By Phill Cameron on May 13th, 2010 at 9:00 am.
You’re fired into battle at a speed just shy of making the stars in front of you blur into parallel lines, an ever rising tone in your ear letting you know that your suit is coming online.
‘Establishing communication uplink.’
‘Creating simulated audio environment’
The HUD flickers into life on the inside of your visor, letting you know your orientation, the position or your nearby team mates, locations to hold and take. You’re in the thick of it.
That was a metaphor for something, but we’ll come back to that.
Futuremark’s Shattered Horizon had a somewhat shaky start. It shipped with a paltry four maps, two game modes and a single gun. Of course, this was offset by a truly unique space with which to kill your fellow man: the fragmented pieces of the Moon after a catastrophic mining explosion wrenched it asunder.
The novelty was in the movement. Each player was their own astronaut, sailing through the nothingness as they strafed their targets, using this new third dimension to outflank opponents from above and below, while at the same time any notion of above and below was entirely relative.
This was the game that should have used the word ‘veritcality’ and been proud about it.
But it wasn’t enough. The scarcity of content meant that the novelty soon wore off, leaving you with an entertaining, but ultimately limited experience that left you yearning for a more varied experience. Sure, it might have been a budget release, but that was hardly the most solid of excuses.
Anyway, that metaphor. Here’s why the spawning system within Shattered Horizon is allegorical for the development of the game so far. While visually startling on release, it wasn’t until the actual interesting stuff turned up post-release that the game itself started to get its spacelegs. Among the smaller patches tweaking this and that, Shattered Horizon has received a pair of massive updates that have turned the game from the nutritional equivalent of space-dust into a hearty meal. As in, there’s sustenance there now.
First of all, they doubled the number of maps. I’m tempted to start throwing around hyperbole here because of the exact /nature/ of these new maps. This isn’t just a re-arrangement of asteroids and mining equipment. This is a developer hearing that the current environments are too bland and uninspiring, and working /bloody hard/ to make sure their new offerings don’t suffer from the same issue.
We’ve got a space hotel covered in radiation shielding, with a backdrop of the fractured moon. We’ve got a huge, mostly-derelict harvesting vessel, dozens of intensely bright searchlights lancing off into the nothingness. We’ve got what I think is a huge radar dish fragmented by some sort of massive collision, causing it to buckle and shatter, each piece floating as if in a frozen moment of explosion, the impact permanently visible. And we’ve got a fucking Mass Driver. It’s essentially the World’s Biggest Gun. Hundreds of feet long, it’s a huge tube of advanced engineering that’s both beautiful and monstrous at the same time.
They all play on the Space Porn aspect that is the game’s biggest selling point. The reason we /want/ to play Shattered Horizon is because it lets us live out any wildly ambitious professional fantasies we had as children, while at the same time shooting dudes with guns. However, it’s the environments that demand the sort of reverence that’s reserved purely for The Great Beyond. Architecture that is at once practical and realistic, while also being unearthly. It’s beautiful, and the kind of things games are able to execute magnificently.
I also mentioned the simulated audio environment earlier. Tautologically, that’s the aspect that both strengthens and weakens the game the most. Essentially, it’s your suit’s computer creating a virtual soundscape of everything that’s going on around you, from gunfire to explosions to dying enemies. It circumvents the issue that arises with space combat; the deathly silence of space. Insert Tired Joke Here. By simulating the sound, we avoid that, but then, by allowing you to /turn off/ your suit’s supplementary functions in pursuit of stealth, you can still get the power of that distinct lack of sound.
And it’s when you’re floating thrusterless around these levels that they move from combat environment into something bordering on the mystical. Sure, guys might still be shooting at you, but unless you’re actually getting hit, you won’t hear them. Every time you turn off your suit, you slip into a sort of revelatory state where you transcend the battlefield. This makes the shock of conflict all the more powerful when you turn your suit back on. And that brings me neatly to the second update, released this Wednesday. With the lack of maps dealt with, Futuremark turned to the other big complaint about the game; its single gun. So they’ve swapped one for five, added a side arm, three new grenade types, and a mining pick for picking those oh-so-fragile space suits.
It’s incredible what a bit of variety does to a game. Instead of fighting on a purely equal footing with everyone, having five distinctly different weapons means everyone is suddenly playing with different tactics. Pick the Shotgun and you’ll want to be attempting flanking manoeuvres, using flares and ice clouds to get up close and personal. The Rail Gun lends itself to finding your own little rock on the edge of the map and picking off targets from a distance. Then the SMG, Assault Rifle and Machine Gun all go from medium close to medium to medium long respectively.
They’ve also rejigged the inner workings of the game, replacing hitscans with projectiles, meaning you have to lead your targets if you want your bullets to connect at range. Couple that with some surprisingly versatile grenade types, allowing you to selectively blind your targets, or create decoy radar signals, or even grab a localised radar pulse at great distance, and you’ve got far more tools to allow you to attack in far more ways.
One of the most startling experiences I’ve had with it since the latest update involved defending a point and throwing up a flare shield above it, meaning that enemies couldn’t pick us off from a distance. While it meant my team and I couldn’t return fire, we did get the wholly surreal experience of shapes coming out of the light, forming into astronauts only to get picked off and sent spinning away into the cosmos.
All of this combines to form an experience that has built and built on the basics that Shattered Horizon first laid down; the game now has more content added than it had in the first place, and it doesn’t look like Futuremark have any intentions of slowing down the amount of free updates. They’ve taken the Valve model and made it work for them, and in the process their game has become more than worth your time.