Version tested: PC
The moon has exploded. Needless to say, that means only one thing: astronaut deathmatch! Shattered Horizon is set in the not-quite-possible near future in which humanity has been plundering the moon for its cheese, and the resulting accident ends up blasting billions of tonnes of rock into orbit. This means that thousands of space workers are trapped up in the sky, with just a broken moon and the remains of Earth's by-then-extensive space infrastructure to live on. Two factions who were feeling a bit grumpy with each other now see this as an excuse for open hostility, and fighting in zero-gravity commences.
What we have here is a first-person shooter of the well-understood competitive multiplayer genus. That said, the species itself is one of universal movement: you're free to cruise on all axes, spinning, strafing and swooping as you see fit. There is no up and down: you're in space. Shattered Horizon's clearest accomplishment is that of making that zero-gravity control system intuitive and playable. Any FPS player will adapt to it in moments, even if it does take a while to get a hang of the combat itself. Movement is immediately comprehensible, and that counts for a lot in a game in which staying alive is a difficult task.
Combat takes place around a series of space facilities, where two teams perform recognisable FPS tasks, such as capturing various points and holding them against the enemy for a set number of minutes. Respawning brings you in at a particular point in the facility, as if you'd come zooming out of space, and then you have to navigate the facilities to make your way to combat. While you're able to move in every direction in your space suit, your acceleration is limited, so it's not entirely realistic. That, at least, stops you accelerating off into the depths of space, which would otherwise be a danger. That's not to say you're entirely free of any kind of anchor, however, since you're able to use your sticky/magnetic boots to latch onto flat surfaces and walk about.
Combat is fierce and brief. Weapons do a lot of damage to fragile space suits, and headshots count. Get depressurised and you'll float away into the void, limp and dead. Melee strikes are one-hit kill, too, so if you can get up close then you're almost assured a kill. My sidekick playing with me was regularly getting lost simply by being upside-down and not knowing where he was. The game regularly feels like a test of your spatial awareness, and that's even down to mapping the momentum of enemies and being able to predict where you'll next seem them after they disappeared behind a row of floating cargo-containers.
What's interesting about suit damage is that it reduces your ability to hear. Sound, you see, is simulated. This is a nod to the reality of no-sound-in-space, and also an acceptance of the fact that no sound in FPS combat would be enormously problematic. What this means is that you can always hear your own gun and your breathing, but you can only hear enemy weapons if your suit is fully powered up.
This ties into Shattered Horizon's other distinct feature, which is "silent running" - a stealth mode and possible nod to hippie space-movie of old. In this mode you are slower and without sound, but you are also much more stealthy. What that means is that you're not immediately flagged up on the enemy HUD, and therefore might get the jump on less frosty players. I've not really found it to be of any use in my own play, but then I'm increasingly struggling to take on some of the ace players who inhabit the live servers, so perhaps I'm just not getting its best use.
That said, I have certainly been able to get some interesting kills with it - the HUD tags for enemies track behind cover, allowing you to follow them, and you can use silent running to negate that. I'm just not sure it's been developed enough to really impact on hardcore players, who seem to identify you in a blink and fill your fishbowl space helmet full of blazing lead. (I'm also a bit concerned that it leads to more friendly fire incidents.)
Aside from these unusual combat conceits, the highlight of the game is the level design. The arenas are all semi-realistic and clearly inspired by real space infrastructure. Hell, one of the levels is an adapted vision of the actual International Sspace Station which currently inhabits our skies. This stuff is like mana to me, as I'm a terrible space junkie, and I'm sure it's going to appeal to others like me. We don't get enough even vaguely "real" space games, and so this is a special rarity to be savoured.
What powers that design and enables the prettiness is a fairly high-spec 3D engine. You need a DirectX 10 card to even run the game, and the high-end settings make for formidable reading on the minimum specs blurb. I suspect the majority of PC gamers who are likely to play this do actually have said hardware, now, but it still seems like an odd choice in these spec-restricted times. It's also interesting that the game is PC only, because this is an odd occasion where I - a PC-centric gamer - feel as if this makes perfect sense as a console game. It's exactly the kind of shooter I'd expect to do okay on a console format.
The problem, then, is that this never feels like quite enough game. Despite the zero-G movement being fascinating, I don't think that actually translates into a combat experience that is any more interesting or rewarding that what we face in gravity-bound worlds. There's no single-player element, and although it's a genuinely fun game, with ideas you're not going to find elsewhere, it doesn't feel like there's enough depth in the game as a whole to keep me interested.
With more going on - space vehicles, classes, a wider range of equipment - it might have left me exploring for longer. As it is this is kind of game that neither soaks up my general leisure time, not leaves me yearning for a clan. I've enjoyed my time messing around with it, but I don't feel compelled to return to the game for more serious consideration, as I seem to with a whole bunch of other multiplayer titles.
I have to stress that there is a good deal I like about this game. I know that a small army of FPS-space folk are going to get a huge kick out of it, but there's simply not enough to genuinely recommend it to the world at large. There's too much else out there in the world of contemporary shooters for Shattered Horizon's unique game-world to deliver an essential purchase.
6 / 10