The latest round of the cold war is over, with Sony unleashing the first salvo as the review embargo expired on its PS4 launch exclusives at 2pm GMT today. From a critic's point of view at least, today marks weapons free.
Launch titles are never the best games a system has to offer, but in the vital early scrabble for retail purchase and positive column inches they can make or break the public's first impressions of a machine. Exclusives are regarded as an even closer indication of what the console will offer, symbolising the platform holder's target demographics, key production values and deal-making prowess.
Sony's exclusive line-up is a brief one, featuring a couple of rank outsiders and a dependable franchise which has nonetheless done little to set the world on fire during any of its many iterations. Killzone has always been pretty and solidly built, but it seems unlikely that EA or Activision are too concerned about it challenging either of their recruitment-poster FPS series. Resogun comes from a talented team which has already experienced some real success and could hold new surprises, especially in the art of making niche genres shine. Knack is the dark horse of the trio: a game that some see as a vanity project for Mark Cerny, the hardware engineer behind both the PS4 and the Vita. Cerny is an eminent, provably intelligent and experienced systems designer, and while he's seen plenty of success with older platformers like Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter, will he be able to replicate that magic on next-gen all these years later?
Guerrilla's dystopian FPS series has been one of the first-party flagbearers of the last generation, being rolled out to both PSP and Vita as well as its more natural homes of PS2 and 3. Consistently establishing graphical milestones and pushing the machines to their limits has always been at the core of what the Amsterdam studio has aimed for, but the Killzone series has had accusations of sterility and a lack of innovation levelled at it more than once. Killzone: Shadowfall, was promised to address these concerns, introducing more focus on story and character whilst maintaining that crisp tactical fidelity which has earned it a strong fanbase.
For Eurogamer, which awards a solid 7 for Shadowfall, the evidence of Guerrilla's efforts is obvious, but they fall a little short of the marketing hyperbole which preceded the release, a problem not unfamiliar to the developer.
Oli Welsh writes: "If Guerrilla has let itself down a little - only half-delivering on its brief for a more involving story and game design - then at least it has done Sony proud. If you want to give your new console a thorough workout, this is the game to get; there is clear water between it and even the best of the multi-format games."
Although Welsh doesn't feel that Shadowfall's story stands up under too much scrutiny, the trademark graphical brilliance is very much in evidence.
"What you really notice is the lighting - dear God, the lighting. The PS4 has unthrottled the artists' access to this art and they have run amok, drenching every corner of the game in luscious sunsets, glistening reflections, glaring lens flare and richly coloured, mote-filled shafts of neon. It's not subtle, but who cares, it's gorgeous."
Ultimately, however, it's another instalment which steadies the ship but fails to ignite the fireworks properly. "Did Guerrilla run out of time, of conviction, of ideas," asks Welsh? "I'm not sure - and I also don't want to overstate the impact on the game. As a straight-ahead shooting gallery, Shadow Fall is still muscular and confident, with that signature Killzone weight to it, all deliberate reload animations, thudding slides into cover and punchy, every-bullet-counts impact."
Elsewhere, Shadowfall receives a similar reception on similar criteria, with a notable outlier from Polygon's review team. For Gamespot's Kevin VanOrd, though, this is a technical tour de force which fails to surprise, but also doesn't disappoint.
"Like its predecessors, Killzone: Shadow Fall is likely to be described through a technical lens, and the game certainly deserves praise for how many polygons it packs into its most expansive landscapes," he writes in his 7/10 assessment. "Its buttery-smooth performance is also bound to earn kudos: Shadow Fall smooths away the frame rate hitches and texture pop-in we've become so accustomed to in even the most visually impressive console shooters."
However impressive this may be at first glance, however, VanOrd feels that Guerrilla relies on the visual wow-factor a little too heavily, with extended periods of relative inaction being used to showcase looks at the cost of engagement.
"Killzone: Shadow Fall uses its downtime to remind you of how pretty it is, but not in service of any particular narrative effect"
David VanOrd, Gamespot
"Killzone: Shadow Fall uses its downtime to remind you of how pretty it is, but not in service of any particular narrative effect. In one of several weightless sequences, you accompany a sluggish space capsule as it meanders towards its destination, blasting the buzzing drones that appear like clockwork and hinder your progress. It doesn't build tension, deepen your understanding of the conflict, or stimulate you with great action. It's simply boring - one more insubstantial graphical set piece."
