Futuremark is best known for its 3DMark PC benchmark suite, but they've recently made their debut on gaming community with Shattered Horizon, an action packed shooter set in the debris of the Moon torn apart. Zero gravity and jetpacks make the firefights full of surprises and offer quite a bit of challenge even to the most seasoned online veteran. Content wise, though, the newcomer comes up a bit dry, albeit the 20 euro price tag alleviates the lack of maps quite a bit.
Shattered Horizon takes place 40 years in the future. Mankind is actively scouring and scouting the solar system, when our main source of interplanetary fuel, Moon, is nearly destroyed in a catastrophic explosion. Half of our jolly companion in the sky is blown to shreds, and the shards of various sizes clutter the space between Earth and Moon. This puts supply runs on a halt, as no space craft in existence can survive navigating such a mess. This poses a problem for Moonies, as they are quite reliant on the steady income of supplies from back home. The intrepid lunar miners are left with no choice but fight over the last remnants of crated goodies.
What's most refreshing about Shattered Horizon is that it doesn't just make another carbon copy of your generic shooter. Futuremark's firstborn offers a plethora of new ideas on how to do battle in space, and sports only a touch of inspiration from other, more famous FPS games. Perhaps the most apt counterpart would be the Tribes series, which were at the peak of their popularity ten years ago. Both games focus on tactical approach to the fights, and require tightly coordinated teamplay instead of triggerhappy gung ho amok runs. The main difference between these two games is gravity - Tribes is very reverent to the pull of our dear Earth, whereas Shattered Horizon is all about the absence of gravitational constants.
Navigating in such an environment is indeed a fully 3D experience in the real sense of the word. The player can go in any direction he pleases, and up and down are relative concepts. Getting a slight vertigo, let alone losing your bearings from spinning in all directions at once is not an uncommon concept, and the studio has tried to make things easier by landmarking the debris. The bigger chunks of rock have outposts or other human made constructs on them, and seeing a familiar sight helps immensely in realigning your directional senses. Still, navigating the gigantic cavern mazes inside the bigger pieces of rock lack this aid, leaving the player hopelessly lost even after hours of gameplay.
It's a shame that there's no offline mode where one could leisurely explore the ravaged landscape and get a feeling of how the lay of the land really lies. This is exacerbated online - the veterans of the game know all the grannies and nooks of the surrounding debris, whereas the newcomer is immediately overwhelmed by the strangeness of the battleground. In space, staying alive is a class nobody passes until the umpteenth time, and this hard and unforgiving schooling makes the taste of victories to come even more sweet.
Fortunately, the basics of the game are easily grasped, as the controls are pretty much the same as in every other game of the genre. Indeed, Shattered Horizon isn't setting its sights to full scale realism, and it does not try to make the player feel completely weightless. It does, however, make a good approximation of laws of physics - in addition to lack of gravity and the ability to turn and fly in every which way, inertia plays a big part in this. Blasting full throttle with the jetpack increases your momentum, and as there's no atmosphere to slow you down, you retain your speed when you release the handle. This is important not only in getting the atmosphere of space combat right, but also a tactical angle - gaining momentum and then going silent makes you a lot harder to spot against the black void than a brightly burning jetpack streaking across the skies.
The tactical aspects of the game, or, in other words, keeping in touch with your team is essential. Lone wolves make easy targets, but a squad of spacemen watching each others backs increase the chances of survival, and help corraling stray enemies into the killzone of your teammates. Since the game is all about open space, tactics are as freeform as your movement.
Surprisingly, Shattered Horizon has only one gun: the assault rifle. However, it packs more tricks than one would think. Although rapid autofire is its main function, it sports a nifty scope for more precise assassinations. Landing on any solid surface sacrifices your mobility, but the offset is a very accurate and deadly weapon. Skilled players taking aim at your suit's faceplate is truly something one should be afraid of. In addition to acute lead poisoning, the weapon has a selection of rifle grenades whose use is mainly tactical. They are utilized to create a temporary cover, stun enemies, or blow them away from their hiding spots, right into your sights.
The game's only major disappointment is the lack of content. No single player game whatsoever is included, so one would be inclined to think there'd be a whole lot of multiplayer action. Instead, Shattered Horizon has only four maps and three multiplayer modes, and even those recycle the same ideas and environments. Especially the lack of Capture the Flag mode approaches gross negligence. Futuremark has promised free expansions as time goes on, but until that happens, the players have to make do with only these four. (Futuremark has since reported that the first map pack is already in the making. -translator) Fortunately, all four maps offer a completely different setting, so growing tired of running the same rounds is not an immediate threat.
The lack of experience system is also a drag. The players earn points by killing opponents and aiding the home team, but that's it. Apart from rising through the ranks no other benefit is gained. Earning e.g. new gear like in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 would spur the players into all kinds of furious firefights.
As far as technology behind the scenes goes, Shattered Horizon is a triple-A product that bows to no hardware. Your PC had better sport a whole lot of punch to run the game without a single hiccup. On that level of power, the audiovisual splendor of the game kicks the living snot out of rivals way more expensive than Shattered Horizon is. As the blue-white giant turns serenely below you and your fallen comrades float between the jagged shreds of the Moon, the game is ethereal and forlorn in a very beautiful way. Details do not play a big part, as the game relies on cold and realistic atmosphere. When the space suit is turned off, the player is left without sound and ability to move. The feeling of gliding through the void is palpable.
Creating an online game is never a simple task, but Futuremark makes a terrific debut to the stage. Shattered Horizon is definitely one of the most interesting and intriguing newcomers in a long, long time, and its way of thinking outside the box offers plenty of refreshing challenges to shooter veterans growing weary of unending sequels. The casual gamer should probably take some time to think whether or not the sharp learning curve and lack of content is worth the money spent. As for the rest of us, the answer is a definite yes. After this, one can't but wait in anticipation what the sequel will bring. Perhaps a solid single player campaign as well?
(Note: A free expansion called "Moonrise" will add four new maps to the game)