Tue Nov 17 12:42:44 EST 2009

fragmented viewing

In my never-ending quest to find the game with the stupidest title possible, I've been playing a little Shattered Horizon. Two word verdict: Not bad!

Some rocks in Shattered Horizon
(It's set in outer space.)

That is, the game is not bad. The title, Shattered Horizon, is balderdash. A horizon is the line between the sky and the ground. Like a rainbow, it is non-physical, but the result of physical objects. There is no meaningful way a horizon could be "shattered".

Boo. Boooooooo.

They could have invested a modicum of meaning in the title,* since the game takes place in space, and there is no horizon, just like in your mind, man; but they didn't.

*: Speaking of Significant Titles, Rainbows End by world class hard science fiction writing bad ass motherfucker Vernor Vinge. Looks like a typo, isn't! You should buy it, right now, from that link.

Horizon is, of course, made by Futuremark. Erudite, but not au courant, nerds will now be going "Huh".

You see, Futuremark, for the last ten years, has been making a series of 3D graphics benchmark suites, starting with the venerable 3Dmark99. Since this essentially entails building video games that don't have controls, and is inherently hard to make money doing, as there are a limited number of hardware review sites to sell enterprise versions to, the natural next step is to make actual, functioning, games.

If you subscribe to the odious practice of describing video games in terms of "like x, crossed with y", then you would probably go on to call Horizon "like Descent, crossed with TF2". You're a guy with a gun, fighting over control points, in a team of identical guys, but you fly in three dimensions, and don't have voice chat.

That's right, Futuremark's complete lack of experience shows in the many little things they get wrong. There's no voice chat, no voice binds, and no chat history. There are, in fact, two different global chat dialogs, one during the pre-mission briefing which occurs in a unmovable dialog box that covers up part of the briefing screen, and one during the game proper. Hilariously, the in-game chat dialog is a single >, which is all that appears to notify you that the game has stolen input focus, resulting in a lot of lines consisting entirely of "wwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwsdasdwadddd".

Futuremark, flaunting their experience with making graphical demos, is really over-fond of fiddly UI bits. Little bitmap greebles, and boy are they annoying. Everything is very fancy looking, and not very usable.

The escape menu, for instance, is presented as a screen on your left wrist, and when you hit escape, your avatar brings it up to look at it, which takes maybe 300 milliseconds. This is mildly annoying, but also improves immersion, so we'll call it a wash.

But most of the time you want to adjust settings, you're already dead, in spectator, and thus have no wrist! When you're spectating, it's a completely different, conventional menu, that pops up instantly.

Contradictory UI elements! Yeah! I fucking love those!

Horizon also has interesting demographics. I was playing Moonrise with three other people, and sucking hard, since I kept stopping every five minutes to take notes. When they weren't mocking my ineptitude, the topic of age came up. The ages of those on the server? 49, 41, 40, and 21. Yeah, I'm a rebel. But definitely not your usual Xbox Live crowd.

Speaking of noise, Horizon almost gets sound in space right. Almost. Explosions are noisy, but they employ the standard dodge that these noises are generated by a situational awareness system, and then lets you shut it off to run silently, and not show up on the IFF system, just like in Mechwarrior 2.


When running silently, your HUD is disabled, and all you hear is the beating of your heart. Most notably, you don't hear the clanking of your boots when you're attached to a surface, the sound of the suit's ventilation system, the sound of your Orbital Manovering System jets, or the report of your gun.


Guys! All these things are bolted to your suit, which, in turn, is surrounded by a perfect insulator. They are going to not only be audible, but positively noisy. I love the subversion of this ancient trope, but you took it too far!

You could make a case for your rifle not being as loud, but there is no plausible explanation for the lack of fan and OMS noise.

The silent running mode also exposes some inconstancy in game design. While in silent running mode, you can, of course, still maneuver, since it would be pretty useless otherwise. This can be handwaved by saying that the OMS system has physical controls, and is not fly-by-wire.

But while the suit is booting up right after respawn, and while incapacitated by an EMP grenade, OMS and Attitude Control Systems are impaired, and function erratically. So which one is it? Are they controlled by computer or not?

Even better, while silent running, your OMS jets don't give off light, as they do when the computer's on. This is probably supposed to make it easier to sneak up on people, but it doesn't make any fucking sense.

Even worse, recoil from the assault rifle doesn't produce an equal and opposite force! Man! That would have been so neat, you guys.

Some rocks in Shattered Horizon
(Seriously, outer space. Rocket ships and everything.)

Horizon also limits player velocity. This is because physics is inconvenient, and I've given up hope on it being depicted realistically in anything but a straight up simulator.

The problem is that any thruster that accelerates quickly enough to not feel annoyingly slow and unresponsive will, thanks to v=at, result in very high velocities, very quickly. This is amusing, but tends to result in players, used to friction, zooming off the playable map, and being killed by the border. Not fun.

The way Horizon implements its speed limit is annoyingly incorrect. You can accelerate up to the speed limit, then coast (correct) but thrusting any more doesn't do anything. (wrong) If you're trying to handwave the speed limit as a safety measure imposed by the suit's computer, then it would shut off the thrusters when the speed limit was reached.

