A PlayStation exclusive shooter that has never quite broken through the way Sony probably hoped it would, Killzone has nonetheless grafted its way to launch title status. That’s a position to be both coveted and feared, as the burden of expectation and a new generation’s comparatively unfamiliar hardware has made fools of many in the past. In the lead-up to release, Shadow Fall appeared to walk the talk, and would perhaps claim a chunk of a Call of Duty audience bored to tears of the modern military shooter. Unfortunately it has arrived hugely undercooked – a front-loaded visual feast that quickly descends into mediocrity.

Shadow Fall picks up just after the Interplanetary Strategic Alliance (goodies) bombed the bejesus out of Helghan (meanies) at the conclusion of Killzone 3. A billion were killed, the planet rendered uninhabitable, and a hefty karmic debt forged, so the ISA decide to gift the surviving Helghast half of Vekta, displacing many of its own people and setting up a futuristic Cold War-type scenario in the process. There is even a city divided by an enormous wall to go along with the Helghast’s Nazi-biting sartorial style.

Killzone: Shadow Fall review

Of course, the truce between the two slightly distinct species of human is surface-level only, and it’s not long before under-the-table shin-kicking devolves into a mutual across-the-table stabathon. The player is Lucas Keller, a top ISA Shadow Marshal with a very personal reason to despise the Helghast, until a certain encounter has him somewhat questioning things – when he's not praising god and passing the ammo, of course.

The first thing most will do upon booting Killzone is pick their jaw up off the floor. Vekta in the year 2390 is a gleaming glass, steel and greenery-filled paradise, and the PlayStation 4 renders its lavish colours and bustling hillside city beautifully. When it wants to be, Killzone is absolutely astounding visually – one of those games that passersby will stop in their tracks to gawp at. It’s not just that the art is gorgeous, the draw distance is often massive, and an insane number of things bustle about on screen at once.

Killzone: Shadow Fall review
Killzone: Shadow Fall review

The facial animation is also magnificent, and this is the beginning of the generation – the future’s looking very good indeed. There are also some wicked smaller touches, like the amazing reflection effect in the sniper rifle scope when it’s not in use, or the way you can see Lucas’ shadow. It’s a delectable visual feast – there are no two ways about it. So when the tiniest amount of pop-in occasionally surfaces, only the truly loathsome will see fit to complain.

Gameplay-wise, Shadow Fall controls like a hybrid of Call of Duty and Halo, which is terrific. As usual for the franchise, the guns conform to one style and that’s maxibeef, but despite the firepower, the player’s movement is a confident saunter rather than a strained stagger.

The main weapon is a machine gun/rail gun hybrid which in the second mode has a handy zoom but none of a videogame sniper rifle’s usual subtlety. There’s also the OWL attack drone which does as its name suggests, but it can also deploy a translucent shield, or function as a zipline. So versatile! Our buddy OWL also hacks things such as alarm consoles to prevent the arrival of reinforcements, and can revive Lucas – provided it is charged and he has some spare adrenaline. The former is required if OWL takes too much damage or simply needs a rest after all that shield construction, while the latter is picked up by Lucas and may also be used to slow time and provide a health boost in combat.

A swipe on the DualShock 4’s touch pad selects the OWL’s function, and the new controller’s light bar glows red when Lucas is hurt, and audio logs play through its miniature speaker Wii U-style, which is pretty cool.

Killzone: Shadow Fall review
Killzone: Shadow Fall review
Killzone: Shadow Fall review

Lucas has one last piece of tech that ends up being very handy – a “tactical echo” that shows the position of enemies and items through walls for a few seconds. The longer the button is held, the farther the scan extends, and its inventor was thoughtful enough to incorporate a chime to warn the player when it’s about to overheat. That said chime was clearly inspired by the obnoxious bellow of an agitated sea lion is something of a baffling design oversight, as it brings any nearby enemies running over – presumably to ask why a stealth device has a horn.

After a surprisingly downbeat first half hour, Shadow Fall’s campaign shows some promise with a mission we saw at E3 that has Lucas rescuing the crew of a ship downed in Helghan territory. Set on a steep, forested hill bordered by the dividing wall at the top and a river at the bottom and with several industrial structures to explore, it’s a wide level that in theory gives the player plenty of approach options.

Unfortunately, as it does frequently throughout the singleplayer, the stealthy path proves to be mostly untenable, with enemies simply too good at spotting Lucas out of the corner of their eyes through the smallest of gaps at the greatest of distances. However, the level is well-designed, and a pleasing openness and player choice appears to be the order of the day.

Absolutely guttingly, from there it’s a downhill freefall tumble through a series of at-best uninspired, at-worst downright awful chapters – many filled with the modern first-person shooter’s most obnoxious tropes.

Killzone: Shadow Fall review

The levels immediately thin out substantially, the zipline becomes surplus to requirements, and an abundance of characterless settings and tedious firefights will leave players reeling. There is no reason to explore when it is possible, and while Killzone games are always on the tough-ish side, the Helghast’s ability to spot and shoot Lucas through small holes in walls or the gaps in stairs make working one’s way through the game feel like a chore.

Objective markers are also very difficult to see, and even enemies can be tough to pick out. I resorted to waiting until I was hit before bothering to locate any stragglers.

An early lowlight has players on a space ship removing power cells from panels and placing them in other panels in order to progress, and that already-dull mechanic is stretched to level-length, sans enemies. The campaign improves marginally after that, but any goodwill built by its looks is vaporised in Shadow Fall’s atrocious second half, where it poorly executes beyond-tired tropes such as marking targets, hiding on command, and piloting remote control vehicles. There is even some platforming, if you can believe it, the obligatory "you're almost dead so walk slow" section, and a flying section so terrible it’s hard to believe even made it into the game.

Some poorly-designed, generic settings and a spotty story are partly to blame for this poor state of affairs, but more guilt resides on the shoulders of some lousy AI, awful dialogue, and the “no-one wins a war” theme that smashes the player in the face at every opportunity. Neither side comes off looking at all redeemable, and when one is modelled on the Nazis, that's a huge problem. So repugnant are their actions, it’s impossible to care about either at all, and forever the miseryguts, Shadow Fall bludgeons the player throughout with its unrelentingly dour spirit and pummelling soundtrack. A certain bleakness is all well and good, but to choose sides here is to choose a favourite cancer, and Vekta simply isn't enjoyable to inhabit.

It's possible to have a story or setting that doesn't engage or create investment in players, but the game had better inspire them with some creative gameplay or level design. Beyond its incredible early-game art, Shadow Fall will only inspire thoughts of better shooters, or perhaps of turning off the brand new console and sitting in the sun for a while. To be fair, there are a number of protracted moments when the game allows itself a second to really stretch and breathe – to let the player just exist outside the shrieking of orders, slo-mo gunplay, and bass drops of battle. But in these quiet sections, disinterest rather than reflection rushes to fill the void.

The multiplayer component of Shadow Fall is not available locally until the PlayStation 4 launch on November 29, and that has almost certainly worked against it in this review. Bad FPS campaigns are sadly the norm these days – Ghosts was only redeemed by its comprehensive and well-tuned multiplayer modes – but we can only review what we are given. It gives us absolutely no joy to say that what we were given is slop.

Stunningly presented, pretty, dazzling, luminous slop. What an incredible let-down.

Update 20 Nov: This review is of the singleplayer component of Killzone: Shadow Fall only. It will be updated once the multiplayer component is available to play. This may cause the score to change.

Update 10 Dec: Our Shadow Fall multiplayer review has now been published, and the score below has been revised upward (from the original rating of 5.5) to reflect the strength of the multiplayer mode.