This sky is broken. I need a replacement!
Since the release of such titles as DayZ and Rust, Steam has been swelling with the sheer volume of persistent multiplayer shooters where the focus is on survival and hoarding goodies. What often makes these sorts of games so gut-churningly nerve-wrecking is the possibility that any given moment: you might turn a corner and come face to face with an assault-rifle wielding player who won’t hesitate to kill you and take all your hard-scavenged stuff. Shattered Skies seeks to bridge the gap between these ruthlessly hardcore shooters, and more traditional MMORPGs – where death sets you back a little, but doesn’t cause you to lose so much hard-won progress that you falcon punch a hole in your monitor.
There are three different factions in Shattered Skies’ post-apocalyptic-flavored world: The Merchants, The Dominion and the Brotherhood of Chaos. The Dominion has bases around the map where PvP is disabled, meaning you’re safe to socialize with other players, store your loot, and get items from the various vendors.
The Brotherhood of Chaos are the teenaged internet troll faction whose avowed ideology is simply to cause as much chaos as possible. You can gain brownie points with them by destroying structures that are helpfully colour-coded in red and black. The Dominion roadblock and Merchant Comm station activities are functionally identical. Both require you to activate computer stations, after first repairing any red structures rampaging Chaos-aligned players destroyed earlier. The profound complexity of both these tasks is represented by simply holding down the action button over the relevant hotspot.
Faction activities only activate when a cooldown timer has finished, so the theory is that a whole bunch of players will converge on these areas at the same time for some pitched PVP battles. Oftentimes though, you’ll just be left standing around, guarding the locations while you wait for the cooldown – with a twitchy, sweaty finger on the trigger – only for nothing to happen. If the server you’re on isn’t particularly active, Shattered Skies can become like an Oven-Timer-Watching-Simulator.
You need to complete activities for your chosen faction to get special magical loot bags – which conveniently don’t drop when you die (meaning they’re safe until you can open them back at a base). These loot bags contain some of the best items in the game, so doing these missions is essential. The only problem is that there’s no variation in these tasks. You’ll be continually going to the same locations to interact with the same hotspots, waiting for the same activity cooldowns over and over again.
Playing on your own can magnify how samey the simplistic “jog for five minutes then hold down ‘e’ over some hotspots” gameplay can become. However, playing in a group can be way more fun. It’s easy to set up groups with other players you meet, not only disabling friendly fire, but giving you a handy marker so you know where they are. With a friend watching your back, PVE becomes more interesting as you can flank around sniping aggressors and flush them out from hiding spots. I had a few exciting moments while playing together with a friend. One time I was casually looting cars only to take a bullet in the back. I tapped my medkit hotkey, dove behind some cover and yelled over voice chat for my ally to back me up. Working together, we took down the would-be bandit, finding out that he was a good few levels higher than us, and his bullet-riddled corpse had the loot to match. Moments like this really emphasize how good teamwork can trump higher levels in Shattered Skies, even as the drive to get more experience motivates you to play on.
Your progress in the world of Shattered Skies is only partially item-based, with the bulk of it being level-based. Though better weapons and armour become available to you at higher levels, twitch-reactions and skill are still given primacy. Combat in Shattered Skies has just the right mix of complexity and action. Most guns have three types of ammunition you can load into them: Armour-peircing, Hollow point and Full Metal Jacket. Hollow point ammunition does devastating damage to un-armoured targets, but not much to players who’ll likely be kitted out in enough armour to shame a paranoid medieval knight. You’ll have to plan your loadout carefully on runs to make sure you’ve got the right weapons and ammo to quickly switch between fighting PVE and PVP.
One strategy I liked to use was popping off a quick burst of armour piercing ammo on a marauding alien to strip off the protection of its tough xeno-hide, before rapidly switching to a pistol pre-loaded with organ-perforating hollow-point rounds to finish it off. This would leave me with plenty of FMJ rounds ready to shoot other players with, not only wounding them, but chipping away at their armour as well.
Weapons are plentiful around the gameworld – as are other supplies and ammo you find littered around the abandoned settlements – but it’s your weapon mods that give your armament its distinctiveness. You can switch out your gun’s muzzle, for example, for a compensator that lowers your recoil, or you can attach a flash suppressor so you don’t give away your position with your rifle’s telltale muzzle flare when you’re ambushing other players. A fully modded gun with flashlights, custom grips, expanded mags and a variety of other deadly accrouements can make you feel like a deadly killing machine – but also makes you a tempting target for those who’d be so frightfully ungentlemanly as you murder you and take your stuff.
There’s a light survivalist gloss to Shattered Skies, but it’s intentionally bare-bones, and rarely drags you out of the action. Every so often you have to eat and drink to stay alive, but this rarely has much effect upon the gameplay other than encouraging you to refill your water bottles at a well every so often. It adds a little more tension on longer runs when you’re running low on food or water, but it’s not involved enough to divert your attention from combat and looting too much. There’s only one negative status effect – bleeding – and getting rid of it is as simple as hitting the hotkey your bandage is bound to. This means no hobbling around with food poisoning and crippled limbs for you!
Crafting is also a part of Shattered Skies, but it too is very simplified. You’ll find materials for crafting around the map, which handily teleport into some intra-dimensional netherworld so you don’t have to worry about carrying them around (thanks Cthulu). You get blueprints for new items simply by levelling up, and items seldom require more than two or three types of materials to craft. This easy-breezy approach to survival-shootery was frankly quite refreshing to me having played other titles from this oeuvre, but it doesn’t entirely excuse the game’s faults.
There’s no nice way of saying it, but Shattered Skies is a pretty ugly game. Jagged scenery, primitive lighting effects and blurry textures abound. It’s also completely lacking in any sort of music – not even the bizarrely chirpy, upbeat public-domain sounding music you’ll find in the trailer. Shattered Skies lacks any kind of distinctive atmosphere, and its setting is as generic and perfunctory as it gets. There are spooky monsters in abandoned towns which curiously regenerate guns, ammo and supplies – and there are three vaguely defined groups who want errands done for them. Then again, who needs a coherent, original, interesting world when you’ve got a giant playground to shoot things in, eh?
Shattered Skies strikes a good balance. Though most of your progress – in the form of levels, stored items and crafting materials – is persistent, there’s still a healthy risk of losing your carried items when you go out on longer runs. Death is a meaningful penalty you want to avoid, without it being overwhelming, and it’s quite compelling to build up your character across the various servers. The problem is the uninspired setting, and the increasingly repetitive gameplay. There’s altogether too much uneventful jogging around the map, collecting the same type of loot, fighting the same types of monsters and getting insta-gibbed by the same players who are 30-odd levels higher than you. Apparently, there’s lots of new content on the way over the coming year to hopefully spice things up a little. For now, Shattered Skies feels like a step in the right direction, but it’s got a whole lot of holding down Shift+W before it gets to its true destination.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed); Publisher: Free Reign Entertainment ; Developer: Free Reign Entertainment ; Players: Up to 70 per server ; Released: July 21st, 2016 ; ESRB: M for Mature ; MSRP: $21.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy provided to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.