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August 18, 2014

ShootStravaganza!! Killzone: Shadow Fall

So you know what I just realized?  All the games that are going to pop in for the ShootStravaganza are PS4 games.  Fancy that.

The way things are looking now, I’m not exactly what you’d call excited about the next (technically current) generation of games.  I’m on record here on Cross-Up of being genuinely worried about what the PS4 and Xbox One would bring, and now that they’re getting dangerously close to the one-year mark, I can say that they’re not the doombringers that most would have expected.  Now, mediocrity-bringers, on the other hand?  THAT’S something they can do.  For someone who’s getting into games for the first time with something like Infamous: Second Son, they’ll be fine.  But for someone like me, who’s played the other, better Infamous games?  It’s a step down.  And the less said about Watch Dogs, the better. 

It doesn’t say good things about the state of a console or a game industry when the most compelling argument to even turn the blasted new box are games that not only DON’T take full advantage of the technology, but could conceivably appear on the earlier consoles…not to mention they were likely made for a fraction of the price, yet ended up better regardless.  In all fairness to the PS4 (and the Xbone, to a lesser extent), I’m going to say what I’ve been saying for a while: someday, they’re both going to get the games that justify their existence.  Someday, they’re going to be consoles worth owning.  Someday, they’re going to make big contributions to the gaming canon.

Today is not that day.  And Killzone: Shadow Fall is not that game.


Now, before I go any further, I want to make one thing clear: I think Shadow Fall is better than Destiny (beta or otherwise).  It’s far from the worst game I’ve ever played, and there are things that can be appreciated.  Liked, even.  If you’re 100% jaded, you can at least rest easy knowing that it’s pretty good-looking, and it’s not just a brown and gray wasteland.  Damning with faint praise, I know, but it counts.

That in mind, I have to make another confession: Shadow Fall is actually not my first Killzone experience.  That honor goes to Killzone 3 -- with an asterisk.  See, I never actually…you know, played KZ3.  I just watched my brother and buddy play through it.  I would say that it made me jealous and hungry to pick up the pad for myself, but it didn’t.  Despite all the sound and fury onscreen, I was asleep for huge swaths of the action -- practically unconscious on the floor, and drooling onto a pillow.  The way I see it, there were three possibilities: 1) I was a lot more tired than I thought, 2) that was one hell of a comfy floor, or 3) the game was boring as sin.  You can probably guess which one I’m leaning toward.


If you’re looking for someone who knows the KZ lore in and out, you’re on the wrong blog.  Here’s all I know (and even that’s on shaky ground): there are Helghast and Vetkans, and the Helghast are pretty much the wronged party here but have terrible PR vis a vis their nightmarish getups, KZ3 pretty much ended in the destruction of the Helghast planet, and every time I hear the name Killzone I can’t help but feel like the entire franchise was found in a time capsule from the nineties.

But you know what?  It’s fine.  It’s totally fine.  After all, the secret benefit of Shadow Fall is that it’s actually a quasi-reboot.  Like Second Son, it takes place on a different/far enough timeline to give it some distance from a canon that not ever gamer is familiar with.  In this case, we’re jumping back into the story a good thirty years later.  So while fans of the old game can have lots of little nods and a deeper appreciation of the world, greenhorns won’t be locked out.  Everybody wins…that is, until they play the game.

In all honesty, I don’t have (that many) problems with Shadow Fall as a shooter.  The problem comes from everything else.  And the more I thought about it, the more I realized something:  Shadow Fall is the perfect metaphor.  It’s what developers all over the industry think of us gamers.  And what do they think of us?  Well…


Yeah.  Not great.

 Now, I might be misinterpreting things here, but if I’m not, then there’s a very good chance that Shadow Fall’s premise makes no sense.  Here’s how it works: after the events of KZ3 -- in which the Helghast planet is, according to the new game’s intro, now an inhospitable wasteland -- the survivors board their ships and head over to Vetka, AKA the planet where the player characters are from.  

It’s not long before things break down, and the integration of the two peoples turns into another armed conflict.  Thankfully, that’s where you come in.  Playing as the special agent -- a “Shadow Marshal” -- Lucas Kellan, your mission is to, paraphrasing from the wiki, “keep the peace between the two sides, and protect his people from any threat the Helghast may cause, including terrorist attacks performed by the Black Hand.”

Here's Lucas, by the way.


