Overshadowed by the ever virulent EverQuest among the countless other competitors for your online subscription dollars, Shattered Galaxy stands poised to become the next revolution in RTS (Real-Time Strategy) and online gaming. In beta testing for over a year and finally unleashed upon an unsuspecting audience, Shattered Galaxy emerged with banners streaming, as the first and only MMORTS/RPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Real-Time Strategy/RPG). Created and localized by Nexon USA, subsidiary of the immense international game developer and online gaming pioneer: Nexon Corporation (Nexus, Dark Ages, and the upcoming Elemental Saga).
Recently released in late August 2001, Shattered Galaxy is only available as a commercial package that includes the client software disc and a month of free access for a reasonable $29.99. To sweeten the deal, the Shattered Galaxy installation disc contains all the client software necessary for all of Nexon's online games including their respective free access trials. Continuation of your online campaign beyond the introductory period is the industry standard of $9.95 a month. Friends who refer their cohorts to Nexon's universe of endless warfare are privy to an extension on their free access trial. Is Shattered Galaxy worth the price of admission and the cost of continual investment of perpetual play? Let's take a look.
Imagine if you will, mankind up-heaved: orphaned from Terra and cast out of Sol on Chaos' whim. The folly of the inquisitive would result in human devastation on a catastrophic level. Torn from Earth in an instant of unimaginable terror, 2,000 km of humanity would be thrust into the barbaric world of Morgana. This craggy planet would become home to these refugees: familiar in environment yet alien in it's hostility. These remnants of Man would have to start life anew, amid the crater of the civilization they once knew. The feelings of despair would lead to the return of the old ways.
Tribes would form as the last surviving vestiges of man set out into the savage lands of Morgana. Colonization gave way to Imperialism, as mankind slowly bent the planet to it's whim. Mankind would return to a darker vision of it's former glory as military States emerged as the only forms of order and power. The war would only intensify as resources grew less bountiful, more and more of the limited wealth consumed in the vehicle of war. The path of humanity's continued survival on this foreign world would give way to a conflict that would span the galaxy. Mankind's worst threat to continued survival was itself, or was it?
Into this state of endless warfare you are thrust, as a raw recruit in an army of your choice. Your rise to power, both politically and militarily, will be measured by your loyalty and service to your brothers-in-arms: your Faction.
Nexon's Shattered Galaxy presents a grand, yet gritty vision of humanity's lost children, embroiled in a bitter conflict; hung in a state of perpetual war.
Being a massive online multiplayer game, Shattered Galaxy is at its core a massive community, and thankfully, a noble, yet belligerent one at that. Divided into fighting factions, the typical Shattered Galaxy player is usually fiercely committed to their clan; their conflagrant hatred of the enemy is tangible. The thrill of victory and the bitterness of defeat can become very personal. Friendships are made and broken, but regimental bonds are forged with links of steel. Bitter rivalries are common and outright fights have occurred on several occasions. The wrath of a vexed player, especially one with political influence can dwarf that of a hundred programmed bishonen bad-asses.
In an environment of military unrest, the addition of these "human" elements makes Shattered Galaxy a very engaging affair, filled to the brim with emotion.
The story-driven sequences are limited to the CGI/crayon introduction, very infrequent cinematics, and a constant barrage of text news feeds. Nexon does an admirable job of creating scripted events to enrich the atmosphere, ranging from the brilliant and very recent alien uprising (xenomorphs emerging from subterranea to capture faction territory with ferocious aplomb), to the horrid torture of the THING virus (gameplay was warped in unimaginable and unplayable ways). These added events are a nice touch to an already engrossing game, and shows commitment on the part of the developers to the enrichment of Shattered Galaxy.
Artistically, Shattered Galaxy is no slouch, but compared to the likes of DirectX 8 monsters like Pools of Radiance, the game is hardly a breathtaking affair. Using rendered sprites that are manipulated on pre-rendered two-dimensional static backgrounds, Shattered Galaxy bears more than a passing resemblance to the Westwood Studio's giant: StarCraft. The lack of any polygonal construction may make the game seem dated at first glance, but Shattered Galaxy has a distinct look, though unglamorous, that fits the game perfectly. A mesh between cyberpunk and dark sci-fi, the atmosphere is instantly familiar and appreciated.
