For when we can’t keep up with the latest releases, this is…
I am a sucker for science fiction, particularly space and futuristic technology. There’s a good reason that Sunshine is one of my favourite movies of all time, that Star Wars: The Old Republic always seemed more appealing than World of Warcraft, that I’ve always preferred Warhammer 40,000 to it’s technologically-impaired predecessor. I’ve never really been one for medieval settings, dragons or wizards. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a big fan of Dungeons and Dragons and am going to soon lose my life to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, but give me a chance to explore the vast unknowns of outer space and to travel to new worlds and galaxies, and you may as well hand me my space suit right now.
While there are no shortage of sci-fi experiences available in videogames, one particular niche remains almost completely unexplored - the space-based first person shooter. I’m not talking about Halo, or Section 8 here, where a reduction in gravity and a suit of power armour are the pick of the day. I want a first person experience set against the backdrop of distant stars, where gravity is nowhere to be found, and where the only thing standing between you and the nearest planet is a firey atmospheric re-entry. That’s why I bought Shattered Horizon the moment it became available back in 2009.
Shattered Horizon is a zero-gravity multiplayer FPS. Rather than simply running around on space stations, asteroids or small planets you are equipped with a vaccuum-sealed protective space suit and a thruster pack. This means that instead of being yet another high-jumping power-suited jarhead you are a lightly-armoured astronaut, armed with standard issue weaponry and capable of zero-gravity flight in any direction.
Upon first launching the game, I found myself thoroughly confused by the movement controls alone. After rebinding most of the keys, I was capable of not only the standard FPS forward, backward, strafing and aiming but also flying upward, downward and rolling left and right. The flight controls are simple enough to allow players to get about with little trouble, but if you take the time to master them then you will find yourself zipping around the maps, weaving round obstacles, giving pursuers the slip and laying ambushes in tight spots. If flying isn’t your thing, whether you are wanting stable footing to fire that railgun from or just landing to capture a control point you can swoop and land on a surface with a single key press. This will give you a boost in accuracy, but will severely limit your speed and mobility, often making you an easy target if you choose your spot carelessly.
The environments in Shattered Horizon can be breathtaking at first - every time I played a new map I would spend the first minute or two admiring the view. Shattered Horizon boasts beautiful graphics - the reason I didn’t play it much until now was because my old laptop couldn’t do the game justice, chugging along at around 10 frames per second, even on the lowest settings. Unfortunately the playable environments are often quite bland - while looking fantastic they all conform to the same generic moonbase theme. In terms of playability however they offer a variety of different environments in which to do battle - there’s a good mixture of wide open spaces and narrow corridors to suit all styles of play.
The amazing views that will try to distract you from combat.
Fighting in space comes with its own risks - stray too far from the area of play and you’ll find yourself drifting into outer space or towards the nearest planet in a fireball. This makes explosions particularly deadly, as their concussive blast will send nearby players hurtling away, struggling to regain control or their momentum. A well placed shot in the visor is rewarded with a crunching, cracking sound of glass caving in, and a puff of atmosphere as the helmet de-pressurizes. Another, more prevalent risk is the tank filled with rocket fuel strapped to each player’s back. If you hit an opponent’s fuel tank then not only are they killed instantly, but the ensuing blast will launch all nearby players far away from the source, often to their deaths. This makes running away from fights particularly dangerous, and will require skilled control over your pack’s thrusters to keep yourself protected.
Weapons are surprisingly modern for a sci-fi shooter - you can choose from 5 different primary weapons; The standard FPS assault rifle, good at medium - long range; The submachine gun, for short - medium ranges; The machine gun for filling as much of the map with bullets as you can; The shotgun for quickly killing foes at close ranges, and finally the railgun - a standard sniper rifle, best fired from a flat surface. All weapons get a pistol for emergencies, a pickaxe in case you find yourself too close for comfort, and more interestingly a variety of non-lethal tactical grenades. These range from smoke grenades to confuse opponents to EMP grenades to temporarily shut down enemy suits, leaving them vulnerable to attack.
A powered-down suit is not always a bad thing - you can manually shut your systems down to engage in some covert operations, as your suit will drop off the enemy radar and HUD, leaving you only detectable by sight. Shutting your suit down has its disadvantages too - firstly you lose all audio: This means no voice comms, no orders or alerts about losing control points. It also means that you will no longer hear the sounds of battle - as any egghead (myself included) will tell you, sound cannot travel through outer space, as there are no air particles to vibrate. When online your suit “simulates” the sounds of battle by playing audio files from its own storage to match up with the events happening around you. When offline, the only sounds you’ll hear are your own heavy breathing, your pounding heartbeat and occasionally the impact and outcries of pain as you take gunfire. The hectic battlefield suddenly turns into a haunting, isolated experience that simply cannot be beaten.
You also lose your HUD when offline. Having no minimap, objective markers or onscreen displays of friends or foes will leave you severely hindered in a fight. You’d better make sure that you are about to shoot at an enemy, not a team-mate. Luckily the two factions are distinctly coloured yellow or blue, but at a distance you may struggle to tell which side your target is on. An offline suit also shows no friendly indicators to your team-mates, so you’d better hope they don’t fire on you by mistake.
When your suit is powered down your thruster capabilities are severely limited - You can no longer stick to surfaces, your thrusters are significantly weaker, and you will drift a lot more. If there’s an explosion nearby you’d better hope you can power up and fire your thrusters in time, or you’ll find yourself drifting out of the map and into deep space. Firing your weapon will also send you drifting backwards, as your suit no longer compensates the recoil with controlled thruster bursts to keep you in place.
Blue vs. Yellow, ISA (International Space Agency) vs. MMC (Moon Mining Collective)
Shattered Horizon unfortunately was not the rousing success that I would hope for. Upon launch it was far too graphically intensive for many users. Despite having several different gametypes, each one boils down to a simple Team Deathmatch, the only variation being control points which merely focus the firefight to specific areas. It was also faced with the problem that all multiplayer games face at some point in their lifespan - the game’s dedicated community are ruthless and will easily frustrate new players and put them off. It normally takes a long time for a game’s playerbase to reach this hardcore level, but unfortunately Shattered Horizon was hit with this problem even a month or two after launch. The occasional free weekend on Steam will offer less-skilled players a chance to play online without getting thoroughly beaten, but the old guard will often do their best to make the new players unwelcome. Fortunately a major update to Shattered Horizon brought bots (among other things) allowing even the freshest-faced recruit a chance to play and have fun.
As you can probably guess from the opening segment of this article, I’m a big fan of Shattered Horizon. The game is filled to the brim with finesse and polish, creating an interesting and engaging title. While it does grow repetitive after a few rounds on each map, it’s a great distraction from the overpopulation of modern-day military shooters. Being an entirely multiplayer game, Shattered Horizon is almost devoid of any story. While the loading screens offer an incredibly brief synopsis of the lead up to the current battle, there was a great potential for a deep and moving story-based game here. A brief read of the game’s Wikipedia page reveals more plot than the game itself did, which is a terrible shame. If Shattered Horizon had more diversity in the multiplayer and a good single-player offering then it would have easily been one of my favourite games of all time, if not the one. While it is still an excellent title as it is, I can’t help but feel bitter-sweet as this proves that zero gravity combat can be done, yet I doubt we’ll see another offering similar to Shattered Horizon for a long, long time.