“For the wise man looks into space and he knows there is no limited dimensions.” –Zhuangzi
While perusing through a copy of PC Gamer back in 2008 at the local supermarket, I came upon an intriguing featured article detailing a game that had been particularly novel. The premise was that a mining accident that rends the lunar surface, sending billions upon billions of tonnes of lunar material into near-Earth space, damaging infrastructure and threatening to destroy the moon itself. Amidst the ruins, the International Space Agency (ISA), who enforce stellar law, and the Moon Mining Cooperative (MMC), a massive corporation who sought to profit from space mining operations, find themselves spiralling towards an inevitable armed conflict as the ISA seek to bring the MMC to justice and control the limited resources to ensure their survival. Players take control of soldiers and fight with full freedom of movement in a zero-gravity environment. Built for the most cutting-edge PC hardware of its time, Shattered Horizon represented a bold new direction for first person shooters, and despite providing six degrees of freedom with respect to its movement, the game proved intuitive, enjoyable and challenging for players. The only real downside was that one needed heftier PC hardware of the time to play the game (a Core 2 Quad Q6600, GTX 260 and 2 GB of RAM); while the game was counted as lacking in a single-player mode and AI bots to train against, overall, Shattered Horizon was praised for its movement system, unique atmosphere and engaging mechanics. A future update did end up adding a campaign and AI bots, but in 2014, Shattered Horizon was stricken from the Steam Store: the game’s developers, Futuremark, was bought out by Rovio Entertainment, and Futuremark announced that their inability to support the game meant it was unfair to players who picked the game up late in its lifecycle, as they would receive no new updates or content. Attempts to bring first person shooters into space had proven quite unsuccessful: 2013’s Call of Duty: Ghosts, and 2016’s Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare represented bold stabs at elevating interest in zero-gravity firefights, but were met with cold reception. However, in January of last year, Studio Surgical Scalpels announced a ground-breaking new project called Boundary, and in its trailer, heavily-armoured astronauts were shown flying through the depths of space, engaged in a harrowing firefight amidst the super-structure and narrow corridors of a space station while debris filled the space from the flying bullets. The aesthetic conveyed in this trailer immediately brought to mind Shattered Horizon, as though the game had been resurrected and given a makeover to capitalise on graphics and visual effects resulting from over a decade of advancement. Although intriguing, Boundary fell from my mind until last Wednesday, when I caught wind of the fact that Boundary would be participating in SteamFest, a time of celebrating upcoming games.
After installing the client, joining my first match and winning thanks to beginner’s luck, I spent the past several days playing through Boundary‘s alpha demo to gain a feel for things. Out of the gates, the roughest aspect to acclimatise to was getting stuck in the level geometries. There were moments where I would land on a surface, then attempt to peek a corner, only to get stuck there. Only a frenzied alternating between engaging the thrusters and rising would dislodge me from this surface, and on several occasions, this led to my getting killed. Similarly, after I latched down on a solar panel and prepared to snipe a target, inconsistent movement would lead me to unexpectedly stop aiming down sights, and the foe I’d been tracking would disappear from sight by the time I found a position from which to aim down sights again. Both faults in the movement system resulted in my dying to a player who was doubtlessly enjoying my predicament. Besides the janky movement on surfaces, Boundary‘s UI and UX are very rough. The user interface is cluttered. Menus are difficult to navigate, and it is difficult to determine what one can interact with. Button text fails to describe what a button does, and sometimes can be downright misleading: I accidentally joined the wrong game mode on more than one occasion. In game, the HUD is messy, with elements being difficult to read, and a massive alpha banner covers the lower left-hand side of the screen, blocking one from spotting enemies from that side. Similarly, directional indicators cover the entire screen, obscuring the enemies themselves. The user experience is also tricky in places; switching one’s loadout requires numerous button presses and diving into menus to change out weapons or attachments. The font sizes are on the small size, making things difficult to read, and menus are filled with text. In terms of gameplay, enemy visibility is limited, and the game offers very little in the way of identifying where foes are coming from. On more