The latest strategy title to hit retail shelves comes from Strategy First who are not only publishing the game but have also had their development studio working on this for a few years. The game in question is their weirdly titled O.R.B, or Off-world resource Base if you want to get specific.
A few years back Relic burst onto the scene with Homeworld, a fantastic space based RTS in a full 3D world which gave gamers the new challenge of working with an XYZ axis. O.R.B follows the same premise and to be honest I can’t understand why more developers haven’t toyed with the concept further. There are obvious similarities between the two games, I just had to get that out the way right at the start of this review.
O.R.B follows the story of two races the Malus and Allyssians, surviving races from a collapsed civilisation now settled in the Aldus system. As you’d expect both factions are different, the Malus being the warmongers and the Alyssians the thinkers and both distrusting of each other. The two factions and the story is pretty standard fare for an RTS and to be honest a little unimaginative, and with the addition of the ‘unknown race’ makes the game feel a little ‘heard it all before’.
So the story is a little predictable but fortunately the game play dynamics lived up to my expectations. Despite the unavoidable similarities to Homeworld (sorry, said it again) O.R.B has taken all the best bits and improved them, most notably the control and game interface. The developers have made controlling your units and zipping around the play area simple thanks to the game’s two different view modes. The 3D view allows you to see the game in all its glory and you can highlight and control your units with the mouse while also rotating the camera around selected objects or zooming using the wheel. The 2D view is a top down map of the play area which can be brought up with a whack of the space bar. The two different interfaces are an improvement over Relic’s first game and it’s obvious the team have thought long and hard on how to make it easier for the player to handle the 3 axis.
Grouping units is also easy enough using the standard RTS CTRL-# feature. There is also a nice slide-out menu which shows all the units selected in the group and allows you to remove and select individual units, this came in handy on more than one occasion. Thankfully the 2D Map is detailed enough to help get your bearings so moving those numbered groups around the 3D world is painless. Targeting is also made easier by displaying larger ship icons on the enemy units when selected for attack and movement is handled by holding down the CTRL key then selecting a point or target. It sounds a bit weird holding down a key then clicking, but it makes perfect sense when you actually start playing the game. Other than the standard move and attack functions you also have the ability to change the way your groups react by setting their tactics to Aggressive, Evasive etc. These actually worked reasonably well but this is a feature I don’t think I have seen anyone get quite right. At times the AI would go wandering which was a bit of hassle, you need to keep a pretty close eye on your things.
As far as the controls and interface are concerned we were really pleased with the way this game has been put together but despite the polished game interface the missions themselves are a little on the bland side. The game starts somewhat slowly and missions usually involved scouting an area with a research vessel for a key object, taking out a few fighters and then finishing off with a final objective of some sort. The more involving missions tended to include setting up a mining colony, sending out the freighters to collect the resources (which can be slow) then finishing off the enemy. After a while things start to get a little predictable even if you have to research the various technologies to get better ships and defences.
With resources in short supply on most maps it’s a fine balance between researching and a*igning enough manpower to research and kicking the enemy’s backside into next week. The whole thing can seem a little frustrating at times. Missions that should in theory be wrapped up pretty quickly allowing you to advance at a reasonable pace through the game just seemed to go on and on. The single player was a little disappointing.
Graphically O.R.B looks fantastic, it’s a step forward for this genre. Space actually felt like an interesting place for once. The colours are vibrant and each mission or set of missions had their own look and feel. The spacecraft are also highly detailed, watching a ship being boarded by a guy breaking through the hull of the enemy ship with a blowtorch was a very cool touch. Weapon fire is also easily visible, whether it be the weaker lasers, beam weapons or pounding rockets. O.R.B is without a doubt a great looking game.
The in-game cutscenes, while a little on the long-side at times, are well put together utilising the in-game engine. Each section is described with the use of a dialogue box which unfortunately can vanish a bit quickly, you need to be a quick reader to take it all in at times. The effect works well though and the custcenes are enjoyable enough.
The sound department have also done their job well by providing great ambient tunes that back the game play throughout, the music also changes nicely should you enter a hostile situation. Weapon sounds are solid with some nice audio effects to bring the game to life. The unit responses are all done in each race’s native dialogue so you get to hear some pretty weird voice effects and language. Personally I think this was a good move and avoids the possibility of some cheesy acting voiceovers. Overall the sound is well done.
O.R.B naturally features multiplayer and skirmish modes which is probably one of the main plus points for this title. With the single player missions a little on the similar side, the option to skirmish against the PC or go head to head is certainly welcome. Multiplayer is handled by an in-game browser system so it’s
simple to get online and get involved in decent games and the lobby seems to have a reasonable amount of people online most times which helps. The multiplayer is just one reason to check this title out and it should keep you busy.
Overall O.R.B is a mixed bag. A lot of work has obviously gone into the interface design and control, it’s very polished but the game is let down by the single player game. If space strategy is your thing and you liked Homeworld we recommend you check this game out, especially for the multiplayer. Strategy First have done a pretty good job with this game but it just falls short due to the lacklustre missions.