Summary: Strategy First went for a home run when they sent ORB out to the public, rarely has such a bug-free title come from a smaller publisher. They swung and missed in Patrick's opinion, then he took the baseball bat and knocked ORB around Tommy Vercetti-style. Read on to find out why.
There Can Only Be One
Like so many real-time strategy games, ORB sticks to the tried and true genre conventions. Two races battle it out for incontrovertible supremacy. Warcraft had it with the Orcs and Humans. Command & Conquer had it with GDI and Nod. Total Annihilation had it with the Arm and the Core. In a similar vein, the fundamental objectives present in ORB remain the same, seek out and destroy. Granted, there are some miscellaneous missions such as search and retrieval, but ORB’s experience can be distilled down to three basic steps: gather resources, research, and obliterate the opposition. Despite this simplistic recipe, many RTS games still manage to provide a challenging and rewarding experience. ORB adheres to the same, basic guidelines that games such as Red Alert II and Warcraft III were designed around. ORB, however, often results in a gaming experience that comes up with many “if only” moments, the whole experience lukewarm and rough about the edges.
Intolerance At Its Best
Like many games, ORB fails to offer a compelling or realistic game universe. The two primary races in ORB are the Malus and Alyssians, designed by a near-omnipotent race of gods called the Aldar over 10,000 years ago. Much like Star Control’s Precusors, the Aldar have disappeared inexplicably, leaving their ‘child races’ to fend for themselves. The Aldar have left a series of teachings, the Torumin, for their child races to learn from. Unfortunately, as fate often has it, the Malus and Alyssians develop vastly different cultures and outlooks. The Malus, growing up on a scorched, intemperate, hostile planet, develop a warmongering clan-based government, pathetically xenophobic in its attitudes. Meanwhile, the Alyssians developed on a planet much more similar to our Earth, developing a culture that values democracy and intellectualism. These two races have no knowledge with each other, and their first encounters are almost comedic. The Malus finally encounter the Alyssians in a mutual first alien-encounter, who appear to attack with almost no provocation whatsoever. Even the dialogue stretches credibility. You’d imagine fighter pilots to have some semblance of self-control and military discipline. Conversely, The Malus pilots have all the restraint of your typical High School Counter-Strike player, screaming wolf at the drop of a hat and launching an all-out war with hardly any attempt at peaceful dialogue.
The single-player missions are bland and plodding, with no real sense of urgency or drive to experience what happens next. The voices are offered, at best, in a Dr. Sbaitso-esque monotone. More often than not, we’re simply given paragraphs upon paragraphs of text to dissect and digest in between missions. It almost feels like taking direct part in a PBS documentary, without the interesting bits of historical or cultural relevance. Each race has 9 missions for a total of 18, and each can last anywhere between 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on how quickly one pursues the objectives. The majority of missions are simply a typical RTS melee brawl with objectives to disguise the repetition. That formula worked perfectly for Starcraft, but doesn’t suit ORB well at all, due to its plodding gameplay.
SIDEBAR: Dr. SBaitso was very skittish on the subject of sex, for some reason.
As Pretty As Two-Face
ORB’s graphical experience is one with severe ups and downs. Several facets of ORB’s creation definitely deserve praise. The FMV is spectacular. While it lacks the detail of a Final Fantasy game or the colorfulness of a Blizzard presentation, it’s incredible what sort of job the artists do with just black, red, and blue. The ships have an otherworldly, gothic look similar to Event Horizon, with bizarre, yet aesthetically pleasing contours. This leads to an utter disappointment when you get into the actual game itself. Many of the ships, rather than being the brooding, hulking behemoths in the FMV, have some of the lowest polygon counts I’ve seen in a 3D game in years and textures that look like they’re straight out of Quake. Hoping to find Corvette-like curves on your fighter ships? You’re not going to find them in ORB’s in-game experience. Legos would probably be a more appropriate metaphor. In the age of 2-3GHz monster PCs, GeForce 4s and Radeon 9000s, I’m sure Strategy First could’ve offered a more inspired effort. Conversely, there’s hardly any graphical slowdown at all, and it was uncommon to encounter framerate loss at 800x600, highest graphical details, on a 1GHz GeForce2 system.