than one instance, I spawned into the map, only to die instantly from a sniper, or found myself shot in the back before I could respond. In close quarters environments, raising a weapon up to aim down sights is sluggish, as is changing out my weapons – trying to combo ordnance usage into using a primary or secondary weapon to finish a foe off is not viable, and running out of ammunition mid-firefight can be a death sentence, since swapping over to my sidearm is slow. However, enemy visibility and postion identification, together with the slow ADS and weapon swap, is very much a part of the tactical shooter experience in that one must take full advantage of the environment for cover, and understand their gear’s limitations to determine when is an appropriate time to change things up. Further to this, because Boundary is in alpha stage, the UX and UI can still be improved: compared to game mechanics, UI and UX elements are often the easiest to change. Similarly, the movement and environment geometries could also be updated to be a little smoother in places. While it looks like I’ve rattled off a long list of problems, it is quite telling that most of my gripes about Boundary are either related to UI/UX, or my own lack of familiarity with the mechanics. Indeed, once I began feeling more comfortable with things, I found myself having fun – towards the end of the demo period, I had a positive KDR and was winning more games than I lost.
Screenshots and Commentary
- There were three playable classes in Boundary‘s demo: Sergeyev is the default assault, featuring high health and decent mobility. Armed with an AKM, Sergeyev is a good all-around class for attack and defense. All classes are equipped with two ordnance options, as well as two special abilities, and by default, players start with high explosive grenades and EMP rounds. The former can quickly make short work of foes at the expense of having a long switch time, while the latter disable enemy movement for a brief period and can make for follow-up shots.
- When a player is “killed”, their spacesuits have suffered enough damage to become punctured. In this state, an emergency balloon inflates around the player to keep them alive. In this state, players can be revived by allies, although this act leaves them vulnerable to enemy fire, and during the six hours I spent in Boundary, I was never once revived, nor did I feel comfortable reviving a downed friendly player because of the prospect of being fired upon. In the end, it was much easier to just respawn and keep going, although this only worked because I was playing the Domination mode. The other mode that Boundary‘s demo offers is Elimination in a Counterstrike or Rainbow Six: Siege like mode. The lack of respawns make this mode punishing, and I opted to play Domination for the fact that one could get back into things after being killed.
- Initially, I did have some trouble adjusting to the AKM’s recoil, but once I did, the weapon did become more manageable to use. In discussions, some have wondered how automatic weapons could work in space: while it is possible to fire a gun in space because the ammunition contains its own oxidiser, and a quick look around finds that both recoil and gas-operated mechanisms could work in space. Recoil operated weapons continue to function because the act of firing a bullet would adhere to Newton’s Third Law, and the chemical reaction between the oxidiser and propellant in a bullet would produce the gas needed to cycle a weapon. Special modifications would need to be made in order for the weapons to operate efficiently, but this is not outside the realm of possibility with existing technology.
- Despite knowing that the “space” environment is merely a very well-rendered skybox, this hasn’t stopped the visuals in Boundary from being gorgeous. All of the maps look stunning, and here, I score a kill with the AKM on a foe while I traverse the solar panel on one of the maps. The sun and a planet are visible below, and more impressively, reflections can be seen in the solar panel mirror. Boundary has support for real-time ray tracing, although an RTX 2060 or better is required to make full use of the graphics, but even on the GTX 1060 6 GB model, Boundary is a beautiful-looking game whose aesthetic is definitely worthy of Shattered Horizon.
- Alexandra is the second class available in Boundary; by default, she carries an LMG with sixty rounds, and of all the classes, has both the largest health pool and highest armour amount. In exchange, her mobility is greatly reduced. I found the LMG to be a decent weapon for closer range engagements: at medium and long range, one needs to tap-fire to reduce bullet spread. Having the extra armour and health is nice, especially since one can get attacked from all directions. Over time, as I levelled up each of the classes, weapon attachments became available to me, and I found that Boundary allows one to try out new attachments in a firing range that is accessible from the weapon mod menu.