Don't worry.  We'll get back to him.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not an ace on post-war reconstruction or foreign policy, but, uh…taking in millions of immigrants at once after the end of a no-doubt bitter war is a bad idea, right?  Like, seriously bad?  Even if some of the Vetkans -- the victors in the war, and thus the ones with the right to write the history books -- are willing to forgive and forget, how can the entirety of their society do that?  And they’re willing to give up massive chunks of their planet to do so?  Even if they don’t have as much infrastructure or real estate as, say, Earth, surely just giving their land and precious resources can’t just get blown over, can it?

I only ask because things go south almost as soon as the opening narration is done.

…HOVER.


I’m not even joking here.  You don’t even get to see the gradual breakdown of relations.  The devs pretty much flipped a switch -- which leads me to believe that, yes, taking in the entirety of your bitter war rivals after destroying their pride, forcing them to burn through untold numbers of resources, killing generations’ worth of Helghast, and RUINING THEIR PLANET was a bad idea.  Worse yet, because the game goes from backstory to conflict in an instant, it opens up further questions. 

How did the Helghast get well-armed enough to pose a threat to the Vetkans on their home turf?  Were the actions of an entire race likely bearing a grudge not monitored, just in case?  And probably the biggest question: was there really no other place in the universe that the Helghast could have traveled to?  I don’t know the KZ canon, but I have a hard time believing that getting in bed with the guys who tore your society to shreds is the best option here.  Maybe just take your chances trying to colonize the moon or something, or just isolating yourself in spaceships so you wouldn’t have to deal with all the Vetkan nonsense.

But I guess this way there can actually be a conflict in the game!  Oh, and it’s kinda-sorta topical too, albeit in the dumbest way possible!  So it’s fine!


Shadow Fall -- regrettably -- has at least one thing in common with Watch Dogs.  In that game, you weren’t playing as Aiden Pearce; you were playing as you (assuming that “you” are a thirtysomething brown-haired white male with poor fashion sense).  In Shadow Fall, Lucas has no presence -- even less than the stereotypical soldier you expect of most shooters.  In my brief time with the game, I tried my hardest to get a good look at the guy’s face, and failed triumphantly.

 It’s entirely possible that he shows his face later on -- or you can see it in a mirror or something -- but in terms of establishing who the leading man is, I’m left wanting.  It certainly doesn’t help that he doesn’t get a chance to say much of anything outside of a couple of lines, and since it’s a first-person game you don’t get to see anything like body language or movement.  Well, unless you glance at his legs while walking, or can get just enough by watching him shoot his gun.  That’s a good substitute for characterization, right?

It’s 2014, isn’t it?  So why does it feel like video games are going backward?

…HOVER.


Is it unfair to judge a character based on the first couple of hours you spend with him?  Yes, of course it is (even though I already did that, but let’s just look past that).  But here’s the thing: video games or otherwise, first impressions are important.  I have issues with Destiny, but it can get away with having a character with little to no personality because it’s understood and openly-admitted that you’re playing as you -- as you’d expect from an MMO, lite or otherwise. 

But when you create a game with an overarching narrative and a central main character with a name and identity to lay claim to, I expect that character to assert his presence.  Otherwise, you’re not going to get much on the wiki but a portrait of some goof who we only know is human because his suit has eye-holes.


Because of the game’s nature, there’s something really discomforting about the way Shadow Fall plays out.  See, it actually starts out doing something that threatens to be interesting: instead of making you a badass super-soldier from the outset, it has you playing as a wee little Lucas Kellan, and has you escaping a Helghast assault alongside your father.  (And when I say assault, I mean it; the sequence plays out as if the Helghast are invading and ruining your planet…so again, let’s not think about when they became so well-armed, how they made it into Vetkan territory without impunity, and why inviting the Helghast to your planet was a bad idea).  I thought to myself, “Oh, well this is actually pretty neat.  I get to experience a sense of vulnerability, and drive home the threat of the Helghast forces.”  That was my theory at the outset.

And then things got weird.


Okay, so do you remember how in The Last of Us the game actually put in a strong effort to (and largely managed to) create tension and apprehension in the player by putting them in a situation that nobody understands, and compounded it by stripping the player character, his daughter, and the player of all their power in one fell swoop?  That’s not in Shadow Fall.  

The city’s getting wrecked all around you, but the opening sequence plays out like any given shooter -- that is, you follow someone and do exactly as he says, which means he has the agency and importance and you’re just tagging along for his adventure.  In this case, it’s Lucas’ dad.  Even though he’s got a death flag the size of a pool tarp flapping in his pants, you do what he says.  He’s in 100% control of the situation until it’s suddenly time for him to not be.


