A (brick) smashing good time
Shatter is, at a glance, just another Arkanoid clone with excellent production values. But to say that would be like saying Geometry Wars is just another Robotron clone with those same values. The point is, that's selling the game short. What Shatter really is is a brilliant new take on the Arkanoid formula. A strong competitive component, cool new gameplay mechanics, and great production values are what make up this gorgeous brick-shattering good time, and they all come together in a truly singular fashion.
Shatter's a mostly standard "break all the blocks on screen by knocking a ball around to earn points and advance" type affair. There's 10 levels worth of brick-shattering to play-through. The gameplay doesn't switch things up much apart from changing the shape of the arena between a rectangle, square, and circle, but it's serviceable enough to keep things interesting. Power-ups, such as the Unstoppaball that allows the ball to pass through bricks with ease, provide some small but interesting changes in tactics and help give the game a slight element of unpredictability.
Shatter's key difference, however, lies in its suck and blow functions -- and I mean that in the most literal way possible. The paddle you control is equipped with fans that can be used to manipulate the ball's trajectory, adding a new layer of skill into the mix, and makes a world of difference in the long run. Before control of the ball was sort of chance based -- you'd have to position the paddle just right and hope that it does what you want it to until you got the desired results. No longer is that the case. Now you can use those manipulative abilities to direct the exactly where you want it to go, thus eliminating much of the frustrations of Arkanoid games past, like when the ball gets stuck volleying the ball back and forth. It's a helpful skill.
Additionally, all the sucking and blowing is beneficial toward managing the ensuing chaos that eventually erupts. That chaos being when physics take over and start throwing blocks everywhere once they're supports are demolished. Yellow blocks and green hexagons are the ones affected by gravity, primarily, though there are others that surface from time to time. Gravitational effects are one of the more interesting additions. Flinging the ball around with your manipulative powers adds a deeper level of skillful play, certainly, but it's also a contributing factor in the challenge department due to the tendency of your abilities to pull blocks toward you, knocking the paddle out of the arena in the process if your not lucky. It's not a big penalty, of course, since it quickly re-enters the field no worse for wear. Not a problem, right? And it is -- provided your quick enough to save the ball, since in the second or two it take for the paddle to return, the ball could very well have left the field, putting you one step closer to defeat in the process. The paddle's shield can prevent the knock-back of blocks, however, which makes that threat mostly moot if you can quickly bring it up in time. (It's surprisingly hard to do that whilst trying to keep an eye on the ball[s] and such.)
As usual for this brand of game, balls represent the number of "lives" you have. Loose 'em all and, well -- I think it goes without saying what will happen. Shatter's a little different in how it handles this, however. See, unlike other similar titles, you can toss in some extra balls into the mix whenever you please at the small cost of possibly loosing an extra life. Risky, yes, but well worth it. Having additional balls in play, though harder to manage, proves quite useful in situations where the sheer number of blocks hurdling toward you is too much for a single ball to handle or where you need to destroy a single hard to reach block. Doing so also allows you to destroy clusters of blocks more easily, which always nets a higher number of points as you smash bricks in quick succession. Combine that with a high multiplier -- which is built up by sucking up the fragments left behind by shattered bricks -- and it becomes a constantly employed tactic.
Fragment collection also builds up the Shard Storm bar, which, once filled, unleashes a torrent of lasers that destroy everything in their path and rack up tons of points. Useful for when a cluster of blocks are hurdling toward you and against end-level bosses -- the latter especially because the attack power of the ball isn't nearly as effective as the Shard Storm. Bosses are the basic type of fare for this style of game and work well. They're all quite large, usually taking up a good half of the arena. Battling them is simple enough since they're weak point is always obvious. It's getting some of them to reveal those points that make them hard, as the means of doing so take some skillful maneuvering of the ball. One boss, for example, has parts of it plugged into power outlets of some sort at the top of the screen that have to be knocked loose before you can begin your assault against the boss proper. Though difficult they may be, they're quite enjoyable to battle and are a nice addition.
There are three modes of play in Shatter, each with their own set of leaderboards. The modes are: Story Mode, the main game mode; Boss Rush Mode, which pits you against each of the end-level bosses from Story Mode and tasks you with beating them in the fastest time possible; and Bonus Mode, which offers a more minimalistic approach that sees you bouncing three balls around three different arena types (rectangle, square, and circle) to earn points. That last mode is also in story mode as an extra end-level challenge. They're all fun modes to play in, each offering quite the challenge.
As stated earlier, the game is filled with leaderboards, adding a healthy dose of competitive spirit. It's not the mere presence of leaderboards that make 'em great, though: it's how their integrated. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 was hailed for its clever usage of scores from your friends by displaying the current high score it in the upper right corner of the screen. Shatter has a similar implementation by displaying that same info around the bottom right corner of the screen. The score displayed is the current target to beat for the mode your playing in, with it switching to the next target once the previous mark has been surpassed. It's a great motivator and really fuels the competition for leaderboard superiority. If you happen to not have any friends, however, that position is then occupied by your own high score. That it doesn't instead take the next highest score from the global leaderboards is a bit of a disappointment, though.
For a simple downloadable title, Shatter has some impressive production values. Though it's bright, metallic-heavy, futuristic aesthetic is a great sight to behold, it's the music that really shines here. Shatter uses a series synth-style compositions to make up its soundtrack, each of them being spectacular and fit the aesthetic approach nicely. The track for the game's second level, Aurora, for example, presents a low, calm and relaxed sort of tune to accompany the electric blue, sparkling background and its abstract structure perfectly. It's a well presented game through and through that provides a nice style to accompany the excellent gameplay.
I've always been a strong believer in small innovations often being the strongest improvements to any given formula, and Shatter is an excellent example of that. By giving more control over the ball's trajectory and including a great leaderboard integration, Shatter positions itself easily as one of the best takes on the Arkanoid formula available. And at $8, it's one of the cheapest, too.