The lush backdrops manage to salvage ORB’s graphical experience somewhat. The static, swirling nebulae that compose most of ORB’s backgrounds are some of the best artwork I’ve ever seen in a game. This panoply of colors offers to the first real argument I’ve seen for 64-bit color in a game, as even on 32-bit, you can still catch distinct, pixilated color progressions. The explosions, laser beams, and ‘smoke trails’ are all standard fare and get the job done. Finally, it’s worth noting the atrocious load times. The initial startup and the load time in between missions often provoked prolonged absences from the computer. It’s a bit perplexing how a game that looks like it was from Half-Life’s era has a load time rivaling, if not surpassing, Unreal Tournament 2003 or Medal of Honor.
Quite possibly the greatest graphical irritation of ORB is its scale. The map is easily large enough to put games such as Tribes 2 to shame. Consequently, in most dogfights, you aren’t going to get the close-up visuals that grace ORB’s website and release photos. Indeed, zooming in close enough to admire the pretty models a good way to get yourself killed, as it’s virtually impossible to even see 5% of the entire fight from that sort of perspective. Most of the time, you’re going to be zoomed out far enough that almost everything looks either like a green or a red dot, where the tracer and beam fire is about as interesting as drawing lines in MS Paint. Of course, you can opt for the 2D, top-down map, in which case things get even uglier, as you’re unable to enjoy the backgrounds anymore. The 2D map may be functionally efficient, but I’m convinced you can combine visual aesthetics with practicality. The original Dune II, with its slow-moving green and red dot units was more interesting. Another problem is when you have numerous ships in a small region. It’s almost impossible to pick out individuals ships due to so many overlapping (and identical looking) dots, and you’re forced to either navigate the cumbersome fleet window or run the pointer over every ship manually until you find what you want.
Gets The Job Done
ORB’s musical score, while nothing to write home about, accompanies the game appropriately. Much like a technically well-composed movie soundtrack, you don’t really notice it while it’s there, but you do notice it when it’s not. The composition is your typical orchestral work that accompanies space-epics, heavy on the brass and percussion. It ebbs and flows with what’s transpiring within the game at the time; during an encounter with hostile forces, the music will peak, while during peaceful lulls of resource gathering and research, the soundtrack will be much more muted and unobtrusive. Sound-effects are what you’d expect from battling spacecraft and vocal unit acknowledgements are accompanied by an oddly satisfying static crackle, much like walkie-talkie noise. On the other hand, the presentations of briefings in between missions are less than satisfying. The narrators speak in a complete monotone, most likely trying to simulate a computer-generated voice. Coupled with the dry storyline, this lack of vocal enthusiasm doesn’t do a whole lot for inspiring the player from one mission to the next.
Mine, Research, Kill
Oddly enough, ORB (an acronym for Off-world Resource Base) doesn’t place much emphasis on the whole base building and resource gathering experience, choosing to focus primarily upon combat. The entire experience is pretty basic. You start with a single starbase, which serves as the sole construction platform. The entire map is a wide asteroid field, with you on one end, the enemy on the other. There is only one kind of resource in the game, harvestable from certain asteroids. You need to build a Recon vessel which has an autoscan option, in which the ship automatically travels from asteroid to asteroid, checking whether there are any resources to be had. The resources are finite and are limited enough to make expanding crucial for success. In order to mine an asteroid, one simply needs to build a Resource Base ship. This ship, in a single ctrl+left click, sets up a base upon the ripe asteroid and shuttles a cargo ship back-and-forth to your starbase.