The combat maps, both subterranean and terra-firma are handsomely constructed, though repetitive and lack the lush atmosphere of many RTS games. Environmental effects are nonexistent, making the entire playfield seem dull and uninspired. Some of the maps are creative but the overall lack of animation is disappointing. The faction capitols are more aesthetically pleasing with small touches of activity like animated store signs and steam. Despite these misgivings, I can safely say that the chassis and creature design and animation, coupled with frenetic action, save the score from the depths of the water-closet.
Though choices for your actual hero are limited, the models are rendered and animated with respectable results. The diversity in the unit and alien types is phenomenal, ranging from the sleek "Pegasus" attack cycle to the monstrous "Abomination" mutant infantry. The alien design is also noteworthy: some reptilian in nature, others distinctly insectoid, the entire menagerie is an imaginative archetype of fangs, claws and chitinous plate. As staggering as the breadth of designs present in Shattered Galaxy, more are being added as Nexon continues to enrich the gameplay.
The units (both terran and extraterrestrial) are pre-rendered sprites, and are rendered with a slightly higher resolution and frame-rate than most of Shattered Galaxy spiritual sisters: Command & Conquer and StarCraft. The character animations during combat and movement are a mixed bag. The unrelenting hordes of xenomorphs are sickeningly well-animated, but on some of the slowest mechanical units, motions are very static and unexciting. Infantry also deserve honorable mention for their fluidity of motion and combat routes. There is even mild evidence of light-sourcing added to the firing animation sequences for some of the armored footmen.
Combat effects such as flame-throwers, shellfire and explosives of the fallout-variety are visual treats, the retinal effect of cloaked units being especially impressive. The battlefield can become quite hectic in more heated skirmishes, displaying more than 50 sprites on screen at any given time. Though slave to the vagaries of your PC's hardware and internet connection, these uber-battles are seldom choppy on a respectable computer.
The firefights that erupt during strategic strikes are feverishly chaotic, frightfully crowded and satisfyingly explosive. Compared to the mip-mapped majesty of more of the cutting edge PC RTS and RPG's available, Shattered Galaxy appears ancient. Upon closer inspection, the graphics engine is classic RTS, updated for the more visceral video cards. Though not a GeForce contender, Shattered Galaxy is a visually solid, though classically styled RTS/RPG with more variety and visual potential than most other games in its genre.
Shattered Galaxy suffers from the bane that has plagued every RTS game from the beginning of time: evil, wretched repetition. The music that accompanies each battle comes in two flavors: winning and losing, both classic examples of military marching music. The score in the over world map, the capitol and hero-in-transit are exactly the same. Most of the tunes interred in Shattered Galaxy are catchy, but simplistic and totally amnesiac. After playing the game for about 5 hours I had no choice but to silence the droning synthesizer and fire up some MP3's.
The transition of music is poorly done as it is very common to hear the current combat track stop and reload. The piece played in the game's intro is an undulating and somber theme, and of respectable quality, but soon becomes grating as it is played constantly throughout the game's numerous environs, both placid and disturbed. Though Nexon has yet to address the issue of acoustical boredom, I'm certain the topic is on their laundry-list of upcoming improvements.
The sound effects of combat are truly an impressive accomplishment. Filled with bass fury, the acoustic glee of hearing your Shade-class infantry saw through plated steel with teeth of cordite and Teflon will make even the staunchest pacifist grin like the Cheshire Cat. From the crisp sound of flames spewing from an Oizys' (flying insectoid beasts lovingly dubbed "Ozzys") maw to the ear shattering explosion of an Arbalest's anti-ground artillery barrage, Shattered Galaxy will turn your inner-ear to toothpaste. The numerous functional blips and beeps of menus are as they should be, quick and unobtrusive, and the mechanical sounding mechanisms of many of the menus add some character to an already impressive GUI.
