Sega, eh? Despite producing some incredible hardware they’ve never really been commercially successful with their own consoles since the Megadrive era. They’ve had their hardcore fans (this reviewer included) but for the most part gamers have ignored the Saturn and the Dreamcast in favour of the relevant PlayStation iteration. Reasons why folk chose to do this is sadly beyond the scope of this review, I’d be here for hours lamenting over the whys and wherefores, and it’s all sadly academic anyway, as Sega’s own-branded machines are confined to history, their software reduced to the bargain bin and the oft-seedy realms of the bearded collector.
Regardless, they’re still pumping out some amazing software, and whilst the Xbox hasn’t received the very best of Sega’s current generation games, titles like Jet Set Radio Future and House of the Dead 3 at least look the part, even if the gameplay isn’t quite up to scratch. Gamers old enough to remember Rainbow, though, will no doubt fondly remember the Panzer Dragoon series back in the day, when Tomb Raider was a Saturn exclusive and Wipeout looked gorgeous on the black box – and there isn’t a set of games in history that has a stronger following of dedicated fans, gamers willing to fight to the death over the sadly mistaken beauty of the titles.
It’s hard to describe the Panzer Dragoon series (Saga aside) without upsetting someone. At it’s heart they are a cross between Space Harrier and Rez, viewed third person and directly into the screen. Orta is a direct follow up – although not necessarily in terms of storyline – and doesn’t move too far from the tradition. You’re still on the back of a dragon and you’re still up against thousands of enemies.
Your dragon has 3 freely interchangeable types. Firstly, you start out in Base mode, which has a large number of lock-on targets, a decent rate of fire for your normal gun, and average defense. You can also store up to two glide moves which work a little like the brake and boost in Starfox for the N64. A tap of the Y button switches to Heavy mode which is a bulkier version of the dragon, with fewer lock-on targets and a slower firing rate, although both missiles and the gun dish out higher damage; your defensive capabilities are lower, though, and you can’t glide. Finally, you have the Glide Mode, which is a small, nippy model, with a automatically targeting machine gun, up to 3 glides, heavy armour (oddly enough) but no lock-on missiles. As you can tell, selecting which mode to use at any given time is a requisite, and it’s a skill you’ll need to have mastered by the end of the first of ten levels.
The game’s split into ten levels, although Sega like to call them ‘episodes’, and within each of these is the level boss. Brilliantly, the bosses don’t always appear at the end of the level leaving you to delicately nurse your post-boss battle wounds through other scraps before you get to the end of the section. Whilst early on in Orta the tale follows something of a rudimentary storyline, later on in the game the various cutscenes dissolve into a sub-Rez level of storytelling: ultimately, of course, the whole thing revolves around 360 degrees and the final boss shouldn’t really come as any surprise, but to get there you’ll be led through some fairly preposterous levels. This shouldn’t cause too much concern, though, as graphically, well, Orta is a thing of beauty.
People often like to link games with art, but this truly is the next generation. Without a solitary doubt, Panzer Dragoon Orta is the single-most visually impressive videogame in existence – it really is that good looking. Everything from the liquid smooth 60 frames a second to the gorgeous models, the amazing graphical effects like smoke and fire, the way the game effortlessly throws hundreds of things at you at once without a single stutter – it’s breathtaking, and the only downside is that nothing is going to come anywhere near for a long time yet. If you’ve seen the screenshots (especially those from level 2 that are full of trees, water and plants) and you impressed then wait until you see it in motion. Wonderful.
Sadly, not every level is quite as beautiful as some of the others (the penultimate level is somewhat of a disappointment visually), but there’s more than enough here to justify maximum marks for aesthetics; it really is that far ahead of the pack, and hats off to Smilebit who must be feeling very proud with what they’ve managed to pull off. Aurally it’s almost as impressive – the music is certainly epic and orchestral (and most definitely lives up to the high standards set by the previous Dragoon games), and the sound effects match up just as well, but there’s something oddly dumbing about 3 hours of gameplay with only 3 different samples for your guns. It grates, not massively, because you do need to fire almost constantly, but it’s a shame Smilebit couldn’t have varied the sounds a little more. It’s all in Dolby Digital, though, and for fans of the series it’s quite delightful.
Those worried about the lack of first-run gametime need not be too troubled, though – whilst you can reach the end in under 3 hours, it’s a different story entirely on the higher difficulty levels – Sega really do cater for the hardcore and this reviewer was forced to re-asses his gaming skills after facing the final enemy on any level above easy. Of course, this being a Panzer Dragoon game there’s plenty of things to see and do once the main game is over – the Pandora’s Box in Orta features not only a complete sub-game (with multiple levels, cutscenes and it’s own storyline) there’s also a number of side-quests featuring episodes that run concurrently alongside those in the main game, but with different characters and so on. Glossaries and encyclopaedia’s make for essential reading for PD fans, too.
Orta stumbles slightly in the presentation stakes though. Whilst the English subtitles, menus and appendices are greatly appreciated (despite this being a Japanese release) the menus themselves aren’t as attractive as the rest of the game, and the Pandora’s Box feature becomes far too messy to really appreciate fully without wading through realms of text and menu options. There’s also loading delays that tend to get in the way slightly.
However, it’s not my intention to let these niggles get in the way of what can only be described as the finest on-rails shooter in existence. Panzer Dragoon Orta is most definitely the best of it’s genre and for shooter fans it’s absolutely unmissable. Those with even a passing interest in Sega’s most commercially underrated series, though, will already have it pre-ordered, and if you haven’t, you’re going to be missing the ride of your life. Orta oozes playability and style, and is a real graphical tour-de-force for the Xbox. Enjoy.