As you might expect from a company best known for benchmarking programs aimed at hardcore PC gamers, Futuremark's Shattered Horizons is rather demanding. This Steam-distributed multiplayer-only shooter requires a top-of-the-line CPU and video-card combo, along with either Windows 7 or Vista as an operating system because the game has been built around DirectX 10 without support for Windows XP. But you can't complain (too much). This is one of those games that makes it almost worthwhile to shell out the big moola needed to build a killer gaming rig. New twists on old standards juice up conventional multiplayer shooting action by moving the battleground to the zero-gravity vacuum of space, and an emphasis on team tactics gives the game a unique feel. A handful of maps and no single-player option make this something of an ambitious tech demo, but the price is just $20, which may just make you forget about the limitations while you're playing as a killer astronaut.
The time is the sorta-near future, an era when man has colonized the moon and is busily mining it for all of its space-rock valuables. Predictably, it goes boom. Chunks of luna spiral off into the vacuum, forming a ring of asteroid debris around the Earth, which is soon dubbed the Arc. Authorities on terra firma soon decide to go after those responsible for blowing up the moon, so squads of military men from the International Space Agency head up to the rocks to track down members of the Moon Mining Cooperative. Nastiness ensues in orbit, resulting in astronaut-on-astronaut team firefights that look a lot like the closing battle scene in Moonraker.
Combat itself is not so goofy. Because Shattered Horizon takes place in zero-g space, there is no up or down and very few comforting floors or walls. You float around freely in your space suit and can travel in all directions via thrusters, with only magnetic boots locking you to space rocks or space station debris on demand. Maneuvering like this through all four axes can be confusing if not handled well, so thankfully, Futuremark has done an outstanding job with basic movement. It is easy to understand and adapt to within moments of sitting down to your first match because of the use of traditional WASD controls to zip around with space suit thrusters. Multiplayer matches are lag-free, too, so there are no delays between button presses and onscreen action. Physics have been tweaked so that a little bit of oomph doesn't result in you floating out toward Mars, sacrificing realism to make everything approachable for earthbound types. You can always get where you want to go, although lingering momentum from thruster bursts keeps you a little off-kilter, as does the topsy-turvy nature of space itself. Still, the fundamentals are remarkably free of frustration.
At least until you start trying to kill enemies. That is a whole lot trickier, thanks to deadly and precise combat. There is only one ranged weapon in the game--an all-purpose blaster that can puncture a space suit with just a couple of shots and leave the wearer flailing about dying in the cold vacuum of space. It can even be used with a scope, affording quickie headshots that kill instantly…as long as you can deal with the big-time recoil that practically turtles you over in your space jammies every time you squeeze off a round. Melee combat exists as a last resort, with such close-up attacks resulting in one-shot kills. Grenades are present as sort of a tactical aid, allowing you to do things like knock out enemy suit power momentarily through an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) burst. You can choose to power down your suit manually, too, and switch into silent-running mode. Activating this feature causes you to vanish from radar and drift around quietly sniping enemies, but it comes at a heavy cost. The price of stealth is the loss of most maneuverability, your suit's targeting system, and the ability to hear the simulated sound of combat (because there is no sound in space, your suit mimics gunshots and explosions as you would be hearing them down on terra firma). Still, it can be worth it to get the drop on an enemy or simply to hear the spooky sound of only your heartbeat as you float through the silent vacuum of space.
Frenzied shooting and fisticuffs isn't really what Shattered Horizon is all about. The ability to kill quickly places huge importance on smartly navigating the zero-g environment, using the floating rocks in orbit as cover and working as part of a team. You will get killed repeatedly unless you realize this and work on taking out enemies with sly attacks instead of outright frontal assaults. At the same time, there are times when you need to blitz the bad guys. This gives the game sort of a schizophrenic personality. While you need to do a fair bit of sneaking around and long-range sniping to avoid becoming a constant headshot or oxygen-tank casualty, you also have to balance this with going on offense to avoid being flanked. You get a smooth flow to most matches because of this, which keeps things tense and entertaining. The only annoyance is how silent-running mode and the huge number of space rocks on each map combine to promote camping. You seem to have to deal with a couple of guys who lock their boots to a rock and do nothing but snipe in every mission. This can be countered with good team tactics and grenade use, though you need to really know the map layout to counter effectively. Expect a lot of trial and error in the early stages as you fumble around learning the terrain.
With all that said, there isn't quite enough game here to warrant giving Shattered Horizon an unqualified recommendation. Only three multiplayer modes of play are offered. Solo shooters need to look elsewhere, as do people who want to play more innovative matches than the generic assault-and-battle and capture-the-flag variants or the team deathmatch-like skirmish. Another annoyance is the lack of any sort of tutorial mission or bot support. You have to dive right into live multiplayer matches against other human opponents of all skill levels, which is a pretty rough introduction to the game. Even worse, the game launched with no way to boot team killers and griefers. There are just four maps, with virtually all of the action taking place amidst floating moon rubble. At first, this is very dramatic, thanks to the presence of cool backdrops like the wreckage of the International Space Station. Fighting for your life in Earth's orbit also has an impact because there is something powerful about floating above the big blue ball. It's like you're taking part in some kind of extreme NASA shuttle mission. But it gets a little dreary after a while. You can only zip around the rocks for so long before you start wishing you could bounce around on the moon itself. Only the Moondust map comes close to creating this effect with its huge chunk of the lunar surface, but even it pretty much forces you into the void for much of the fighting. And there doesn't appear to be anything here that demands DirectX 10. Sure, the visuals are attractive, but better-looking DirectX 9 games are out there, so there doesn't seem to be much point to the system requirements that prevent Windows XP users from playing.
Even though Shattered Horizons isn't quite all there at present, the shooter offers something new for multiplayer shooter fans despite lacking a few features. If Futuremark builds on this initial release with more maps and more modes of play, it could have a real hit on its hands. This is especially true given the fact that a fair number of people seem to be playing the game online in the early days after its launch.