- This part of Boundary was excellent design: one feature missing from modern first person shooters is the ability to immediately try out their weapons with the latest mods to see how handling and performance has changed. In this area, Boundary has absolutely nailed it, and games like Call of Duty and Battlefield could take a leaf from Boundary‘s book. After experimenting, I found one sight that proved particularly fun to use for the GSW-MG, Alexandra’s starting weapon. Firing from the hip is not too effective with the heavier weapons in Boundary, but in a pinch, one can do well enough in extreme close quarters; the large circle here indicates the region in which bullets fired will land, showing the extent of spread when hip-firing.
- After unlocking Sergeyev’s second weapon, the Mosin-Nagant bolt-action rifle, my experience in Boundary changed completely, and here, I scored a double kill with it. Throughout my time in Boundary, I would go on to earn several more double kills with the GSW-MG and later, Yao Yi’s submachine guns. However, in a manner reminiscent of my Halo 2 Vista days, capturing the double kill badge proved quite tricky: even with Steam’s screenshot function, badges disappeared before I could reach for the button, so this ended up being the only double kill badge I captured. Because Boundary‘s games are five-versus-five, multi-kills are a bit of a feat, so one could say that double kills are a sign of improving in the game.
- The combination of unlocking good ranged weapons and attachments, coupled with my becoming more familiar with the mechanics in Boundary, meant I would begin performing better in later matches to the point where I was going KD-positive and contributing to my team’s ability to keep the entire map locked down. On the other hand, during some matches, my team either did not care for playing the objective or otherwise, was simply outperformed.
- Unlike Shattered Horizon, Boundary only has local sounds audible to the player: one’s own movement and gunfire can be heard, but beyond this, other players cannot be heard at all. Shattered Horizon had gotten around this by keeping sounds and stating that complex processing allowed for sounds to be simulated. In tactical shooters, players must depend on audio cues to determine their foe’s position, and since this is absent in Boundary, it does create for gripping moments where one has no idea where the enemies are coming from. I do not think Boundary will add mechanics for helping one determine where enemy players are, since one could also use this stealthiness to their own advantage.
- Here, I experiment with Alexandra’s GSW-TAR (I’d hazard a guess that this stands for Tactical Assault Rifle), a burst-fire weapon carrying a maximum capacity of twenty-five rounds and one more round in the chamber by default. This weapon proved fun to use, handling like Halo 2‘s battle rifle, and although I didn’t get around to unlocking it, there is a forty-round extended magazine available if one ranks Alexandra up far enough, which would turn the GSW-TAR into a battle rifle more closely resembling Halo 2‘s.
- Domination matches are short and intense, lasting a total of ten minutes; at the halfway point, the opposing teams switch spawns so the match is a little more fair. Maps aren’t symmetrical, and the developers do this so any advantages one gains in one half the map are offset by playing on the less favourable side, bringing to mind how in ice hockey and beach volleyball both have teams switching sides to offset any advantages the weather might confer. However, during lulls in the combat, one can really appreciate how well-designed the maps are, as well as admire the scenery: it strikes me as curious that the planets appear to be different on some of the maps, and here, on one of the larger space stations, it would appear as though I were orbiting a desolate, uninhabited planet.
- Alexandra’s GSW-AMR (Anti-Materiel Rifle) is the most powerful weapon in Boundary‘s demo; per its name, it does the most damage per shot and is limited to a three round capacity. While immensely powerful on a per-shot basis, the weapon is hampered by the fact that it obscures half the screen when equipped, and together with a low rate of fire in addition to its small magazine capacity, the GSW-AMR is actually less effectual than Sergeyev’s Mosin-Nagant, which has a larger capacity, slightly faster firing rate and the fact it doesn’t obstruct half the screen.