Overall, the melodious marriage of music and gameplay in Shattered Galaxy leave much to be desired, but the sheer depth and gravity of the sound effects during the more engaging parts of the game help the never-ending miasma of background music.
Shattered Galaxy merges classic RTS with the character creation, growth and interaction of an RPG. The player begins by choosing his hero amid a motley crew of humans. Your hero is an avatar of sorts, as this character never actually engages in combat, rather controlling his troops from a command post.
Once you've chosen the visage of your soon to be conqueror, you must divide points among his/her 4 attributes: Tactics, Clout, Education, and Mechanical Aptitude. These statistics will ultimately determine your troop's effectiveness and combat strategy in general, so initial point allocation is crucial. "Tactics" directly influences how many troops may be deployed into combat and controlled at any given time, as well as your position as a Battlefield Commander. "Clout" determines your speed of access to upgraded chassis types. "Education" directly influences the rate at which more sophisticated equipment becomes available for your use. "Mechanical Aptitude" determines a weight bonus, if any, to your units, allowing for more powerful configurations as heavier gear can be utilized. Additional points can be earned for allocation as your character gains experience.
Once your character is created, you are then introduced to the capitol of your faction. This cityscape provides you with many resources: purchasing and upgrading units, trading minerals, even voting on faction political issues such as foreign policy. There is also a very simple, intrinsic gameplay tutorial available upon completion of character creation. This is a wonderful feature since the Shattered Galaxy instruction manual is not only incomplete (due to the dynamic nature of the game) but weighs in at a hefty 130 pages. RTS newbies may feel daunted at the prospect of attempting to read such a tome, but Nexon provides enough support in-game and on their website to make the transition from grunt to General as painless as possible.
After completing the tutorial, troops may be purchased. Thus far, there are approximately 50 chassis types, but they can be divided into 4 main categories: Infantry, Mobile, Aviation, and Organic. "Infantry" are footmen carrying various forms of boom-sticks, "Mobile" units are the wheeled wonders, "Aviation" is self-explanatory, and the "Organic" are subjugated alien life forms bred to fight for your cause. Each category has strengths and weaknesses, with even more skill differentiation as you explore the numerous unit types in a particular category. For example, "Infantry" ranges from combat units such as the flame-throwing "Imp" and gatling-gun-slinging "Shade", to field-assist units such as the insidious mine-laying "Sapper" and indispensable "Medic".
A good balance of using the 4 basic unit categories is the key to success. As your troops gain levels so does your character: increasing levels in command of that specific troop type (ex. Infantry). For every unit category level earned, an additional point may be to be added to your Attributes. Increasing a unit category by several levels increases your rank in commanding that troop classification, which nets you a medal and a nice pinning cinematic.
Upon unit purchase, your machine must be outfitted with weapons, armor, powersource, AI, sensors and equipment. Your choices are limited by the Weight Capacity and Technology Level of that unit. These scores may increase as the unit gains experience in combat and as the player increases the corresponding attributes upon level-up. Upgrading to a newer chassis through direct purchase, or evolving the unit into a more specialized type, is based again upon their level of experience and Unit Quality and Influence (both determined by the attribute of "Clout"). The depth of customization present is astounding, and Nexon is not only adding more equipment to the shops on an intermittent basis, they have done a remarkable job in addressing the initial player concerns about unit balance and upgrading requirements.
Once you've selected your troops and outfitted them accordingly, you may then tackle the fiery fiesta-proper on the world map, or you can troll the cavernous innards of the planet bug-hunting and gathering resources to spend on improving your troops. Funds are rarely a problem as your faction gives you an allowance based upon your fighting prowess and your faction's tribute from territory held.
Unlike traditional RTS games, Shattered Galaxy does not emphasize resource hoarding and management of supply bases and installations. The gameplay of Shattered Galaxy is completely combat-oriented, making such time consuming and monotonous tasks unnecessary.