More annoying is the implementation of "sprinting". Like every other FPS in the last decade, you can sprint for a limited time, denoted by your "boost" meter, and like those FPSes, your avatar holds his gun at port arms while sprinting.

Except, he isn't doing anything. It's the suit's OMS system thrusting, there's no reason you couldn't continue to fire.

And, of course, when you run out of "boost", you slow back down to the normal speed limit.

No. Wrong.

It would be possible to handwave the speed limit creatively. Say, you're assaulting the enemy base, and your side's hackers have disabled the defenses, but didn't notice how they tie into the asteroid detection system, so the guns will vaporize anything above a certain speed. When behind cover, you can exceed the speed limit, but moving out of cover will then get you killed.

See? That's how you justify a technical limitation.

Let's take a short break here, and talk about motherfuckers.

The reason for this digression into profanity is that, halfway through through writing this post, I lost internet access. As you may already know, I recently switched ISPs. Worldlink, the new ISP, is actually a common carrier provider. They lease the telephone lines from Verizon, the local baby bell, and resell it to consumers. This is actually win-win, since Verizon gets less of my money, and I get to sign up for DSL service by walking into the Worldlink office and talking to Rick Kunekel, a p. cool guy who doesn't afraid of anyone; even if he does use MSIE, for shame.

The downside of this arrangement is that when there is a problem with the equipment, it has to be communicated to Verizon, through Worldlink. This is... slow.

During the eternity I was without internet access, I was also without access to my collection of PC games. This is because I have, ever so foolishly, placed my trust in Steam. Steam, as it turns out, really wants an internet connection. The "go offline" button is a ruse, designed to entrap the unwary, and in actual fact, does nothing at all.

Valve, I would really have liked to be able to use the hundreds of dollars of software I have bought from you, while I was offline. That would have been so great. It would have been just awesome.

Instead your piece of shit DRM-infested malware informed me that going offline was an operation that required an internet connection.

Wow. That's some great design.

When the problem was finally communicated to Verizon, and the great slumbering beast of its bureaucracy was roused into action, it was determined that line conditions were such that they could not support the speeds that I was using. A curious conclusion, as I had been using those speed for six months now, without complaint. In any event, I was to be moving soon, and any internet access is better than no internet access.

He said, confidently, before he actually used the slowed internet connection in question. Slowed, from 8/768, to 2/128. 128 kilobits per second! Yeah! It's 2002, all over again!

What was I talking about? Oh yes, dem vidya gaems.

Horizon has regenerating health, like all my favorite games. This is.... reasonable, considering the setting, but I wish there had been more done with the damage model. There is positional damage, with faceplace and tank hits being instant kills, but no progressive impairment, (get shot in a RCS cluster, and you can no longer turn right) which is unfortunate.

Another thing made conspicuous by its absence is a laser rifle.

Space is pretty much the only environment where laser weapons make sense, thanks to our accursed atmosphere, with some exceptions. The rifle can zoom in, but makes an utterly shitty sniper rifle, thanks to plenty of scope wobble, and recoil that's modeled as a permanent deflection from the aimpoint, rather than a transient one. They probably had a reason for doing it this way, rather than the standard sighting model, and boy, it better have been a good one.

A laser rifle would have unlimited range and hit instantly, but would cycle slowly, and be vulnerable to heat buildup. (Plus, frikken laser beams! Pew pew!)

Heat management would be another easy addition. Getting rid of waste heat in space is a big engineering problem, as any foole with a thermos knoe, a vacuum is a lousy conductor of heat. You do a lot of things that should produce a lot of heat in Horizon, such as conducting OMS burns, firing weapons, and floating around in direct sunlight.

A neat design tradeoff here would be to reduce cooldown while illuminated by the sun, and increase it when you're standing on a solid surface. (Radiators in the soles of the boots, being held in direct contact with the surface by the "align to surface" magnets, could dump a lot of heat via conduction) Silent running mode, would, of course, shut off the cooling system entirely, dramatically limiting how long you could stay silent, depending on how much heat you generate.

Wait a minute, here. Positional damage? Lasers? Heat management? This sounds like another Mechwarrior game.

Really? Gee, that's funny.

They also neglected to include suit leaks, mystifyingly. The whistle of a slow leak in your space suit, while you're trapped outside in the vacuum of space, is one of the most evocative situations in science fiction, and they didn't put it in their astronaut shooter. Man!

There is a general lack of connection to the suit. You can't hear its ventilation system, you fly through dust clouds without getting the faceplate dusty, there's no glare through the helmet, etc.

Horizon should feel like hairless monkeys piloting millions of dollars worth of fragile shell from rock to rock, and dying horribly when that shell is damaged in even the slightest way.

Instead, it's got the soul of a very generic FPS, set in an extraordinary location.

And that's terrible.

But it is not horrible. Horizon is a very good first step, rough and unpolished, but hinting at the overly stretched metaphorical staircase to come. The purely hypothetical sequel will be awesome, (Think of the possibilities. More than one gun! More maps! Classes! Vehicles! Deployables!) but as it stands now, Horizons is merely very good.