- The Boundary demo ends tomorrow at 1000 PST, but I’ve decided to call it in early: while I’ve had no shortage of fun with this demo, real-world circumstances meant that I have increasingly less time to game. Yesterday, I spent the day clearing out bookshelves and wall units to get everything packed up ahead of the move, and ended up picking up dinner from our favourite Cantonese restaurant (seafood fried rice, sweet and sour pork, Chinese broccoli and seafood, deep fried oysters and mushrooms, Buddha’s Delight, and a chicken and seafood medley cooked in a clay pot): nothing beats a hearty meal after a day’s work. It was surprising as to how quickly an afternoon disappeared.
- Today, my morning was directed towards assembling the new ergonomic task chair I’d picked up last weekend. A proper task chair is leagues ahead of a “good gaming chair” in terms of comfort, and the chair I ended up going with offers fully adjustable seat height, armrests, and a mesh back rest that fits the contours of my back (the back rest itself is fully adjustable). Altogether, the task chair runs rings around a gaming chair in terms of comfort, practicality and aesthetics; I’d much rather have an inconspicuous and functional chair for my home office space, versus something whose ability to elevate my gaming and development prowess is little more than an urban legend originating from the internet’s less scrupulous corners.
- The third and final operator, Yao Yi, unlocked on Friday – she’s the fastest moving class in Boundary, sporting the highest mobility at the expense of health and armour. By default, Yao Yi is equipped with the GSW-SMG, a solid close quarters submachine gun with high RPM and solid hip-fire performance. I ended up getting a double kill in close quarters whilst clearing it of foes. Excelling in close quarters scenarios, Yao Yi proved to be extremely fun to use, although with her, it’s advisable to stay near or inside structures, since her weapons are all about short-range engagement.
- Yao Yi also comes with a shotgun, but I never found this quite as effective as the GSW-SMG: during the first match I played with Yao Yi, I was absolutely shredding with the GSW-SMG despite having no attachments unlocked for my weapons. Traditionally, I’ve preferred close quarters environments as a result of being ineffective with snipers; in my Halo 2 days, I always found the most success by getting up close and personal with foes, whether it be using the battle rifle and melee to stop my enemies, or picking up the power weapons optimised for close-range combat. Battlefield led me to become more comfortable with sniping, and nowadays, I freely switch between long and short ranges depending on what the situation calls for.
- One mechanic I found to increase the tactical piece in Boundary was the fact that one could patch up their spacesuit if they’d survived a firefight narrowly: the process takes a set amount of time (Yao Yi’s light armour means she can repair sooner, while Sergeyev and Alexandra both take a longer since their armour is heavier), and during repairs, one cannot use their weapons, so players are forced to make a split-second decision on whether or not they want to repair before entering their next firefight. Because of the lack of motion trackers and other means of determining the positions of hostiles, the few seconds it takes to repair can be quite suspenseful.
- As I became increasingly familiar with Boundary‘s mechanics, sniping became increasingly enjoyable. I found that it was best to hang back from the combat if one were using a slower-firing weapon and pick foes off from a distance (resulting in a Long Shot badge here); if one continues staring down a foe, they become automatically spotted for a while, and their position is revealed to the opposing team. To let players know of this, a test indicator warns players if they’re spotted, giving them a chance to get to cover and wait things out.
- I believe that overall, there were four maps available to players during Boundary‘s demo: a solar power station, a large space station with a pair of shuttles docked, a partially-assembled space hotel and a linear facility resembling the International Space Station. Each of these maps have a unique aesthetic and are fun to explore, but unfortunately, Boundary‘s demo did not indicate to players which map they were joining after successfully match-making to a server. Knowing the map can impact one’s choice of loadout, and in all shooters I’ve played previously, the loading screen makes it clear which map a user is joining.