This simple model allows for the player to put the majority of their attention on combat and tactics. For better or for worse, both the Malus and Alyssians are almost functionally identical with the exception of Alyssian cloaking, which doesn’t add very much to the overall gameplay experience. The game, by default, groups small fighter ships into groups of three, though the player can opt to create larger formations of ships. There are a number of tactical formations available, but the in-game help declines to say what advantage one grouping has over another. I didn’t find very much difference between the groupings, and instead found the Aggressive/Neutral/Evasive attitudes far more useful. Aggressive indicates for your fighters to initiate hostilities upon contact, and is the doctrine I held for the majority of the game. Beyond that, as far as small fighters go, I simply made masses of the most advanced small fighter available and crushed the opposition with minimal losses. The computer seemed intent on sending wave after wave assorted fighters, but there really didn’t seem to be any benefit of having ‘rainbow fleets’. I managed to hold an ~8:1 kill ratio without a repair ship for the majority of the game with my less than imaginative fleet.
SIDEBAR: The energy of light increases as its wavelength gets shorter. Gamma radiation packs a lot more wallop than radio waves.
ORB left me thoroughly unconvinced that a 3D space arena was truly necessary. What plane I was in hardly mattered to me at all, as the game consisted of a ‘get to point A and mine the asteroid’, ‘get to point B and check the story-directed waypoint’, and ‘get to point C and wipe out the enemy fleet’. As both of our fleets were on perpetual aggression, we engaged at the slightest bit of contact. Theoretically, it would be possible to skirt around each other, but this point of contention has two significant flaws. First off, the computer, being on aggressive the entire game, would simply merrily make its way to my starbase if I got out of its way, making it efficient to directly engage the enemy in order to avoid any setbacks in production. Secondly, the majority of ships in ORB move excruciatingly slowly. Even on x3 speed, I found myself often reading a magazine or preparing a snack while my units took several minutes to get across a map. Reinforcements arriving in time to turn the tide of battle? You have to be kidding me, unless you’re playing one of the smaller maps. The size of the maps in ORB would make any other game blush with shame, and often results in an unnecessarily prolonged and tedious gameplay experience.
Despite the various mission objectives, you’re always just playing against the computer set in melee mode. The computer usually outnumbers you, is richer than you, and is technologically more advanced than you, forcing you to immediately take the upper-hand in most maps. If you wait too long, the game will often pass the point where defeat is inevitable. Additionally, for the most part, the ships in ORB don’t really do anything other than attack. Beyond the small fighters, there are missile launchers, powerful but prohibitively [and inefficiently] expensive, and then there are the almighty capital ships. Capital ships in ORB are the equivalent of Command & Conquer’s mammoth tanks. With multiple laser beam weapons, they rip through small fighters like a zergling rushing into a siege tank encampment. This imbalance is made complete by shields and armor capable of withstanding ludicrous amounts of punishment. Coupled with a repair ship, your capital ship armada is nigh-indestructible. The computer, in typical fashion, will send hordes of small, ineffectual fighters to be mauled and rent by your virtual Imperial Star Destroyers. Once this level of technological prowess is achieved, its best to retire your entire fighter fleet to free up manpower and build only capital ships. Once battle is engaged, there really seems to be no point to micromanagement beyond manipulating your repair vessels or targeting specific ships.
ORB relies upon a heavily menu-driven interface. Given the real-time aspect of the game, the whole menu-based system feels unnecessary and cumbersome. Conversely, ORB features full, in-depth help files easily accessible in-game, a welcome feature all strategy games should, but often don’t feature. Up to four players can multiplay over Gamespy. At this time, however, there are very few players publicly playing ORB online. Despite such, the ORB community is a small, but dedicated group of serious gamers with a substantial number of mods in development. Finally, one small but appreciable part of ORB is the great stability out of the box. It’s nice to see game developers taking bugs to task as of late.
SIDEBAR: Bruce Banner was exposed to gamma rays and became the Hulk. Don’t try that at home, kids.
SIDEBAR: One of the lingering problems with the Big Bang theory is that cosmic background radiation is nearly uniform. If the Big Bang was true, our universe would expand like a balloon, meaning we’d have extremes of background radiation. There would be lots along the edges, more from “behind” (and this radiation would have a significantly larger wavelength, since we’re expanding away from it), and none in front. Stephen Hawking has recently suggested that there was no singularity, and thus no Big Bang, at the beginning of the universe.
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