The weirdness factor comes in when Daddy Kellan interacts with you.  Since the game up to that point (and beyond) has been almost entirely in first-person, when he talks to you, you’re doing it face-to-face.  And I MEAN face-to-face -- as in he practically gets right on top of you, and his mug takes up a good three quarters of the screen.  (I suspect that it was a way to establish his love and reassurance second, and a way to show off the PS4 face-rendering tech first.)  So basically, there’s no filter between you and a grown man coddling you like a child. 


He’ll treat everything you do like you’ve accomplished some great feat, be it crawl beside him or move a plank from a door.  I know he’s trying to offer support in tough times, but it’s Lucas the blank slate who needs the support -- and is barely allowed to respond to it, if at all.  So the whole thing comes off as some guy you don’t know (but is better than you regardless) telling you that you’re the most amazing EVER for doing either exactly what he says, or doing something that isn’t worth celebrating when the city’s falling apart around us.

Are you starting to see the undercurrent here?

Shadow Fall may give you a glimpse of the world through a different perspective, but it’s not long -- i.e. the end result of another flipped switch -- before you go right back to being a badass super-soldier.  I hope you’re not the sort who likes context, because if you are, the most you’ll get on Lucas’ transformation to child to THE BEST IN DA BIZ are a few blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scenes strung into a montage.  More importantly, Lucas ends up substituting his real father for a surrogate one -- another soldier who helped him out as a kid, and went on to become his ego-stroking superior officer.  He’s not as in-your-face as Daddy Kellan, but instead of comforting you as a son, he encourages you (to the point of excess) for being so l33t.

Are you starting to see the undercurrent here?
      

Recent statistics suggest that the average gamer is 31 (which I can believe, given the presence of consoles like the NES and Atari Whatever).  That’s not to say that every gamer is that age, obviously -- considering Xbox Live’s clientele -- but even then, I’d like to think that the people who play games nowadays, especially something like Shadow Fall, don’t exactly need bucket loads of positive reinforcement from virtual parental figures.  But here we are.  Shadow Fall has done its absolute damnedest to make the player feel like they’re special, even if they’re not consciously aware of it. 

I suspect that -- like any other games that try it, which is probably plenty -- it’s because if not for that tactic, then it would have nothing.  It’s kind of brilliant in a misguided, if not devious, sort of way.  How do you appeal to a player, if not by way of your game’s story?  Appeal to the player directly.  Make him feel accomplished, even if the game can’t (or won’t).  Don’t give the player a reason to care about you, but show -- however superficially -- that you care about them.  Give them positive feedback, so you can get them running as you command.

I would ask if all games are secretly this Pavlovian, but then I remember that at the very least, Bad Dudes went out of its way to mock the player.  On the other hand, that strikes me as a call to action via a dare/insult.  Sooooo…yeah, maybe so.


I’ll get back into the story later, but right now I think I’d better start talking about the gameplay in this video game.  I don’t have any problems admitting that it’s Shadow Fall’s strong suit (it damn well better be), and there are some interesting wrinkles to it that set it apart from, say, the stereotypical modern military shooter.  The first thing that I noticed is that, after a brief section in a facility’s narrow corridors, I actually got to explore a wide-open area. 

The game led me to a woodsy area beyond a dam, and it was a welcome change from…well, pretty much everything you’d expect from a shooter.  It was the sort of environment that I wanted to explore, and to a notable extent the game actually lets that happen.  No telling if that was just an isolated incident or what the game would offer on a regular basis, but it left me satisfied.


The reason why it left me satisfied is because it actually turns the game into more than just a multimillion-dollar shooting gallery…well, as much as it can, at least.  Barring a couple of sections where you’re free -- and forced -- to pounce on and knife unsuspecting soldiers, I get the immediate sense that everything that unfolds after that gives me the freedom to move about and attack as I please. 

That is, as long as I do it right; the game actually takes on a bent that’s not unlike Metal Gear Solid, where you have to take out enemies with your tactics more than just waiting for them to pop out of cover.  The terrain -- trees, towers, high points and low -- is there for a reason, and if you don’t use it, you’ll die.  YOU WILL DIE in the opening hour or so, which automatically makes it a better game (in its outset) than Destiny (also in its outset). 

See?  You can have an opening sequence without shooting yourself in the foot.


Mechanically speaking, as far as I can tell/remember Shadow Fall doesn’t get anything wrong.  Moving is fine, aiming is fine, and shooting is fine.  You’ve got regenerating health/shields, but you can still bite it if you try and go in one man army-style.  Still, there are some wrinkles to the combat -- the first of which being a staple of the franchise, at least if my hazy memories of KZ3 are any indication.  See, the guns you have and find along the way have alternate modes of fire; giving you multiple options even if the actual number of guns you can carry maxes out at two.   

