it knows better where we want to save the game than we do. And there’s literally no excuse for this. This is a console with a built in hard-drive. There is no storage limitation. The save file itself is over 20mb! So why on earth does the game not let you save for yourself. Games in 1999 would let you save anywhere. Today, manual save games are a thing of the past. And in Killzone’s case, it’s just one of a litany of frustrations.
Past the first level, things do get better, but Killzone has another problem, and this one can't be fixed with a simple patch. You see, it’s actually unfathomably dull. This is a sci-fi world without any of the charm of Star Wars, without the intrigue of Halo, and without even a fraction of the depth of Mass Effect. It’s tied together with a convoluted story that’s awkwardly written and badly acted (a fairly young boy, around 7 or 8 sees his father get shot to death – his response, “What’s wrong with him”), with characters you couldn’t care less about. The only reason you’d play it through to the end would be to admire the pretty graphics, which, let’s face it, are the only reason Killzone: Shadow Fall exists in first place. And even then, they’re somewhat lacking. Here we have a world that’s more detailed, more complex than anything that’s come before it – yet is almost entirely static. Hooks dangle on the ends of chains that may as well be made of stone, as they’re completely rock solid, chairs act as though they’re bolted to the floor, until you nudge them just right, and then they go flying. It’s an odd juxtaposition, and one that’s a little bit weird.
While later levels mercifully ditch the “open world” gameplay in favour of the more logical narrow corridors, there are still plenty of frustrations, and even in its finest moment, Killzone: Shadow Fall is never really anything other than “OK”. While corners are undoubtedly cut for launch titles, it seems all the effort for Shadow Fall’s gone in the wrong places. If a fraction of the effort they’d spent making it run in 60 frames per second had been spent on playtesting and usability, we’d have a much better game at the end of it. With the infinite power of the Playstation 4, the lack of a split-screen co-op mode is a disappointment too.