By Danny Baxter / February 14, 2013
A few years ago, a well-known company in the business of benchmark software decided to take things to the next level and move into game development. Specifically, a multiplayer FPS that might give people a reason to upgrade their hardware in 2010 (a weak year for high-spec PC titles). The space setting was ideal for showing off graphics tech, allowing for some jaw-dropping visuals without having to go nuts creating assets, and made for some interesting mechanics — with zero-gravity movement, a few control points and the ability to anchor onto walls, the game resembled a multiplayer mashup of Descent and Counter-Strike.
After a fairly minimalist marketing strategy, the game released to a pretty poor reaction. Futuremark didn’t have many people to throw at the project, and wanting to take advantage of their graphical expertise while harnessing fancy new video hardware, the renderer was DX10 only. This infuriated that odd group of luddites who were willing to spend thousands of dollars on cutting-edge hardware but balked at the thought of moving from Windows XP out of some perverse sense of being a “power user”. Critically, the game was poorly received. Gaming journalism struggles with the $10-15 price-point the game was released at, writers struggling to comprehend a game somewhere in-between the Jon Blow "labour"-of-"love" "indie" "gem" and the "AAA" cinematic experience. In the end, the game got somewhere around 60-70 on Metacritic. A few complaints were heard here and there about there being 4 maps (reminder: TF2 shipped with 6) and high system requirements, but what everyone agreed on was the fact that the game only had one gun to use. Somewhere, a few lights flickered in a few brains and the conclusion was drawn that the game lacked depth.
But the game didn’t lack depth. The gun initially appears to be a fairly standard assault rifle, small CS-style bursts being decent at long-range and the full-auto spray feeling good in a pinch. Anchor yourself to a surface and it gets much more accurate at the expense of mobility; scope in and you can fire a 10-shot burst, difficult to aim while flying due to heavy sway but pretty effective. Oh, so now it’s a sniper rifle. And there’s a mobility/accuracy tradeoff that’s a lot more meaningful than the standard iron sights. We’re not quite done yet though: the gun has an integrated grenade launcher, able to fire 3 types of grenade: ICE functioning as a smoke shield to mask an advance, EMP shorting out suit systems and severely impairing the mobility of whoever gets caught up in the blast, and the MPRs (a personal favourite) — conc grenades that will send you flying across the map at extreme speeds if shot just right, or send some unlucky sod flying into the silent edges of the play-area to get picked off by some exciteable sniper.
Couple this with the fact that the game takes place in zero-gravity. The maps are typically a collection of asteroids, cargo containers and miscellaneous pieces of debris around central elements — a joy to navigate by swooping around in your spacesuit, descending silently behind a careless camper like you’re Batman in space. Attacks can come from anywhere, but a spotting mechanic and the bright team-coloured light your pack gives off during movement help you spot threats. You can even turn off your spacesuit systems to a minimal mode — your HUD disappears, you can’t hear anything (your suit computers are apparently capable of recreating sounds of nearby gunfire in a vacuum), and you have very little control over your movement. In this mode, you’re mostly at the mercy of Newtonian physics, and sneaking around the map slowly, hearing nothing but your own slow breathing is one of the most atmospheric moments of any multiplayer FPS. Shattered Horizon had a lot of depth, even if you couldn’t pick from a selection of 10 slightly different assault rifles. A small community formed and it wasn’t uncommon to see familiar faces on servers (a ranking system, while unlockless, gave a small encouragement to keep playing, and a couple of fun little texture swaps meant that your spacesuit looked progressively more beat-up as you entered veterancy, the most elite players careening around in suits with sharks painted on, just barely held together with duct tape).
After release, the first major update came out. 4 new maps — pretty good ones too, if hampered by performance issues here and there. People were happy, and the community steadily grew. Those who condemned the game for a lack of depth continued to praise the infinitely-wide-but-relentlessly-shallow mechanics of games like Bad Company 2 while the astronauts practiced their arcane MPR boosts. Unfortunately, a second update was looming over the horizon. Project managers at FM had finally got round to reading the Metacritic score, and concluded that the game needed more guns. So, soon enough, a pack of guns was developed. Assault Rifle, SMG, Shotgun, Sniper Rifle, all the favourites. The new guns offered none of the slick polish or versatility of the classic rifle, but in return offered all the depth of a game of rock-paper-scissors. The bayonet was gone, replaced with an awkward-looking ice pick. 3 new buggy grenades were introduced which offered no particularly interesting function (spotters, decoys and a flare reminiscent of BF3’s almost-symbolic tac light) but made using the existing grenades all the more awkward (cycling through 3 things is a bit awkward, cycle through 6 of these bad boys and it gets frustrating). The classic rifle was gone and its replacements were here.
Those who got to beta the replacement weapons balked at the changes and asked FM to reconsider, leaving them in an awkward spot. After all, the game wasn’t really very popular and had no long-term financial model. Call of Duty and Battlefield players were disgusted at the lack of weapons, and maybe some of them could be tempted into a spacesuit with these new toys. So, the second update was released.
And indeed, the people who had mocked the game for having only one gun came in droves, drawn by the promise of loadout options and claiming that finally the right thing had been done. Meanwhile, the players who had stuck with the game for months quickly grew bored of the rock-paper-scissors mechanics, some of them drifting away and others pleading FM for a “Classic” mode. Such requests were shot down quickly by developers and players alike, on the grounds that the community would be splintered by such a move. Of course, it already had been (the one-gun system offered an implicit promise of balance for those tired of the poorly balanced weapons seen in contemporary FPS games, and when it left, they left too). This was the new game. Deal with it.
A month later, the game was dead. The sort of player who requires 10 different assault rifles to enjoy himself found the game lacking in both options (only 5 guns?!) and the polish present in the game on launch. A budget game couldn’t compete with the big boys at EA and Activision for this playerbase, and the old players had moved on too. To this day, Classic mode is unimplemented, and the new weapons drift endlessly in space, pleading for someone to pick them up and shoot them.
Who’s to blame? Shattered Horizon was a niche game, small but well-formed. The combination of a low budget and a nice idea is a good one, but the players were bait-and-switched in a way that most decent TF2 players should empathise with by now. Was it the fault of FM for not catering to the CoD/BF players from the start? Was it the fault of reviewers and players for assuming a game with one gun has no depth? Was it the fault of the early players for refusing to adapt to the new, poorer game? The fault of the developers for not implementing Classic mode, or for even doing the second update to begin with?
I don’t know. But today’s FPS players are dogmatic in their belief that free content updates (both updates were absolutely free, but in retrospect it would have been better if you had had to pay for them for them to take effect) are always a good thing, and that adding more "stuff" is always an evolution and never a regression. Shattered Horizon, a game I used to love, a game tailor-made for my tastes and then turned into a mass-market clusterfuck, will always be my best example of why that just isn’t the case.