[Contains spoilers of Killzone 3]
I approach every game in the Killzone series with almost unmatched optimism. The first game – while not perhaps the Halo-killer in terms of popularity and sales- remained the greatest shooter on that system; something that games on subsequent systems have managed to live up to for their respective consoles. With such a great track record, expectations have always been high for the series, but Guerrilla Games (and more recently Guerrilla Cambridge) has managed to hit the high bar set by marketing and media alike to deliver fun and beautiful shooters that push the technology seemingly beyond breaking point. Needless to say I have had more than my fair share of fun shooting at those clearly fascist-inspired red-eyed goons.
But underneath the inspired locales and solid shooting is a more sordid tale. Through subtle undertones, decaying environment, and direct narrative devices, Killzone paints the picture of mixed and confused morals and almost religious dedication to one’s ideals. Just as Wolfenstein: The New Order dealt with fascism and genocide did earlier this year, the Killzone series always carefully but directly covers narrative and thematic ground most shooters don’t allude to let alone explore. The battle between the Helghast and the Vektans is a war long fought based on ideology and history – in some ways not unlike many conflicts currently killing innocents across the globe. In short Killzone makes me incredibly uneasy.
Playstation 4 launch title, Killzone: Shadow Fall, is probably the most successful in injecting moral ambiguity into the heart of its narrative. While the previous three main games in the series have toyed with themes of humanity and morality in fits and starts in its narrative, Shadows Fall is simple drenched in dread and scenes of injustices. The end of Killzone 3 saw the destruction of the Helghast home planet of Helghan, and what amounts to the wholesale genocide of its people. Who is left – the refugees – have been granted asylum on the planet of their enemy, placed in encampments past a heavily guarded wall that separates them from the rest of the city’s population. Right from the get-go, Shadow Fall paints a bleak picture of a world gone crazy, and one where human suffering is not only allowed, but perhaps condoned. The segregation conveniently blinkers the general population, while the military maintains the tension between the two races in order to perpetuate the ‘us vs. them’ mentality of the populous. And the random acts of aggression by Helghan soldiers, fallen prey to the propaganda of ‘terrorist groups’, gives the military just enough ammunition to maintain the fear of the populous and forward their agenda.
And from that point on, in filling the shoes of a Vektan military Shadow Marshal, you’ll never be fully comfortable with your actions, as it becomes a case of how many innocent lives are considered justifiable collateral.
Its the construction of such a vivid and believable world that Guerrilla uses as leverage to construct a world full of ambiguity in morality. In many ways the amazing contrast between the opulence of the Vektans and the poverty of the refugee Helghans is brought to life by carefully constructed passages and level progression – helped in large part by the incredible technical and graphical accomplishment afforded to the developer by the Playstation 4 hardware – which take you on a journey to give you a rounded view of the true cost of the conflict. The sequences in the refugee camps where you are witness to – and in some cases can intervene – Helghans ready to end their own lives are memorable punctuations that give that player an insight into the human toll of the subjectively frivolous conflict. It’s one thing to use graphical power to construct realistic environments, its quite another to use it to create a believable world that conveys a real sense of curiosity and empathy.
Killzone has always been an amazingly constructed world with incredibly deep lore that uses a shooter to tell its story. Shadow Fall is no different, and in many ways, takes what seems to be Guerrilla Games’ development modus operandi to the next level. The strong focus on morals, and reflection of current global conflicts in its themes whether intentional or not, is a stroke of genius that makes it stand head and shoulders above other games that feature shooting as a central mechanic. The sense of unease created both directly and indirectly is a brilliant device that Guerrilla Games uses to full effect, which rather than overlaying a binary moral mechanic over the game itself, achieves the same by attempting to alter the player’s mental and ideological state as they approach the narrative set before them. Killzone may not be a revolution in gameplay, but its a revolution in creating a morally ambiguous path for the player. More importantly it provides a fictional mirror through which to view (and understand) some of the most violent conflicts which are killing innocent people across the world every day.