I’ll admit that I only found out about it in Shadow Fall because my finger slipped on the pad -- I guess I hadn’t reached that part of the “tutorial” -- but I wouldn’t mind seeing what it means in terms of combat.  After all, I’m under the impression that you won’t just be using stealth in the woods the whole game.  At some point, you’re bound to wind up in a big firefight, so choosing which mode of fire as well as which gun to use HAS to mean the difference between escaping from trouble and getting up close and personal with your tombstone.


What I’m not so keen on is the OWL -- basically, your robot buddy who follows you wherever you go.  Slide your finger across the PS4 pad and you’ll be able to switch between one of its four abilities: fire a zipline, deploy an energy shield, release a stunning wave, or just attack on your behalf.  (It can also revive you if you’ve got the items stocked, assuming that it’s not on cooldown, AKA you haven’t been spamming it.) 

You pretty much need the zipline to make your way through areas, and the shield definitely comes in handy, but the OWL still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  I’m the one with the gun, aren’t I?  That’s what I’m here for, up to and including playing the game.  Why would I want to press a button and have the game do the work for me?


It’s not as if I don’t have enough tools at my disposal.  Setting aside the player’s skill, Kellan can still scan an area with his echo tool and pinpoint enemies behind walls and such.  It’s a necessary evil, I suppose, but if you’re using it effectively, it does take away some of the guesswork and moment-to-moment victories (or failures) that the player could want.  If things always go according to plan -- the way you want, thanks to your skill and tool set -- then what’s the point of even pretending like there’s a challenge? 

I also can’t help but wonder just what tools the Helghast have -- if any -- that gives them an advantage.  Circumstantially they have numbers, and can keep spawning as long as a tripped alarm keeps blaring, but superior numbers tend not to matter in Fiction Land.  So what tech can they use to impede my progress?  It’s true that they do present some challenge, but only in the expected sense, not because they bring anything new to the table.  What can they use to thwart me, or make me consider them as a threat? 

I’ll tell you one thing: it’s not their cameras.  Because apparently, the Helghast thought it was a good idea o make security cams that only monitor a small, highlighted, slow-moving square of the room at a time.  SCIENTIFIC PROGRESS!

…HOVER.


I have my complaints about the gameplay, but for the most part I can look past them.  Shadow Fall isn’t what I’d call revolutionary in any way (or even all that exciting, if we’re being honest), but it is competent.  It’s a ways away from being the worst game ever, and I can understand why people would like it more than Destiny.  Or instead of Destiny, for that matter. 

But the thing that kept me from going any further into Shadow Fall was the story -- or to be more precise, the way it integrated into the gameplay.  Imagine this scenario: I cleared a part of the dam sequence and went further toward a facility at its edge, with the hopes of finding some Vetkans who survived (or might have survived) the crash-landing of a ship.  But before I entered the facility, I used my echo to find some Helghast stationed inside.  It would have been easy enough to go in and take them out -- especially since the game lets you knife one guy, and hit a QTE to throw a knife at another -- but I didn’t.  I leapt up onto the facility’s incline and crouched down.

And I listened.  Because the two guys were talking -- and plenty.


It wasn’t anything life-changing or original, but the conversation between the two Helghast went on for minutes.  They talked about things like their families, their losses in the war and the current conflict, the ethics of battle, current events, and the like.  I know why it was there, of course.  It’s there to humanize the enemy, and show that they’re more than guys that just happen to dress in incredibly evil-looking armor.  That conversation, and probably dozens like it throughout the game, is supposed to lend credence to the idea that the KZ-verse is full of shades of gray.  It’s supposed to add some depth, and make more than just another dumb shooter.  It’s supposed to be the exact thing I’d want out of a game.

Except it wasn’t.  It backfired spectacularly.

I completely lost my will to play the game.  I went a couple of areas past that one, but upon falling onto a section of the landscape that -- surprise -- was actually an instant-death area despite looking no different from the rest of the level, I turned off the game and never looked back.  Yes, it’s good that the game tried to humanize its characters, but here’s the problem: up to that point, it only humanized one group: the ostensible villains.  Kellan, his dad, his surrogate dad, and the rest of the Vetkans hadn’t gotten anything up to that point.  I guess the idea is that they’re supposed to be the victims and thus identifiable, but I didn’t get the sense that the scales were balanced.  That’s a problem.

Much like this woman's hair, who is apparently a part of the KZ canon.


It’s entirely possible -- probable, even -- that the game would go on to show that the Vetkans are not even remotely decent guys, and that the Helghast are (even more of) good people pushed to extremes, but to what end?  The way things stand, I’m not about to sympathize with either, or understand them when the entire basis of the plot is built on a dumb decision.  I’m about ready to call everyone involved an asshole and be done with it. 

