The simple concept of brick breaking as the basis for a video game is almost as old as video games themselves. Breakout first came to home consoles more than 30 years ago, captivating countless players with nothing but a paddle, a bouncing ball, and a ton of bricks. Shatter breathed new life into this old concept when it was released for the PlayStation 3 last year, and now it has come to the PC. Shatter's numerous innovations, coupled with gorgeous visuals and an exceptional soundtrack, make it feel not so much like a step forward for the brick-breaker genre as a bold reinvention of it.
In Shatter, you control a small machine called a bat that has a convex surface and the ability to move along only one edge of the playing field. As you guide this plucky little mechanism in its quest to overthrow its oppressors, you'll encounter wave after wave of bricks impeding your progress, just crying out to be destroyed. Luckily, you have just the thing to get the job done. The bat can fire a ball capable of breaking the bricks that stand in your way, and your goal is to keep the ball in play as long as possible, sending it on a collision course with bricks that need breaking and not letting it get past you when those same bricks send it back your way. The allure of this well-worn action lies in its simplicity. There's an unfettered purity to the gameplay that can lure you into a state of profound focus, where all that matters is keeping the ball in play and increasing your score. When you're fully absorbed in the action, it's very exciting.
The additions Shatter makes to this tried-and-true formula are remarkable because they introduce compelling new elements to the gameplay without distracting from the simplicity at its core. The most significant of these is the ability to suck and blow air with the bat, making minor adjustments to the ball's trajectory and vacuuming fragments of shattered blocks that fill up a special attack meter. This gives you a level of control over the action that extends beyond the bat itself and keeps you involved at all times--not just when you need to get the bat into position for a rebound. And if you like to live dangerously, you can launch two or more balls to ratchet up the challenge and increase your score multiplier. It's a cool risk-versus-reward option that is at your disposal at any time, so long as you have more than one ball to spare. There are also a few power-ups that significantly change the action when you collect them. Unstoppaball turns the ball into a destructive juggernaut that has a momentum oncoming bricks can't interrupt, while manueveraball makes the ball much more susceptible to the influence of your blowing and sucking, which lets you precisely steer the ball toward your intended target.
Shatter's inventiveness also spreads to level design. With horizontal, vertical, and even round level layouts, the position of the bat and the way the ball ricochets about the area is constantly shifting, which prevents levels from feeling too similar. There's also a great variety of brick types, including bricks that take several hits, bricks that try to blow the ball away, bricks that blow up other bricks around them, bricks that creepily multiply, and bricks that drift about in the contained atmosphere of the level. These last bricks mentioned can be quite a threat. If one of these loose bricks collides with the bat, it'll be knocked out of play for a brief moment, which can, of course, be deadly if you fail to catch the ball as a result. Thankfully, you have a shield that can protect you from these bricks, but using it drains the meter for your special attack, which is called the shard storm. This attack rains a devastating shower of shards on the bricks or boss in your way, which can be quite useful in a pinch.
Speaking of bosses, each of Shatter's 10 worlds culminates in a boss battle, and most of these showdowns are thrilling and memorable. Each boss has a weak spot that you must attack with the ball, but introducing the ball to that weak spot is invariably easier said than done. You battle a clocklike machine with rotating arms that threaten to knock the ball away; a few menacing contraptions that have weaknesses you must reveal by blowing aside their armor; and perhaps most enjoyably of all, a bigger, badder bat. These battles make for a dramatic and satisfying conclusion to each world, and further cement Shatter's position as much more than just another brick-breaking game. The Story mode is great fun while it lasts, but sadly that's only a few hours. The gameplay certainly stands up to repeat playthroughs, but the novelty wears off a bit once you've seen all there is to see.
The PC version of Shatter costs two bucks more than the PS3 version. For that extra cash, you get two new game modes. Endless mode has you struggling to score as many points as possible against constantly evolving and respawning brick patterns. Time Attack plays just like Endless mode, but it limits you to five minutes. These modes can be played solo or with a friend in local cooperative play. Co-op puts one player in front of the other but swaps your positions frequently enough so that both players spend plenty of time getting first crack at every ball that comes their way. Endless and Time Attack give you more leaderboards to climb, but they lack the sense of progress that keeps the story mode engaging from moment to moment. Shatter supports play with a controller, a mouse/keyboard, or just a keyboard, and all of these schemes provide the precision you need in this type of game.
Shatter is best played with the lights out and the music up. Visually, Shatter follows in the footsteps of other retro-inspired downloadable games, such as Geometry Wars 2, giving everything a neon glow that makes it pop off the screen. Destruction is a beautiful thing here, particularly when you trigger sequences of explosions that leave tons of glowing shards in their wake. Keeping your eye on the ball can be tough when all of this is going on in the background, but it's not a problem that you're likely to have often. Even more impressive than the visuals is the music. Each of the 10 worlds has its own gorgeous electronic composition. These diverse tracks are good enough to stand on their own outside the context of the game, and when paired with the visuals and action of Shatter, they enhance the trancelike experience tremendously.
Shatter wears its retro inspiration proudly in its visuals, and in the simple bleeps and bloops that serve as the occasional sound effects, but you don't need to be a fan of the games that inspired it or old enough to remember when they were introduced to enjoy Shatter. It's that rare game that builds on existing concepts in such a way as to create something entirely new while holding onto what made those concepts so compelling in the first place. Priced at $9.99, Shatter's irresistible action and the fact that it constantly taunts you with the next highest score on a Steam friend's leaderboard will make it an experience you'll keep coming back to long after you've smashed the final boss into a million little pieces.