The goal of each skirmish is to capture or defend "points of contention" (POC), scattered across the map. Upon placing a ground unit (air units cannot claim a POC) on the raised dias of a typical POC, its wedges will light up. Upon the POC being completely illuminated, your Faction symbol will be placed on the now captured point and the corresponding wedge on the circular indicator on your control panel will glow green.
In an attack, once all the POCs have been captured, or if the 20 minute timer runs out and you hold the majority of the POCs, you are victorious. In a defense mission you must defend most, if not all, of your allied POCs until the timer expires. You may also be victorious if all enemy attackers are destroyed. Capturing a POC can be a painful affair as it takes approximately 30 seconds to capture or recapture each location. Reinforcements for a newly captured or recaptured POC are paramount. This is painfully evident in the last minutes of combat as the firefights on a tiebreaking POC are beyond barbaric.
As battles are won and lost, territory is transitory, going from the hands of one faction to the other, affecting the overall struggle and income for the war-effort. Thankfully faction capitols are the most secure locations on the planet and are immune to enemy attack. The constant perpetuity of the conflict is impressive.
Besides the battles raging on the front, there is also the opportunity for even further character development in the political arena. With victory come honor and prestige, and the most successful armchair generals eventually become involved in the more subtle combat of the council floor. Every faction is governed by an Overlord, who is elected by the players to serve the faction. He is given the executive powers to elect a council and grant unique abilities to each.
This council, with the orchestration of the Overlord, decides on the taxes placed on trade at the Resource Exchange Market as well as other matters of finance. They may even pursue political treaties with the other warring Factions, marking shared territory and coordinating assaults on their enemies. The Overlord may declare a state of Martial Law, in which all access to the subterranean strata and capitol shops are sealed. This act may be used once a day for herding the masses to critical battles where everyone's participation is required. But, should the Overlord fail in his duty to his Faction, he may be ousted from power, his council reduced to ash.
Council members have varying powers such as forming elite groups of players into "Regiments" who usually follow commands directly from their founder. All members of the faction politic may use a power called "Shout", this allows them to broadcast a message to every member of their faction, regardless of distance. Council Lords may also declare a faction member a traitor and command their followers to hunt them down for sport, a power that I was unfortunate enough to experience due to an ostensibly puerile council member who wasn't graced with much tactical common sense.
Thankfully, their regime was ousted as Toraro: the new Overlord of Solan, was elected. My false crimes forgiven, I was welcomed into the regiment, "The Knights of Solan", by the new Overlord himself. I then had the honor of fighting alongside a most noble and valiant company. How many games have you played where you genuinely feel persecuted and redeemed? In my experience: not many.
Finally, one of the most interesting aspects of Shattered Galaxy's longevity is faction rotation. In keeping with the title, the entire war is waged on not one but several planets. As a new recruit you are placed on the beginner planet of "Relic", as your faction drives its adversaries into submission, you and your entire clan will have the opportunity to be transported to "Morgana"- an intermediate planet where the factions are more powerful, the stakes and rewards much higher.
This advancement is two-fold, for if your faction does poorly in the new struggle, it may be rotated to a lesser planet to make room for more potent clans. This allows loyalties that were built to be preserved, allowing friends to stay together regardless of planet shift. Likewise, players dissatisfied with their Faction may choose to defect using Nexon's Shattered Galaxy website, but their act of treason will result in a loss of all honor points they had accrued in service to their former brethren.
Trying to fully explain the depth of gameplay intrinsic in Shattered Galaxy can only be fully understood in practice or by viewing Nexon's amazingly thorough, dedicated homepage: http://www.sgalaxy.com. With a bewildering scope of options, staggering depth, and significantly balanced gameplay, the engaging saga of Shattered Galaxy is fiendishly addictive and wickedly-good fun. Whether you're a newbie or RTS old-guard, you'll find the game easy to learn and impossible to put down.
Combat is a breeze for those familiar with any of Westwood Studios RTS games in the "Command and Conquer" vein. Selection of troops is made via hotkey, double click or drag box. You may even assign hotkeys to select a specific detachment of your retinue. Combat and movement is as simple as right-clicking on an enemy or location. The game also supports troop formations via hotkey, some of which are indispensable for avoiding area-damage weapons such as flame-throwers. You may of course customize your own troop formations, but the preexisting configurations are adequate for most situations. For the more meticulous, the ubiquitous command wheel is ever-present, allowing use of the more specific abilities of your units.