One place the game keeps up the pressure is in the multiplayer - never a huge focus for the series but an area which has its fanatical fans. There, VanOrd sees a varied and in-depth offering which owes much to the series trademark mode customisation.
"You can significantly alter the pace of a multiplayer match by altering the parameters. I'm excited to see what anarchy results in a match with everyone armed with electrical squad cannons and carrying maximum ammo, and the personalized warzones I did play were notably different from each other."
Polygon's thoughts on Killzone are less optimistic, nailing a score of five to the makings of a coffin as Arthur Gies lays into a title full of "bluster" and "blunt-force attempts to ram a message home."
Plying a storyline which attempts to evoke some modern-day political comparisons, Gies sees Killzone embroiled in a muddying of moral distinction which may well reflect accurately on global dispute but results in a confusing and unsatisfying conflict to fight yourself.
"As the story progresses, every offense by one side is one-upped by the other," he writes, "further muddying the ugly history of the entire conflict even further...It didn't matter that Killzone: Shadow Fall's script was full of awful, overwrought dialogue, plot holes, or general stupidity, or that the voice acting was frequently painful...it also did an excellent job of murdering any investment I tried to place within the characters or the plot. By the end of the game, I didn't actively want any one side to win or lose. I just didn't care."
Gies' conclusion is no less brutal. "Guerilla's first shot on the PS4 retreads shooter cliches, and poorly. In a launch lineup crowded with shooters, Killzone: Shadow Fall sits at the bottom."
Whilst Killzone is undoubtedly the PS4's AAA standard-bearer, Mark Cerny's Knack has attracted considerable attention and PR push via its connection to the system architect. Always a risky ploy, Knack's gamble seems to have, in the opinions of most of the critics at least, failed rather resolutely.
IGN's Steve Butts is first up to the Pinata plate for a swing at Cerny's platform adventure, dishing out a stinging 5.9 out of ten to a game he feels is restrictive and uninventive - an experience akin to watching a "bad movie on a plane."
"Sony calls Knack a platformer," Butts writes, "but there's really very little exploration or environmental challenges. Sure, there are some jumping sequences and traps, and the ever-present secret rooms, but the succession of fighting areas are small with one obvious entrance and one obvious exit, and it's just lather, rinse, repeat as you move from enemy to enemy."
In a review full of the damning scent of very faint praise indeed, Butts paints Knack as a safe bet which was never expected to excel, but falls short of even that moderate goal.
"There's just not much here worth recommending," he concludes. "Sure, some individual elements show potential, particularly when the scale of the encounters changes as Knack grows, but it never moves beyond playing it safe with the concepts or the characters."
Eurogamer is very much on the same page, delivering another verdict of 4/10 from editor Tom Bramwell.
"Knack lacks the originality, interesting mechanics and strong level design that might have elevated it to the standard of a Super Mario game - or even one of the better Ratchet & Clanks," Bramwell explains. "Instead it feels more like a polished version of the sort of licensed movie tie-in THQ used to churn out to meet cinematic release dates."
Citing issues of repetition, frustration and outright poor design, it's clear that there seems to be a likeable concept buried somewhere within Knack, but one not strong enough to make itself heard above the mediocrity of its presentation. Knack's problems also extend to its visuals, which, coming from the man who designed the platform, are remarkably staid.
"Knack isn't much of a technical showpiece for the PlayStation 4, either. The art style is as flavourless as the script and the streaming level technology has been kicking around for years. There are some impressive draw distances, but nothing to rival PS3 games like the Uncharted series, partly because promising locations like airships and volcanoes are reduced to sequences of boxy corridors and rooms with recycled interiors.
"Knack isn't much of a technical showpiece for the PlayStation 4, either. The art style is as flavourless as the script and the streaming level technology has been kicking around for years"
Tom Bramwell, Eurogamer
"Knack isn't the kind of game you'll want to take home with your PlayStation 4. I'm all in favour of games that transport us back to the good old days of vibrant originality, but Knack simply doesn't."
