E3 2013: Killzone: Shadow Fall & Killzone: Mercenary Preview

June 23, 2013

At Sony’s dedicated area at E3 for PAL press, I was given the opportunity to go hands-on with the PlayStation Vita’s upcoming Killzone: Mercenary and the PlayStation 4 launch title Killzone: Shadow Fall. Before discussing my time with the latter, I can say that Mercenary left a rather sizable impression. The game is set parallel to Killzone 2 and 3, with the player assuming the role of a mercenary in the war between Helghan and humans.

I should also preface my impressions of Mercenary by noting that I do not own a Vita and have only briefly tinkered with a friend’s console. I previously found adapting to the Vita’s setup rather awkward, and even though the Xbox controller is just about an natural extension of my hand nowadays, I thought playing Uncharted: Golden Abyss was somewhat unwieldy. Hence, you could imagine the surprise at my complete turnaround when I picked up Killzone: Mercenary.

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The microsecond I started played, I immediately adapted and felt at right home with Killzone: Mercenary‘s controls. The game feels natural, robust, and astonishingly, like a console game in the palm of your hand. Mercenary‘s shooter gameplay is just as smooth as its console cousin. Not only are the controls impeccable, but I think Killzone: Mercenary is the most beautiful Vita game in existence. The developers have retooled Killzone‘s PS3 engine for small screen, still retaining the same detail and level of fidelity.

Killzone: Mercenary delivers the same experience as a PS3 Killzone title. The game perfectly emulates the look and handling of the PS3 games, while still delivering a innovate and original Vita experience. Touch-screen functionality hasn’t been shoehorned into the game, but only included where it feels natural. Not only does Killzone: Mercenary include a sizable solo campaign, but it also features a 4 versus 4 multiplayer mode on a good set of maps.

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The good news continues, as Killzone: Shadow Fall had me picking my mouth off the floor in surprise too. Again developed by Guerrilla Games, the game is set to launch alongside the PlayStation 4 this year. Set 30 years after a nuke leaves Helghan largely inhabitable in Killzone 3, the ISA have allowed Helghan refugees settle on Vekta. As shown in the first video for Killzone: Shadow Fall, a large wall divides the two societies in a large city. However, this structure does little to extinguish lasting grudges, and as Shadow Fall begins, a cold war or sorts ignites between the two sides. Players assume the role of Shadow Marshall Lucas Kellan, with the mission of preventing an all-out conflict between the Vektan inhabitants.

Killzone has always set the graphical benchmark for the PlayStation system, and Shadow Fall continues that tradition. Fans were astonished by the visual fidelity captured in the game’s first demo, with a towering city delivering eye-popping detail and lighting effects. Shadow Fall also breaks free to of the dark colour palette of previous games with bright and vibrant tones, and finally feels like the futuristic sci-fi game it was always meant to be. Our E3 demonstration took place in a forest on the outskirts of the city and possessed the same level of graphical prowess as the first unveiling. Detailed greenery, rushing water and the sun glowing realistically through the trees appropriately set the tone for what was undoubtedly one of the best-looking games on show.

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Killzone: Shadow Fall offers players something new while, still retaining the familiar elements it is known for, like engaging shooter gameplay and an innovate cover system. Importantly, the developers want to release a product that delivers more than standard shooter fare.

We begin our hands-on demonstration looking over the forest from higher ground. The demo setting might be described as semi-sandbox like environment, with objective points littered across the map. Our Guerrilla representative explained that tasks they can be completed in whatever order I wished, and that completing some objectives first could even impact others. I also hear there the game will have optional areas to explore and side objectives. Killzone: Shadow Fall won’t be entirely non-linear, but nevertheless a significant move away from the shooting corridors and funnelling seen in previous games.

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The first new feature I learnt of was Kellan’s zipline. Players can deploy a zip line to quickly reach lower levels of the map (but not higher areas, to keep things balanced). From my vantage point, I zipped down to platform, and by positioning the camera correcting and following a prompt, I performed a takedown on a unsuspecting Helghan soldier. This action was my first demonstration of Shadow Fall‘s dynamic approach, in addition to several other new features have been integrated into the Killzone’s usual first-person gameplay.

The first objective I elected to complete was finding an allied crash site and a group ISA survivors. I could have gone in all guns glazing, but the Guerrilla staffer took the chance to show me the range of other tactics at Kellan’s disposal. One alternative is to hang back, as Kellan carries a hybrid assault rifle and sniper rifle. Pushing left on the d-pad transforms the gun into a ranged killing machine. With the assistance of a optic scope, players can line up shots accurately and holding down on the trigger for a few seconds releases a powerful shot of energy that obliterates enemies with ease.

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The single biggest new feature in Killzone: Shadow Fall is the addition of an AI companion drone, called the OWL. Using a combination of directional swipes on the Dualshock 4′s touchpad and the left trigger, you can deploy the drone to specific areas of the map and have it perform several offensive and defensive actions. The OWL can be ordered to stun a group of enemies to create a diversion, provide cover fire, or even bring up a stationary shield that you can shoot through, but enemies can’t.

Finally, Kellan has a another unique set of abilities that can change how you approach the battle. Pressing down on the d-pad scans the environment for enemies, highlighting any patrolling Helghan soldiers, even if they might otherwise be blocked by the environment. However, this feature is not without risk, as if you keep scanning until a meter located at the bottom of the screen fills, a pulse signal is sent out alerting all nearby enemies. Further, if Kellan becomes overwhelmed by enemies, another press of the d-pad can give you a few seconds of bullet time. This feature has to be recharged, so again, it is not without balance.

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Shadow Fall‘s Helghan enemies are rather tough, hiding behind cover and frequently attempting to flank you. On more than one occasion I found a Helghan charging right at my face with a shotgun in hand. Enemies can call in reinforcements using alarm posts scattered about the map, but you thankfully can use to OWL to shut them down first. As I neared the ISA survivors, the Guerrilla rep noted the OWL makes an excellent scout, and can be sent inside structures to funnel out enemies first. Deploying the drone to an interior a room, the OWL’s shock charge sent several enemies flooding outside. Kellan’s assault rifle made short work of the disorientated Helghan, clearing the way for me to zip line to a lower level and find my downed allies. At that point, my session came to a close, but the staffer indicated that I had only scratched the surface in what could be completed in this particular level.

My hands-on time with Killzone: Shadow Fall offered an excellent snapshot of the game, and overall, was one of personal highlights of E3. While still retaining the franchise’s engaging shooter gameplay, the developers are clearing trying to evolve the series – and shooters overall – for the next generation. Familiar Killzone gameplay is augmented with innovate new abilities, a semi-open world and dynamic objectives. Combined with Guerrilla’s ability to deliver stunning visuals, Killzone: Shadow Fall might be justification enough for buying a PlayStation 4 on launch day.