Killzone: Shadowfall flirts with some interesting ideas during its first two minutes, but then it turns into a story so poorly written that it has to be a purposeful parody of stupid shooter stories or else a meta commentary on how prejudice causes one to forget the past.
At the very least, the game has a great premise, ripe for political and social commentary. The planet Vekta is at war with the planet Helghan. Vekta destroys Helghan, and then realizes that that action was perhaps a bit extreme, so Vekta offers the survivors refuge and gives them half of the Vektan planet as reparation, which is also a bit extreme but at least we’ve established that the Vekta government doesn’t know the meaning of the word “restraint.” This means half of the Vektan citizenry is evicted from their homes and forced to relocate to “their” side of the planet.
I love this premise. I love that the Helghan are both refugees and invaders. It’s a premise that’s interested in exploring the aftermath of war, not just the onslaught of war, but then the opening cut scene ends and the narrative trouble begins.
The first level casts you as a small child who’s following his father to the massive wall that now separates Vekta from “New-Helghan.” You’ve already been evicted from your home, and now you’re just trying to reach safety, which is weird because relocating shouldn’t be dangerous. Chaotic and confusing, yes, since half the planet is moving, but not life threatening. It is life threatening, however, since Helghan soldiers are killing any remaining Vektan citizens on this side of the wall. This first level is a stealth level, which means the Helghan soldiers will shoot you and your father on sight if you’re spotted. In fact, they do shoot your father on sight, and then execute him as he tells them he’s just trying to get away and pleads for his life.
Not 10 seconds after the opening cut scene establishes the Helghan people as refugees of a destroyed planet, the game then recasts them as powerful oppressors. The Helghan are suddenly evil enemies that you shouldn’t feel bad for killing. This immediate about-face raises some important questions like, “How are the refugees equipped with this kind of military power?” or more importantly, “How is the Vekta government okay with this?” Even if we assume that both sides still harbor some justifiable animosity towards each other, that doesn’t explain how the refugees can be justified in killing Vektan civilians before they even have a chance to relocate.
The simple truth is that this is just a horribly obvious contradiction between the needs of the gameplay and the desires of the story. The story wants to be a nuanced exploration of war, and the gameplay just needs shit to shoot. I get it, and I can suspend my disbelief to just shoot shit as long as it makes a modicum of sense.
Soon you and your father meet a Shadow Marshall, which is essentially a Vektan Marine, and for a moment, the story risks making sense: The Helghans’ prejudice causes them to bite the hand that feeds, a Vekta Marine bears witness to these killings, and the war begins anew. That makes more than a modicum of sense, it justifies me shooting shit, and I’m on board with that. But that’s not what happens.
Your father rightly asks why this is happening. “There was an agreement. We were guaranteed safe passage out of here,” he says, as the game acknowledges its own inconsistency. The Shadow Marshall responds, “Hey buddy, I don’t like it any more than you do. But until you get to the Wall, it’s their rules.”
So not only do the refugees suddenly become well-armed soldiers, but the doesn’t-know-the-meaning-of-the-word-restraint Vektan government suddenly becomes cowardly and kowtows to the people whose home planet they just blew up. It’s one thing to be inconsistent, but Shadowfall acknowledges its inconsistency and then hand waves it away with even more inconsistency. This is just the beginning for a game that reaches impressive heights of self-parody.
There’s also the fact that you’re sneaking around a city that looks like it’s been bombed and ravaged, but you’re on Vekta and the war occurred on Helghan. Why is this city in rubble? I’ve played Killzone 2 and Killzone 3, and both of those games take place on Helghan. Even if we approach this from a gameplay perspective, what is gained from turning the setting into a ruin? Is it easier to design a stealth level amongst rubble rather than it is around a working city? I hope not because it would be offensively lazy to change the setting of the game with no narrative justification just to make things easier for the level designer (and the level design in Shadowfall is awful anyways).
This confusion continues throughout the story, as if both the characters and the game itself have forgotten their history.
You see Helghans living in squalor and one character says this is because of all the sanctions leveled against New-Helghan. This is the first time that sanctions are mentioned, and they’re never brought up again. If it’s meant to portray the Helghans as underdogs or as oppressed, this moment fails because I know they still control half the planet, which means half the planet’s resources. No amount of economic sanctions could reduce half the planet to squalor. Even if we assume this to be true, economic sanctions from Vekta are a rather tame response to the murder of fleeing citizens, and that tameness is inconsistent with the doesn’t-know-the-meaning-of-the-word-restraint Vekta of the opening sequence.
One audio log has a Helghan soldier pontificating on a future in which his children won’t be oppressed, but again it’s hard to imagine these people being oppressed when they control half of the planet. The game also goes to rather great lengths to establish that both sides have powerful military and spy networks. This soldier’s sense of oppression is entirely divorced from the reality presented to us.
Even more glaring is the fact that Helghan, the planet that was destroyed in the opening, is actually not destroyed and is home to the big behind-the-scenes bad guy who just so happens to be building a massive army on the planet’s surface. Where and how he got the resources for such an undertaking aren’t as confusing as where he got the manpower, considering that all the Helghans were relocated to Vekta in the opening.
Then there’s the typical super powerful secret weapon that you’re trying to stop, which is initially presented as a bio-weapon that can target one race or the other (which is appropriately genocidal given the prejudice of both sides), yet when it’s actually released it acts more like an EMP, felling Vekta ships from the sky while you, a Vekta soldier caught in the middle of the blast, remain unhurt and very much not dead or dying from a infectious genocidal disease.
And finally, at the very end you stop a full fledged call to war by assassinating a high-profile Vektan general. Because everyone knows the best way to ease political tension is with a very public assassination.
Shadowfall forgets, ignores, and rewrites established plot points so often it feels like it’s being made up as it goes along by an eight-year-old with too many toys. That kind of absolute disregard for logic and continuity would be endearing if the game didn’t take itself so seriously. Again, Shadowfall is a drama that can only be appreciated as a parody of itself or as some meta commentary on how prejudice can make one blind to the past.
Helghans are murderers that complain about sanctions and oppression. Vekta is willing to blow up their enemy’s planet but don’t fight back when civilians are killed on their home turf. Vektan cities are reduced to rubble even though no war ever occurred there. Helghan is destroyed, then it’s not. The Helghan people are relocated to Vekta, but enough sneakily stay behind on the not-really-destroyed planet to build an exceptional fleet of starships. The bio-weapon is actually not a bio-weapon. The best way to stop a war is with a public assassination.
Actually, that last one makes sense in the world of Killzone, because if Shadowfall teaches us anything, it’s that the most obvious things are also the most quickly forgotten.