Representing the wild card of the Knack reviews is Matt Helgeson at Game Informer, who flies in the face of popular opinion to award an 8.25 to a game which "relies heavily on some well-worn sci-fi clichés, but it's well told and populated with some engaging characters."
"It's not the most innovative or the most visually dazzling game," Helgeson concludes. "This won't be the one you put in to show off your new console to your friends. However, when you're done with the prettied-up versions of the big franchises, you'll find yourself wanting to return to Knack. It's got charm and heart, and offers a whole lot of good gameplay. Ultimately, that's still what's important - no matter which generation we're in."
A relative shot in the dark, Housemarque's Resogun has emerged as the most consistently high-scored game of the release exclusives, securing a metascore of 81 in early reviews. At $9.99, or free to PS+ subscribers, Resogun has a good chance of emerging as the winner of the opening line-up.
"While Resogun is easy to get into, some of its systems and unique features provide plenty of depth to welcome you back in for return visits," says Destructoid's Dale North, on his way to a sparkling 9.5/10. "I initially used the Boost ability to blast out of harm's way, but when I later learned that I could use it to blow through enemies to kill them, Boost turned into an offensive move for me. And later, when I realized that boosting through enemies recharges the boost meter, it added another layer of depth to the ability."
For North, Resogun also seems to be the title which really pushes home the computational oomph of the new PlayStation, busting voxels with an intensity previously unknown.
"Resogun really is that rare kind of arcade game that feels like an entirely different beast when played on the toughest setting. It's also the closest the PS4 launch line-up gets to offering a genuine next-gen thrill"
Christian Donlan, Eurogamer
"Resogun is absolutely gorgeous, running at full HD at 60 frames per second. When the sparks start flying, prepare to lose yourself in its splendor. Your ship stays in an unending shower of particles and lighting effects, from beginning to end. I consider the distracting beauty of this game as part of the challenge."
Eurogamer's Christian Donlan agrees, pinning an eight badge to the chest of Resogun and sending Housemarque on its way with its ears full of praise for a game which offers challenge and depth as well as spectacle.
"Although you can race through the game on the rookie setting, firing blindly as you go, to work your way across harder difficulties or to get a proper foothold on the high-score table you're going to need to pay attention to the near-ceaseless stream of information lobbed back at you - much of it coming via a calm computer voice that updates you through the speaker in the DualShock 4."
For Donlan, this is not only a great game in its own right, but also the star of the trio, what is likely to be the system's only 'must have' exclusive for the opening season.
"Resogun really is that rare kind of arcade game that feels like an entirely different beast when played on the toughest setting. It's also the closest the PS4 launch line-up gets to offering a genuine next-gen thrill. Granted, Housemarque's not offering the shock of the new, perhaps - all of the developer's best ideas are actually reassuringly elderly - but it's working with energy, enthusiasm, precision and love."
Resogun's scores are also more tightly grouped, with GamesRadar's 7 marking the lower echelons of early scoring. Nonetheless, for Lucas Sullivan, this is still a beautiful game which showcases the PS4's pixel-pushing grunt.
"The thrill of threading the needle between two incoming projectiles or zigzagging around hostile ships keeps Resogun consistently exciting, with minimal downtime between incoming waves," Sullivan pens. "It sounds like high-scoring heaven--but that euphoria is soon shattered by the primary scoring mechanic."
Despite the thrills on offer, Sullivan talks about frustration and lack of clear feedback muddying an otherwise thrilling experience. Lack of multiplayer is a definite minus, too, and one the central mechanics does no favours for the gameplay.
"Playing Resogun in short bursts is an adrenaline-pumping good time. But the longer you play, and the higher scores you pursue, the more it feels like the point-scoring minutiae are getting in the way of your overall enjoyment. Resogun isn't the Geometry Wars successor that PS4 owners might hope for, since it doesn't induce a trance-like focus or as many heart-pounding close shaves. If we could abolish the human-saving mechanic from the game, we'd do so in a heartbeat, because it feels like that's what's holding Resogun back from achieving pure arcade bliss."