- For instance, on the International Space Station-like map, I prefer equipping the Mosin-Nagant because there are long sightlines, and very few obstructions, making the weapon highly effective; after unlocking the 8x optics for the Mosin-Nagant, I was able to pick enemies off from across the map. While the Mosin-Nagant is slower-firing, using the high explosives ordnance or sidearm, modified to fire on full automatic, allowed me to hold my own in situations where enemies had managed to close the distance on me, and here, I landed a satisfying headshot on an enemy while the planet’s curvature is visible above.
- Boundary features a full-featured customisation system for both weapon attachments and cosmetics: using an operator unlocks more weapons, attachment and customisation options, while match performance also yields credits that can be used towards player customisation. For most of my run, I ran the default appearances for most everything: all of the guns in Boundary start out with an astronaut-white finish, matching the spacesuit that I had. However, the accumulated points would allow me to pick up different spacesuit textures, accessories for my helmet and even a shoulder badge. These have no impact on gameplay, but admittedly, the weapon skins and accessories do look quite nice.
- Studio Surgical Scalpels, the developers behind Boundary, is a Chinese company located in Shenzhen, Guangzhou Province. They were originally founded in 2015 by four experienced game developers and have since expanded to ten employees. The Chinese origins of Boundary are apparent in some of the assets and artwork used in the game: patches with Simplified Chinese characters are common, and I actually found myself running into a host of players with handles consisting of all Simplified Chinese characters, including an unfortunate player here that I ended up shooting in the face.
- Seeing Chinese players, and the occasional Japanese player, led me to wonder what things are like on the other side of the world; I’ve previously read that in China, internet cafés are popular amongst the technologically-inclined crowd, who enjoy them for providing reliable high speed internet and act as hubs for socialising with other users. South Korea and Japan also has a strong internet café culture: in South Korea, gamers are fond of hanging out here, while in Japan, internet cafés offer patrons services like dining and showers. The range of services offered by Japanese internet cafés has created a social phenomenon called “net café refugees”, homeless individuals who have no permanent address and find accommodations in internet cafés owing to their low rates.
- This phenomenon is touched upon in Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering With You: after Hodaka arrived in Tokyo, he resided at internet cafés until his funds ran dry, and luck sent him on a path towards Keisuke Suga and Hina Amano. In North America, internet cafés fell out of popularity in the late 90s as homes became wired with increasingly capable connections. Here, in a moment of pure luck, I shoot the lights out to a fellow who had been picking off teammates on server I was on: shinobaeTV is a Twitch streamer who specialises in FPS and primarily plays Escape From Tarkov.
- While I’ve occasionally run into some streamers during my online escapades, I’ve never actually encountered my favourite Battlefield YouTubers before. There is little doubt that folks who make their living making videos about first person shooters would be uncommonly skilled with them; by comparison, I can be said to “dabble” in video games, playing for my own enjoyment above all else. Admittedly, I was wondering if I should participate in Boundary‘s demo at all because over the past few years, my inclination to play multiplayer games have dropped considerably, and from disuse, my skills have evaporated.
- Playing through Boundary‘s demo, however, I quickly learnt that while my reflexes are certainly not what they were, patience became my greatest asset. I did the best in matches where I anticipated my opponents’ movements and positioning, and then reacted accordingly with the tools available to me. While my speed and aim are no longer enough to out-perform someone younger, I can capitalise on things like flanking and map knowledge to nonetheless hold my own. Indeed, it was in this way that towards the end of my time in the demo, I was able to consistently go KDR positive.
- One thing that might need to be dialed back for the final release is the fact that the ordnance players have access to are exceedingly powerful: a volley of high explosive grenades can wipe even Alexandra out, and here, I got hit with an EMP barrage. EMP rounds disable one’s thrusters, leaving them to float helplessly in space, but in spite of this, I managed to turn Yao Yi’s GSW-PCC, a weapon resembling the P90, against this foe, surprising them: just because one is drifting doesn’t mean they’re defenseless, and determined players can still survive even when their ability to move around is significantly degraded.
