Thursday, January 7, 2010

Shattered Horizon - Which Way Is Up?

I've been playing with a game I got for a steal on Steam - Shattered Horizon (75% off - $5!!!). Basically, it's a First Person Shooter in space. Pretty much like the battle in Moonraker. This especially brings back memories of Descent on my old computer. But what it most of all feels like to me is Ender's Game - the enemy's gate is down (I'll have to explain this bit a little later)!!

A bit of comment on the game. It's set in the 2040s, and a "mining accident" has resulted in a large chunk of the moon being blown off and the debris orbiting the Earth in a deadly ring of boulders. The International Space Agency (ISA) and the Moon Mining Corporation (MMC) are both trapped in orbit, and supplies are hard to get through. The ISA blames the MMC for the "accident" and wants to bring them to book. The MMC of course don't want to go to jail and don't want to suffocate / starve so they wind up raiding supplies sent to the ISA. Pretty straightforward and kind of original plot - not that it really matters, as Shattered Horizon is a multiplayer-only game.

The game is not entirely ruled by the laws of Newton - there are maximum velocities but you do keep drifting once you fire your thrusters. Stopping dead is heard unless you anchor onto something with your boots. Aiming is harder when not anchored, so this is the better option for shooting. It also gives you better cover. Your weapon is a standard assault rifle, with some utility grenades - EMP to short out other players' suits and slow them down temporarily, a concussion warhead to knock other players away and ice clouds to hide behind or in. And a bayonet to slice suits open. Despite the single weapon choice, and the fact that there are only 4 maps availabe (one being a privatised ISS - pretty much like my previous posts' idea!), the game is lots of fun and has a dedicated following. The devs are also responsive to requests and feedback, and can incorporate ideas brought up in forums to updates. They also give clear Yes/No responses as to what they are going to do. For example, some players wanted blood squirts etc. and the devs responded No, because that would alter the game's rating to a more mature rating. Personally I think this is a good idea - plenty enough games have blood and guts already. The only thing really lacking is a solid single player experience, but with bots that may come in time.

The game is produced by Futuremark, those guys who build software to test the speed of your system, and this is a pretty demanding game. You wouldn't think it, but the shaders required to make the rocks look rocky chews up a lot of system power. There are LOTS of objects being rendered as well, unlike games set indoors with few visible objects. My laptop runs an ATI Radeon 4570, a sort of low-middle end card that will handle older DX9 games like Fallout 3 fairly well, but Shattered Horizon is DX10 only and really takes it through the wringer. After turning graphics way down, turning off Windows Aero and installing the latest video drivers, I managed to get the game running smoothly at about 20-25 fps (frames per second), which is the minimum for shooter games if you don't want to get shot every single time (movies typically run at 24 fps).

In terms of realism, this game is both quite realistic and gratifyingly fun. There's only a single multipurpose rifle, as I mentioned, as you don't want to fiddle with other weapons in zero G. "Sounds" in space are handled as being part of a situational awareness suite, which makes sense to me. Make gunfire sound like gunfire, and humans will react accordingly. Get your suit knocked out by EMP or power the suit down for stealth, and the sounds go away. You hear muffled sounds transmitted by anything you are in contact with, but that's it. Really atmospheric.

As for the Ender's game reference, the book basically involved young child cadets fighting with laser tag guns in a zero-G battle room. Ender, the main character of the book, revolutionised thinking by telling his posse to think of the enemy's gate as being down. In other words, to advance feet first because that made you a smaller target and forced you to think in 3 dimensions. The ISS level in Shattered Horizons makes me think of this quite often. I find it refreshingly mind expanding to pop up from a rock, hanging upside down and shoot somebody in the top of the helmet. It's also quite funny to get shot in a completely random direction. Watching other players' creative tactics is quite rewarding, especially when friends work in teams.

Overall, the game is pretty darned original and fun, and considering the price I got it for, is really worth it. Good for just mucking around in between working or hours of red-eye LAN gaming. Also a very good example of how a small company can produce a really quality product and stay in touch with their consumer base. Other games devs should take notice, in amidst this sea of World War II shoot-em-ups and Half-Life 2 wannabees.


  1. Imagine my surprise when I found out that you have a blog! Best part? I only discovered it via LinkedIn, of all places.

    I have added your blog to my blog's list of 'Blogs I Follow'.

    I've been wondering when Shattered Horizon's was coming out. Thanks to your review, I have just purchased it ;-)

  2. Hey Hans! One nice thing about this is that it is one of the better games for latency issues. Perhaps you and I can game on sometime.