Tuesday 5 June 2012

Orbitron: Revolution (PC/XBLIG)

Imagine taking Eugene Jarvis' coin-op classic Defender and putting it in a blender with Psygnosis' Wipeout. Not literally of course - not only would that require a blender of industrial proportions, but the end result would most likely resemble a very unpleasant pile of broken circuit components and shattered CD fragments. Orbitron: Revolution might not be greater than the sum of its parts, but with a combination of game design set firmly in the 1980's arcades and stylish 21st Century presentation, it is clear to see why Firebase Industries have received such high acclaim for their cross-platform arcade shmup.

Originating on the XBox as a top 20 entry for the annual Dream Build Play competition (2011), Firebase Industries released an enhanced Windows version earlier this year and I've been playing it on and off for the past three months. The reason for the delayed review is two-fold; aside from being incredibly busy with real-life work, I've found it difficult to draw a conclusion regarding how I feel about the game. Don't get me wrong - it's a great game, no doubt, but even so I've been unable to make up my mind as to what final score to give until now.

There's a lot to love about Orbitron; its an interesting Defender variant that sees you (in the main 'Guardian' game mode) defending four sections of a ring-shaped space station. In contrast to its parentage, there's no annoyingly defenceless humans to save - but then on the flip side there's no risk of marauding mutants either. Instead, enemy 'drillers' warp into the battle zone with the sole intention of breaking through the hull of the space station, with your craft racing back and forth over the station surface in an ultimately futile attempt to protect its inhabitants from the vacuum of space. And it's not just the drillers you need be wary of; the roster of enemy aggressors includes scouts, drones, fighters, carriers and gigantic space swords to keep you on your toes.

Zipping around the ring is a lot of fun, especially when using the break-neck speed jump gates that throw you across the level in seconds, destroying everything in your path. In addition to your standard issue blaster there's also two secondary weapons that you can charge up by collecting the cannisters dropped by defeated enemies, but in order to utilise them effectively you'll have to contort your hands to get around the awful and non re-definable keyboard control system.

This is the first of the game's two flaws - the control layout on a PC keyboard is quite frankly awful. Who in their right mind wants to play a game with the cursor keys or WASD combined with left-shift, return, backspace and the +/= key? Thankfully, XBox 360 joypad support is included, but seriously, the keyboard controls are near impossible to get used to. If you are at all considering buying the game, please ensure that you have a controller available - you'll need it.

Secondly, Orbitron: Revolution makes no effort to disguise the fact that it is a hardcore shmup, but for me, the main issue I have with the game is the visuals. Please, don't get me wrong - the graphics in this game are great - it's exactly the kind of game you'd want to show off the power of your machine to friends. The problem is that there is so much detail that at times it is near impossible to make out your craft and enemies against the amazing backdrop of the space station. Not only that, but as well as keeping track of your craft zipping around the screen, there's also the scanner on the bottom and your power up status on the top; having an additional set of eyes would probably be a big help.

The other two game modes 'Countdown' (a time based score-attack) and 'Extra' (survival) offer a little variation to the theme, and the achievements give you something to aim towards. It's clear that there is some strategy involved in playing the game properly, but the complete lack of documentation or tutorial means that most players won't get to appreciate the game's intricacies. This is a shame - I'm probably a bit of a traditionalist, but I can't help but feel that so much work has gone into the presentation and design of this game and yet it is ultimately spoiled by simple things like a playing guide being omitted and a lack of proper control options. Likewise, the docking bay sequence and initiation sequences are amazing and add a sense of immersion, yet there's no indication as to why I'm racing around a space station blowing shit up, which in turn detracts from the experience a little and results in me ultimately not caring a huge lot for the plight of the two pilots you get to choose from.

So, you see the dilemma? I have a love-hate relationship with the game. I get excited every time I boot it up, and yet after a few plays I turn it off feeling a little disappointed. And then I come back to it again, probably because of the great audio and graphics, possibly because there's always a sense that I'm missing something key to the game that'll make it so much more fun to play. In previous interviews the Firebase team have described Orbitron as 'the best looking game on XBLIG', and of this fact I have no doubt whatsoever. It's just a shame that when porting it to the PC more attention wasn't directed towards the controls and making the game-play experience more enjoyable. At the reasonable price of £3.99 on GamersGate it is still worth checking out, but really it is a necessity to have a 360 controller to hand.

Buy the PC/Mac version here (from the GamersGate website).
Download the demo/buy the XBOX version here (from the XBOX Games Marketplace).

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