It’s probably not to Shattered Horizon‘s advantage that us fleshy meat bags need a large space-time bending rock to get on with life. Because I guarantee your first hours will mostly be characterized by long, silent “noooooo”‘s as you spin off starfish style into space, whether thanks to more skill endowed astro-bastards, or your own sheer incompetence. And it’s in that vein that throughout my first hours with SH I was bemoaning its faults wide and far in chat rooms across the ether of the internet. But having spent £13.50 on it, I was really quite determined to take some returns off the investment, and frankly, I’m glad I did.
SH doesn’t fall over. It takes the ground from beneath your feet and expects you to work it out for yourself. The zero-G control scheme is certainly carefully designed to allow the standard WSAD FPS gamer to pick it up quickly, with a few extra/unusual controls to give you the full range of movements needed. Where it’s really lacking is in explaining the mechanics of zero-G movement; it takes a good deal of practice to handle the effects of inertia is which vitally important to mastering coasting along stealthily. There’s a manual online that explains things, and I noticed this morning there’s a server with no damage to get the hang of things, but I feel a full tutorial is quite necessary. And not just for movement either. There’s not much explanation of what’s going on around you, or even what you’re meant to be doing. Friendly fire ensues in abundance as a result of general confusion. Indeed, as you’ll see below, I think that this thoroughly skill and tactics based FPS gains in spades for being a bit more in depth, but it suffers from initial inaccessibility. And until I’d really punched through the pain barrier, I was ready to throw in the towel. Good job I didn’t, since from here things become far more positive.
Shattered Horizon at its heart is a thinking mans shooter. Winning doesn’t really come through reflex point shooting, but through positioning, situational awareness, and manipulating the effects of inertia/zero-G. Succeed, and you’ll be taking down enemy players before they’ve got a shot off. It’s a very nuanced experience because of this. Unlike a lot of other FPSs, you actually want to be minimizing the number of movements you make. Firing up your jets (which movement with an active suit requires) illuminates the space around you, so remaining less visible is a matter of setting your speed and trajectory, and coasting into position through the effects of inertia. Excellently, you can power down your suit functions; HUD, jets – even the ability to affix yourself to a surface in order to cut radar detection as well. Thus, carefully planned, you can combine these aspects to move with speed and stealth to outwit your opponent. As I said above, it takes quite a lot of effort – or at least someone who’s already worked it out advising – to know how to execute such an array of movements, let alone put them to good use, but doing so certainly reaps rewards over the rest of the server.
Weapons are kept to a (perhaps too emaciated) minimum. You’ve got your basic automatic rifle with a scope and 3 types of “grenade”. Burst firing is the order of the day, especially over the long distances that often present themselves between you and your target, while you can only realistically snipe them out with the scope while you’re firmly affixed to a surface. Most useful of the grenade types is the EMP – it disables all suit functions, distorts vision somewhat and removes the crosshair of any unlucky enough to get caught up. It’s a key prelude to assaulting an enemy held position. The ICE grenade deploys a cloud of frozen water, otherwise known as “ice” in order to block vision, and facilitate an unconventional angle of attack. Most fun is the MPR which sends all those caught up in its blast flying. A well placed MPR can knock opponents into the deeper recesses of space to become micrometeorite fodder. Combined, there’s a range of different tactics to be applied, but I can’t help but feel it might get a little old fast unless Futuremark start adding more.
Having played it a fair bit now, I’ve started having some really great experiences with it. Careful application of a powered-down suit means I’ve been able to escape around a corner, and all but disappear from my enemy’s view before swooping in for the kill. Keeping your eyes open a little more than in the usual shooter brings up more opportunities; in one match fighting around the International Space Station, I jetted through one of the struts, melee killed the hapless astronaut I’d spotted and jetted out the other side in one maneuver. In another match, Phill and I stormed a capture point, defending it as the timer filled against droves of enemies trying to attack from all angles. There really isn’t anything quite like SH out there.
It’s really quite atmospheric, too. Though a little thin on the narrative exposition, it certainly brings the inky black coldness of space to life. While moon rock and moon base don’t make for the most varied of environments, they do look the part. The lighting is a particular highlight, and tactically interesting at that. The sun is an omnipresent and beautiful factor in all the maps, and allows players to effectively blind others to their presence when coming in from the right angles. Just opening fire too not only looks glorious, but allows you to home in on your opponent, again adding to the tactical depth. The sound too fits the bill, ironically through its absence in powered down mode (when powered, your equipment “simulates” it.) You’re restricted to just the sound of your own breathing, and the dull muted thump of your weapon when firing. It’s peculiarly effective.
It’s probably worth noting that there’s not a huge amount of game available currently. There’s 4 maps, and 3 game modes – Assault, Battle and Skirmish. Assault is probably the best, taking the form of an attack/defense scenario. Battle is the now ubiquitous “capture the points before your opponent does”, while Skirmish is pure and simple team deathmatch. So it’s limited on this front, and more maps are a must; though I wonder just how many variations on “rocks and bits of old base” you can really put a twist on. It has to be said certain maps really are beautiful; especially the International Space Station, and Flipside. Being near future set, I suppose there’s not much room for more exotic space phenomena to mix things up, but I dare say they’ll be able to come up with something. Futuremark have been unusually (and positively) active on the Steam forums, and we should hopefully see them taking on board fan suggestions for further content. At £15, I can’t complain that much, but something tells me I’ll probably quickly get bored of the current array of maps, modes and weaponry.
All said, Shattered Horizon is a good – wait – a great game. It’s underwhelming and confusing in equal measure at first. But put a little time into it, and there’s much fun to be had once you learn what you’re really doing out there in the big black expanse. If you want to give it a try, I’d suggest you read the manual, join the training server, and perhaps don’t start with a 32 player server straight away. That certainly contributed to my frustrating opening experience. But it’s entirely worth punching through the pain barrier. It’s a firm hit. If Futuremark keep it supported, I can see it becoming something not only truly innovative and excellent, but a lasting benchmark to look to for inspiration in putting new twists on the old formula.