- One thing I did notice (and found hilarious) was the number of kill-trades I had in Boundary: a “trade” occurs when both players act in a way as to defeat one another simultaneously. In one particularly unusual match, I ended up with a KDR of exactly 1:1 because every death I incurred, I traded with my opponent. In games, trades are usually considered to be a sign of weak netcode or bad design; Battlefield 4 had been notorious for kill-trades back in the day, although numerous patches and updates to the backend rectified the issue. Here, I narrowly managed to avoid a trade on virtue of having heavier armour while playing as Alexandra.
- Having now roughly put in about six hours into Boundary, the lingering question is whether or not this game will join my (considerable) library of other titles. While I did have a handful of frustrating moments initially while learning the mechanics and map layout, once I became more familiar with the game, I was having quite a bit of fun. There is no denying that Studio Surgical Scalpels have done a phenomenal job of bringing 2009’s Shattered Horizon to life in Boundary, and this has certainly been a worthwhile game to experience. My verdict at present is that this game is something I’d like to see a little more to before I make a concrete decision: Boundary has all of the right things in place, and for now, having a bit more information will help me out with said decision.
- Altogether, I am glad to have taken the time to try out Boundary, which allowed me to experience a space tactical shooter (something I’ve been longing to do since reading about Shattered Horizon years earlier); the idea of a proper space shooter is one that still remains relatively unexplored, and it is fantastic to be able to play a game that is very much grounded in reality. With this post in the books, we exit the last weekend of Februrary, and here, I will close off with two remarks. First, I will note that I’ve got one more post lined up before the month is over, for the #AniTwitWatches Girls und Panzer revisit, and second, Boundary came up a bit unexpectedly. With the SteamFest demo over, I will be returning my efforts into Project Wingman as I aim to move towards the game’s halfway point.
Overall, Boundary‘s greatest strength is in its aesthetics. Everything about Boundary conveys the feeling of an authentic tactical space shooter; the astronauts themselves wear bulky, heavily-armoured spacesuits and make use of a large, highly-evolved version of the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) that NASA utilised in 1984. The spacesuits provide the astronauts with access to a pair of ordnance launchers and other equipment, as well as additional functions that specialise each astronaut type in its role. The environments are similarly detailed, feeling as though they are the types of facilities that are extensions of what current space programmes can already construct. Interiors of space stations feel like slightly more sophisticated versions of the International Space Station or Tiangong, while exteriors make use of the same scaffolding and solar panels as seen in reality. The slow, methodical movement systems gives players a sense of mass despite the apparent weightlessness, and the weapons themselves feel realistic; they resemble modern firearms modified to work in space. The movement system and six degrees of freedom, coupled with the chaotic space station environments and lack of motion trackers, mean that players must constantly keep their heads on a swivel – foes can come from any direction, and similarly, one can utilise full freedom of motion to ambush unsuspecting players. The weapons themselves feel modestly powerful, and the in-game explanation for how spacesuits survive damage from firearms is grounded in reality: the spacesuits themselves are vulnerable to fire, but players wear varying amounts of armour that absorb and deflect bullets. Careful aim is needed to hit weak points (for instance, a single shot to the helmet will take a player out of the fight), and hitting the MMU or armour plates deal reduced damage. The mechanics also forces players to be strategic in how they approach firefights; if one comes out of a firefight alive, they must also find a safe place to patch up their spacesuit, during which they will be vulnerable to enemy action. In the time I’ve spent with Boundary, it is clear that the tactical aspect of this tactical shooter is well-thought out, and the core gameplay elements are solid. Further to this, despite looking amazing, Boundary does run well on even older systems. Altogether, Boundary has succeeded in bringing Shattered Horizon into the 2020s – the game looks great, handles reasonably well and only has a few areas where it needs improvement. Beyond this, Studio Surgical Scalpels have done an incredible job with Boundary, and while I’m still on the fence about whether or not this game will enter my library once it is launched on account of my erratic schedule, the game has proven to be very promising and has what it takes to set itself apart from the giants of the industry.