It's odd. I feel like I shouldn't be enjoying the Shattered Horizon beta as much as I am. The reason for that is the game is based on one of those kind of ideas that shouldn't really work. The idea is this: astronaut deathmatch.
It's the kind of slight-silly concept that usually lands games in a load of trouble. In this case it could have been because there aren't not many good models for 3D deathmatch, or because it needs to be bang on with the solid, accessible interface if it's not going to stumble into the dangerzone of experimental design. Or it could have encountered difficulties because of players struggling to get their head around that "no floor" idea.
All that said, it does seem suspiciously like the Futuremark game studio (the game-making spin-off from the benchmarking people) does actually have the technical know-how to pull it off. Shattered Horizon is intuitively playable and immediately comprehensible (at least to anyone with shooter experience). I was spawned and zooming about within seconds. As much as I expected to flounder with the 3D space, it was entirely straightforward. I even topped a couple of scoreboards in the afternoon. Not only that but the astronautiness of it is actually kind of engaging, at least for a big old space geek like me.
Shattered Horizon is set in the near future, where privately funded companies have begun military operations against each other in orbit. A huge explosion has put a large amount of moon rock (the titular shattered horizon) into space, and this orbital flotsam now plays host to a guerrilla war between space-suited mercenaries and miners. (And how auspicious is it that I write this preview just minutes before a rocket is being fired into the surface of the moon so that scientists can look for water, with stated intention of returning to the moon. I mean, seriously, life imitating games, or what?)
This, in other words, is the perfect excuse for team-based deathmatch across a series of objective-based game modes.
It's the level design that I've enjoyed most. The subject matter is reflected perfectly in the art-style: a realistic take on what might happen if the moon exploded. If that makes sense. Free of the normal axis of up and down, the levels are genuine 3D affairs - laboratories built into a swathes of asteroids, for example, or an extended and reconstructed ISS, which has been hit by a meteorite - complete with docked future-shuttle and giant cargo containers spinning helplessly in space. Futuremark seems intent to make it as true to real space as is possible. Clearly it can't implement totally realistic physics without having players fly off into space at the slightest whiff of gunfire, but it can model beautiful space rocks, and epic, realistic space structures, all based on the kind of junk we actually put up there for science and stuff.
Regarding those physics: you move around with consistent inertia, but you can't accelerate indefinitely. While you use normal FPS controls to move around, with forward propelling you in whichever direction you happen to be facing, you're also able to bind a key or mouse button to "rotate", allowing you to move into whatever alignment you fancy at the flick of a wrist. Since there's no up or down, it doesn't really matter. What matters is that you shoot the enemy astronauts as accurately as possible. This is the other bit where space isn't realistic: you don't go spinning away to burn up in the atmosphere when you get shot, at least not until you're dead. Also, you can hear the enemy weapons as well as your own, which is a bit of a shame, given the beautifully appropriate spacey atmospherics that wrap up the rest of the experience.
The gunplay is a little bit unusual, of course, because you're floating and moving with continuous inertia, which you have to carefully adjust to stop, or to "land" on an asteroid or other surface. The HUD also tracks the trajectories of enemies for a few seconds when they disappear behind cover, which gives you ample opportunity to plot intercepts with less agile opponents. There are also some special projectiles, such as a smoke bomb thing, an EMP blast, and a concussion bomb that can put an end to enemies instantly by bouncing them into deep space. "Bye!"
Even better than shooting is the close-range attack in which you rip open an enemy's space suit, killing him instantly. I've always been too hamfisted to pull that off myself, but I've watched my corpse spin off into the cold night a few times now, and I intend to reap that same pain on someone else, rather soon.
Otherwise the game structure is typical of multiplayer combat games. It's a 32-player affair on dedicated servers. The modes include "Battle" in which the teams struggle to dominate the map via control points, which is fairly typical of this kind of FPS. Then there's "Assault", which gives the point-capturing a turn-based spin. The two teams take turns in attacking and defending, and the points can't be uncaptured once lost to the opposition. This means it's possible to draw if the attacks fail to take the points. Then there's classic deathmatch based purely on kills, as featured in such games for time immemorial.
It's a beta, of course, and that means it's currently burdened by normal beta issues such as occasional glitches, dodgy connections, and the odd mechanical bug, but I've nevertheless been revelling in swooping through the vacuum and watching my enemies (and occasionally myself) going spinning off into space. And they do spin off into space rather wonderfully. When the graphics settings are cranked up it's astonishingly crisp and detailed.
Looking forward, it's clear that this is a game that will, despite being rather accessible, end up appealing to a fairly specific crowd. Astronaut deathmatch is esoteric - there's no escaping it. It's probably going to require extensive building on what we've so far seen in the beta to really capture a significant audience. It's fairly austere in its presentation, and probably needs some more craziness to keep people's attention. Nevertheless, assuming Futuremark can sustain its developmental momentum, this will be one shooter that should be able to reach a stable orbit around the homeworld of gaming interest. Oof, that metaphor was a bit laboured. I'd better go and watch the moon-bombing.