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Analysis:  Shattered Horizons  and New Horizons For Weightless Gaming

Analysis: Shattered Horizons and New Horizons For Weightless Gaming

November 19, 2009 | By Phill Cameron

November 19, 2009 | By Phill Cameron
More: Console/PC

[In this Gamasutra design analysis, writer Phill Cameron floats through the obtuse beauty of Shattered Horizon, describing why it's so captivatingly disorienting -- and why he believes it could only work on the PC.]

Sensory deprivation is a powerful thing. It can lead to hallucination, loss of self, and the enhancement of whatever senses still operate. So when you're left alone, in space, the harshness of the sun glaring in through what little protection your visor provides, left only with the heavy beat of your heart and the mechanical sound of your breathing. Left alone in nothing, it's understandable to get a little sentimental.

And when you start seeing what's going on around you as some sort of elaborate ballet, mixed with a bit of pyrotechnics and bulky spacesuits pirouette through the nothingness, the odd flare of blue or yellow as they fire their jets, tracer fire lighting up the sky as debris meanders around purposelessly, well...

Then the trusty computerized voice of your on board computer informs you that suit functions are returning, and the virtual sound grid kicks back in, illuminating the soundscape as the sun so harshly washes everything it touches. Guns bark angrily, jets growl into life, and grenades roar. All of a sudden this isn't some surrealist performance; this is life and death.

The Concept

Futuremark's Shattered Horizon was released for PC last week, and I was instantly captured by both the sublime nature of its concept and the incredibly tense way it forces you to play.

The basic concept is that the moon was blown up for the resources deep in under its crust, and now two rival mining corporations are fighting over the huge chunks of moon rock and scattered space stations that litter Earth's orbit.

It's an absurd premise that justifies the suitably gorgeous and typically sci-fi environments that make up the levels; huge chunks of rock speckled with the odd space station or mining facility, with convenient capture points placed throughout. Really, though, the games is the means; the space suits and the opportunities they provide are the ends.

GSW%20SH%201.jpgWhat Shattered Horizon provides is a multiplayer experience that is quite literally unrivalled currently. First, they take away your sense of up and down; everything is up, everything is down. Gravity is relative, indicated only when you use your magnetic boots to suck you onto the nearest surface. You can reorient yourself with a mouse click and drag, setting out the level however you want it to be.

The only problem is, everyone else has a similar ability, which means every direction is dangerous, and potentially fatal. It's like fighting in an Escher painting. In space.

Pure PC

There's something undeniably PC about it. It's not just that it's only available on the platform, or that it comes from a company who used to concern itself only with making benchmarking tools to push your graphics card and really see what it can do.

It's not that, following on from that, it requires DirectX 10 to run, and it utilizes HDR lighting and all that stuff to the full extent, so that you're left with a realistic-looking sun. It's that this is a game about astronauts in space, shooting each other. It's nerdy, hilariously absurd, and absolutely glorious.

Perhaps it's the simplicity of the combat in contrast to the complicated nature of the movement that makes it work so well. The sheer amount of buttons necessitates the keyboard, and once you've configured it properly it allows you to intuitively move your way around the great masses of rock and metal, all of it floating lazily around Earth's orbit. Fleeing from an enemy only to spin, fire your jets downward and stick the ceiling while he jets in underneath you, quite literally giving you the drop on him, is priceless.

GSW%20SH%203.jpgIt's a game that forces you to be immersed. The HUD elements are all believable and sensible, giving you the basics of what you need to play the game. Upon starting a level, you'll see a little line of commands running down the inside of your visor as the suit's systems start up, and similarly, if you shut down your suit to stay silent and stealthy, you lose all electronic help, including the ammo counter on your gun, and all suit voice communication. You cut yourself off from the world so that you can move unnoticed.

Zero Gravity

The game has only shipped with four levels, and while it's a reduced price, it's the versatility of these levels that really works. One level, the International Space Station, is an elongated battlezone with a hollow shaft of girders and scaffolding down the center, providing you with a quick route from one end to the other. Except for the fact it's brightly lit and riddled with holes, allowing anyone to see you speeding through it.

Every time you fire a burst of rocket fuel out of your jets, the area around you lights up with either blue or yellow, depending on your team. Everything is geared towards that risk/reward structure that makes games so enjoyable. You can keep your suit powered up and get all the benefits of it, lighting up the areas around you, or you can go silent, providing you with the ability to go unnoticed, but being horribly vulnerable.

There's a wonderful feeling of never being beaten until you see your suit spinning aimlessly through the void, too. Even if someone's got the drop on you, if you can hit him with an EMP blast before he gets you then you've got a chance to turn the tables, as his movement and aiming are reduced drastically as his suit copes with the system overload.

Or perhaps you want to blast the nearby area with a cloud of ice, hiding you from his radar and able to make a quick escape. Or hey, just blast him with an MPR grenade and watch him go flying off.

GSW%20SH%204.jpgReally, though, it's the beauty of Shattered Horizon that makes it so undeniably PC. I've recently been watching Defying Gravity, a TV drama about a group of astronauts on a six year tour of the solar system, and perhaps that is the root cause of my sudden fascination with space suits and weightlessness.

But the first time I followed a huge mining drill up its shaft, breaking through onto a wide expanse of moon rock, washed in sunlight, it took my breath away. It was just beauty as sterility, harsh and empty.

[Phill Cameron is a regular writer at The Reticule and Rock, Paper, Shotgun, both PC gaming websites. He also occasionally writes for Resolution. You can contact him here, and follow him on Twitter here.]

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