Killzone: Shadow Fall’s director talks pacing, scale, designing for next-gen

Killzone: Shadow Fall’s director talks pacing, scale, designing for next-gen

Killzone: Shadow Fall is one of the most graphically intensive games in the PlayStation 4 launch lineup, but the game’s director, Steven ter Heide, had trouble naming any specific effect that had been held back due to previous generation systems. The biggest change in the latest Killzone game is scope: You can see a very long way in the distance, and there are areas in the game that are geographically massive.

“You don't have to fake anything in the distance. We can have larger draw distances, so you can engage those AI over larger distances,” he said. “We've given you a rifle, for example, that doubles as a sniper rifle. So previously, where games you would have the sniper section, and it would be tailored towards that weapon, now we have long-distance combat.”

This ability to see into the distance and to have more square footage to play with changed how the game was designed. The Killzone series has always featured slow, lumbering combat, but here you’re often asked to slow down and enjoy the scenery. Mood is sometimes as important as action, and thinking ahead is crucial.

“We had to slow down the pace a little bit. It's not a constant roller coaster that you're on, it's not dialed up to 11 all the time,” ter Heide explained. “It's slower paced and we give you more options. And part of giving you more options is giving you kind of a robotic companion that you can order around. In previous games, you would have companions and they would do all sorts of stuff, but we really want to have the player be in control.”

He’s referring to the OWL, your robotic companion that can be sent ahead to attack the enemy, create a zipline for you to slide into a lower area, or hack computers. It can revive you if you fall in combat. It’s can’t be destroyed, but it has finite health; if you don’t use it well you can temporarily lose the use of the hardware, and this can often leave you feeling under gunned and outmatched.

You also have the ability to sort of “ping” your environments with active radar that will paint your enemies. The longer you hold the button, the longer the range of this sensor. Hold it too long, and it overloads and tips off the enemy. Using this active radar and the OWL in tandem will allow you to move slowly, gain information, and engage with the enemy on your own terms in most situations.

This is important, because the team wanted to change how you progressed through the game, but it took some getting used to.

“It's difficult for the designers to break out of that habit. With corridors, you know what kind of systems you have to have. You just run to a certain checkpoint or to a certain trigger, and then the next event will trigger,” ter Heide said. “Whereas if you have a much more open environment, you need to deal with… well, what happens if you trigger these guys here? Will they actually hunt you down? Come find you while you're in the other section? You need to have different systems, adjust the AI. You need to adjust how does the player reads the environments.”

There is corridor combat in the game, certainly, but you’ll also be shown much larger areas that let you tackle the game in a more open way. That was intentional.

“So for example, in one of the levels, you can go to a communications tower, you can go to a crash site, that's ultimately what you need to do. There's also an armory. And depending on the order you solve these things, the level plays out differently,” ter Heide told the Report. 

“If you first go to the communications tower and you shut down the alarm systems, for the rest of the level, the enemies can't call in reinforcements anymore. So it affects how the level flows, and for the player to understand what his options are, we needed to build that objective system that tells you these are the options you have, and taps into how you want to play.”

I’m only a few hours into the game at the moment, but I’ve already run into areas of Killzone where you’re given the freedom to tackle the situation a few different ways, and areas that caused frustration became much easier when I remembered to SLOW DOWN. Ping the area with your radar. Send the OWL out first. Make sure you’re not firing unless you know where everyone is and how to tackle them out.

And, yes, the game is often stunningly beautiful.

“We have larger draw distances, we can do all of these things at a much higher fidelity.  It's running 1080p, it's running well above 30 [fps],” ter Heide said. “We have destructability. The world feels a lot more dynamic and vibrant, so we don't have to make as many sacrifices as you previously would have, on our previous consoles.”

So far I’m enjoying the game immensely. We’ll have more thoughts soon.