The Vetkans did wrong.  The Helghast did wrong.  That’s all there is to it, because the game didn’t give me a reason to care about anything else.  And yes, that’s something that a story -- game or otherwise -- can do at its outset…if not SHOULD do.  But Shadow Fall didn’t.  The assumption was that I would buy into the game and its conventions just ‘cause, and would have preferred for me to not think about the inherent problems, just ‘cause


But that’s not good enough.  I have no desire to hurt the Helghast.  They didn’t wreck my hometown.  They didn’t start an armed conflict with my people.  They aren’t my enemies.  They may not be real, but by trying to make them real, they just drove a wedge between me and the game.  “KILL THESE PEOPLE!” the game demands.  “But why?” I ask back.  And I don’t get an answer.  I’m just expected to kill, because that’s just what you do in a war.  And that may very well be true, but that’s the thing.  I’m playing a video game.  I’m not in a war.  I’m not a soldier.

And not even the game sees you as a soldier.  I’m the child getting strung along by the father, forced to follow and perform at his command to keep getting the praise I’m apparently so hungry for.

…HOVER.  HOVER -- AND LOTS OF IT.


You know, at this point I have to wonder something.  “Epic” is a phrase that gets tossed out a lot these days, and it’s no secret that a lot of games aspire to be “epic” (why else would there be a company literally called Epic Games?).  But the thing that’s becoming increasingly clear -- as if it wasn’t already -- is that the games that try the hardest to be epic are the ones that fail the hardest.  They’re pursuing that goal, the status symbol, without any idea of how to get there.  Shadow Fall is just one more that stumbles along the way.

A game like Shadow Fall superficially increases the scale without understanding how to give that scale support.  In a lot of ways, it feels like the player’s presence -- his thought at large -- is actually unwelcome.  We’re just supposed to accept what’s been thrown our way, because some figure from on high decreed “because I said so”.  And it'll all work out, because it's what's best for us. 


The obvious remedy for this would be to tone down the scale.  If you don’t have the means, skill, or will to explore all the facets necessary for a bigger conflict, then don’t make a bigger conflict.  For all the problems I have with The Last of Us, there’s a reason why it succeeded: because it was a smaller, more personal tale that could resonate with players.  That’s something we can appreciate and get attached to, more so than any “war” built on stupid pretenses.

So here’s the question I have.  If you’re not going to give that scale weight -- if you’re not willing to explore the possibilities that are required in your own work -- then why the fuck would you even bother?

HOVER.  ALL OF THE HOVER.


There.  I’m out.  I’m done with this game.  And this miniseries is increasingly starting to look like a stupid idea…which I have to admit I kind of suspected going in, but whatever.  I started, and I’m gonna finish it.  Even if it kills me.  And the way things are looking, it probably might.

So let’s keep the nonsense train going.  What’s next on the list?


What?  Huh?  You mean…I actually get to talk about something goodThat was an option?!



3 comments:

  1. I only like the first Killzone. This one showed no appeal to me.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Cripes, I forgot that KZ1 was even a thing. Like, I only started knowing/caring about KZ when KZ2 was being used to showcase the PS3's potential power, and whatnot -- what with it being the "Halo Killer" the prophecies spoke of. I...have my doubts that the prophecy has been fulfilled. Not yet, at least. Then again, considering Halo 4 and that nonsense, how much effort could it possibly take?


    In any case, I'll gladly take your word for it vis a vis KZ1. I'm just gonna go ahead and assume that it's got the same situation as Kingdom Hearts, wherein the first one was plenty competent, but then the franchise at large decided to take a rather decisive shit all over itself with the sequels that followed.


    ...That's my theory, and no one can take that away from me. Except, you know, concrete evidence to the contrary. But who needs that?

    ReplyDelete
  3. You know, I JUST saw that clip the other day. And...yeah. I tend not to watch movie trailers for anything unless I have to (i.e. I'm actually in a movie theater and thus THERE'S NO ESCAPE), but somehow I can still see Bay giving the OK on something like this.


    And as a result, my soul is now bleeding.


    I want to believe that Michael Bay is a pretty good guy, but given some of the stuff he's said, the vices he's known for, and all the THINGS his name is attached to, he's not making it easy on me. Like, he should be getting better by now, right? Trying to convince others to do better, if not the man himself, right? Now that he's made all of the money, he can focus on doing some real good with the power and opulence he wields. Right? Right?


    Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight?


    Someone call a metaphysicist. I'm leaking all over the damn place here.

    ReplyDelete