If there is one complaint I can make about the control is that of the unit AI, which seems to take the most random routes to a location possible. There have been numerous times where my entire detachment became lost in the myriad of map obstacles due to interpreting a straight line as an ellipse. Irksome at best, this quirk of the movement logic AI is positively aggravating in the heat of combat when your units spread out without your command and are made easy targets of more cohesive attackers.
The GUI (Graphic User Interface) is stylish and simplistic, but upon first glance seems overwhelming. Though the instruction manual covers the control interface with simple brevity, only through practice is masterful manipulation of troops and menus achieved. Anyone with experience in a Windows-based environment should have no problems navigating the numerous menus and options therein.
The chat feature is similar to most IRC software from the '90's. You may choose to speak privately to a player by inputting his name into the field, or project messages for your allies alone, or for all to see. You may even hotkey text responses, which is a grand feature as some battles require quick actions and even quicker commands to your allies.
The usual chat interface suspects are present, including a private contact list, making communication a snap. You may even ban a player from sending you messages, a very useful feature as some bad blood can lead to text flooding in the middle of crucial combat. Nexon has also included a full-scale BBS in-game. You can use this to communicate with members who are not available, keep up to date on Nexon's server changes or event additions, or post your opinions and suggestions to the company directly about the game. There are even user polls that are generated upon exiting the server in hopes of improving what has already grown into a most engaging affair. I'm very impressed with Nexon's commitment to their players and the Shattered Galaxy community.
Overall, there is nothing new or revolutionary about the control in Shattered Galaxy. Anyone with a 2 button mouse and keyboard will be able to play without much difficulty. The control is easy to grasp with some practice and quickly becomes second nature. The nature of the game is dynamic and fast paced and the interface is no slouch. The bounteous hotkey options are a boon to the menu-impatient, and in a game that is as feverish as Shattered Galaxy, your keyboard will get a well-deserved workout. Those familiar to classic RTS gameplay will feel instantly at home as Shattered Galaxy is a solid testament to those foundations laid long ago.
Nexon's Shattered Galaxy is a thoroughly enjoyable trek into a galaxy firmly in the grasp of perpetual war. The storyline, albeit limited at this point, is original and filled with as yet untapped potential. The graphics, while not awe-inspiring are competent in execution and imaginative in design. The game engine is incredibly solid especially when supporting an immense number of players. Despite the occasional server hiccup, Shattered Galaxy has enjoyed one of the most painless MMOG (Massively Multiplayer Online Game) careers in history, with very little downtime and impeccable server maintenance. The music is respectable, but nauseatingly repetitive and overly simplistic.
But these points of contention are moot in light of the true jewel of Shattered Galaxy: the gameplay. The awesome array of options at the player's disposal, the frenetic action, the ease of control and the immersion and involvement of the community make Shattered Galaxy one of the most ravenously addictive and sadistically enjoyable games I've played in a long time. Shattered Galaxy deserves a place of honor among the RTS games or our generation, easily mentioned in the same breath as the legendary StarCraft and Command & Conquer.
Equally impressive is Nexon's commitment to enriching the already explosive experience, their level of dedication to this game is remarkable, especially considering most users have yet to subscribe. But despite the intrinsic value and replayabililty, there is always the issue of pay-to-play. Many shy away from fantastic experiences like Shattered Galaxy due to the apprehension of a monthly charge. Ultimately, the consumer decision to support Nexon in maintaining servers, adding more events to the experience, and tweaking game balance, will determine if Shattered Galaxy can be a contender in the fight for quality gaming content at a reasonable price. All I can say is that I can't think of a more fulfilling way to blow $10 a month. I'll just have to pass up on my monthly MacFarlane Toy.
This review would not be possible without the support and encouragement of my faction brothers and sisters of Solan, and the core members of "The Knights of Solan".