In forty years' time, according to Shattered Horizon, we'll all be floating around space in booster suits, shooting the crap out of each other amongst the fractured ruins of immense intergalactic vessels. Back To The Future's retro 80's vision is definitely more appealing, but then how could you possibly beat a giant CG Jaws that gobbles up hapless pedestrians? Besides, Shattered Horizon's concept works a hell of a lot better as a videogame, as anyone who played BTTF on the NES will testify.
Developers Futuremark have added a backstory that explains the ensuing carnage, but Shattered Horizon is quite simply an online multiplayer frag-fest, which pits two teams of up to 16 players against each other in one of three different game types. Loading the game brings up a list of available servers, along with a game description and headcount for each, and all you have to do is select a server and which team you wish to join and you're away.
The three game types will be instantly familiar to fans of online shooters. Skirmish is your standard team deathmatch, while Battle and Assault involve fighting for control of a number of checkpoints. In Battle it's a free-for-all, with each player able to capture a checkpoint at any time by simply hovering nearby. The team who controls the points for the longest by the end of the match wins. Assault is similar to UT's assault mode, except the attacking team must capture three checkpoints in a set order to win, while the defending team fights them off. Although three game modes might seem a little stingy, they're all great fun to play and easy to pick up even if you happen to join mid-battle.
So far, so familiar, but Shattered Horizon's unique selling point is the levels themselves, set in the cold vacuum of deep space. Being in space, there's obviously no gravity, so your only method of traversing the maps is the multi-directional boosters attached to your suit. This may sound complicated, but the controls are so intuitive that any FPS fan should pick them up in minutes. Simply replace ‘jump’ with ‘up’ and ‘crouch’ with ‘down’ and you’re pretty much there. The only other factor is your momentum, which keeps you travelling indefinitely in a given direction until you boost again. That’s one way to cut down on keyboard wear and tear at least.
The zero-g environments make this a very different game to your typical online shooters. You'll quickly learn that free-floating in space is almost instant death, and you have to make full use of the scattered debris for cover. Your aim is understandably a little wonky while you're hovering, so you'll need to anchor yourself to a solid surface to get an accurate shot at a distant opponent. However, you also move a lot slower across ground than you do when you're skimming through space, making you an easy target for any nearby enemies. A careful balance of the two and some effective teamwork is essential for survival.
An interesting choice by Futuremark was to only include a single weapon in Shattered Horizon, which at least prevents players from camping around respawning rocket launchers and gives everyone an even chance in battle. The gun itself is fantastic, a combination of assault rifle and grenade launcher that doesn't break any boundaries but is powerful and satisfying to use. A sniper scope is included for distant headshots, while a melee attack can be used in personal encounters to tear open your opponent's suit. There are three types of grenade, including an ice grenade that functions as a smoke bomb by obscuring the view of anyone caught in the blast, and an EMP grenade that knocks out the suit power of anyone hovering close enough.
On the subject of suit power, it's actually possible to pull your own plug at any time and enter silent running, which is an eerie experience. With no power, your HUD vanishes along with the electronic markers that pick out your teammates and opponents. Movement is stilted, and it's no longer possible to anchor yourself to a stable surface. Even more disorienting is the complete lack of sound. You're relying on sight alone, hoping to pick out enemies yourself amongst the surrounding debris. So, why even bother with this mode? Well, aside from providing a greater challenge for more experienced players, it's also a lot harder for enemies to spot you and lock onto your position when your power's out. Of course, if they do spot you before you spot them, you're pretty much a floating bullseye. It's also possible for your own teammates to mistake you for an opponent, as your coloured marker is gone. Cue an obscene and badly misspelled string of abuse from the casualty, and a 'LOLZ, WHOOPS!' from the executioner.
Shattered Horizon is a damn fun online shooter, and different enough from its closest competitors to warrant a look for any fan of the genre. There's only four maps at present and they're fairly similar, but Futuremark has promised us free downloads in the future and the lack of diversity doesn't detract from the entertaining gameplay. Not knowing which direction death could come from really bumps up the tension, especially when you spot a lone shadow snaking across a meteor just a few feet away. However, this also means that it's easy to sneak up on an enemy and score a 'tank shot'. The sight of their lifeless form spiralling away into the depths of space never fails to amuse.
Potential buyers be warned - this game uses DirectX 10 for its fantastic visuals, which means that any Windows XP systems will not be able to run it. The hardware system requirements are also tough, with a powerful dual-core processor and 2GB RAM recommended as an absolute minimum for a smooth online experience. Thankfully the graphical detail is scalable if your rig is struggling.