Shattered Horizon is the first release from benchmark developer Futuremark’s new game development department, Futuremark Game Studios, boasting incredible visuals and innovative gameplay in an online competitive shooter environment. As you might expect from a company specialising in software intended to push your computer as much as possible, the graphics are excellent: lifeless bodies drift into the depths of the void, the distant Earth makes the playing area seem so much bigger than it truly is, and the themed heads-up display adds a nice, atmospheric touch to the proceedings.
The space setting allows for a whole new range of strategies thanks to the “six degrees of freedom” mechanic; there is no gravity in space, so players can move freely in the level, although drifting into the micrometeorites which make up the level’s border is fatal. Drifting uncontrollably is unlikely to happen, however: unlimited jetpack fuel, magnetic boots and responsive controls are working in your favour. The controls are similar to those of any other PC FPS released in the past decade; the WASD keys direct the player and the mouse is used for aiming. There is a mêlée attack, but this isn’t a simple shove á la Left 4 Dead; your weapon has a retractable bayonet which lets you effectually eviscerate your enemies by tearing open their suits, scoring an instant kill. Hitting F while drifting near a fairly flat surface will enable your gravity boots, re-orientating your display and allowing you to walk instead of fly. Unfortunately, walking is relatively slow compared to flight, so while you get the added bonus of a more accurate weapon, particularly while using the sniper scope, you lose a lot of manoeuvrability. While in space, players can alter their orientation by holding the right mouse button and moving the mouse left or right, making avoiding gunfire in vulnerable places a lot easier; a shot to the head or the fuel tank at the back of your suit is immediately fatal, the latter explosively so.
Each of the “missions” (or perhaps more accurately “scenarios”) in some way involve a conflict between the two “teams”, the International Space Agency and the Moon Mining Cooperative. After a mining accident on the well-populated Moon tears the satellite apart and expels large chunks of celestial rock into the Moon’s orbit, the two are drawn into armed conflict; there is no longer a trade route between the Moon and its new ring of large rocks known as the Arc, and the Earth, and so the scant supplies and oxygen farms found on parts of the Arc are key to either side’s survival. The game includes four maps which provide hours of weightless gameplay in the three gameplay modes: Assault, Battle and Skirmish. Assault sees players fighting over control points, with each team fighting to capture the enemy’s points while simultaneously defending their own; Battle is quite similar to Assault in this regard, the primary difference being that a captured point cannot be re-captured by the opposite team. Skirmish, finally, is purely all-out team deathmatch, where the team with most kills emerges the victor. You might also notice a few “Flight Training” servers, which are servers where the guns cause no damage, so that players can get to grips with the controls before joining a proper game, considering the lack of singe-player.
Gamers also get the benefit of an epic score behind the impressive visuals; the combination of music and graphics really help to add the perfecting touches to the already very realistic atmosphere, which is certainly aided by the curved visor-based heads-up display. Sound effects are present in full, with gunfire, jetpacks and footsteps echoing in the abyss; while technically it should be entirely silent in the vacuum, the game tells us that the audio is simulated by the helmet in order to improve awareness of the wearer. Purists or die-hard Firefly fans are welcome to mute the game in protest, but they’ll be missing out on half of the experience, something that the developers apparently took into account when adding another mechanic to the game, Silent Running, which lets players power down their suit and turn off audio simulation for a stealth advantage while also sacrificing the heads-up display and a considerable amount of manoeuvrability.
The other half of the experience, the visuals, are a little more touchy. As I already mentioned earlier, the game looks stunning. Unfortunately, it’s probably because of these beautiful polygons that the game’s system specifications are so high. The game requires DirectX 10 as well as either Vista or Windows 7, meaning XP users will miss out unless they upgrade. Hardware-wise, an NVidia GeForce 8800 or better is necessary along with a fairly fast processor. I queried some of the other online players as to the configuration of their rig, and received answers that astounded me: there were people pimping their quad-core processors and multiple high-end graphics cards working in tandem… In other words, hardcore gamers with hardcore machines. That alone stands testament to the resource-consuming greediness of the game; I personally had to acquire an extra two gigabytes of RAM in order to receive a smooth online experience, showing that a one year old machine with a 9-series GeForce graphics card won’t necessarily be capable of running this space-age shooter.
If you’re confident in your computer’s abilities and you want to try the unique shooting experience that is Shattered Horizon, go ahead. The game is available for the ridiculously low price of £14.99 and the online community can surely only expand from this point onwards. It’s a truly outstanding début title from Futuremark Game Studios, and I’m eager to see what’s next for the developer… Valve may soon find they have a competitor in the innovative PC shooter department.