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Puts the Strategy back in RTS
on July 12, 2004
We shall eat naught but rocks, and live within the dust. Such sets the stage for Strategy First's first space RTS - O.R.B. Off-world Resource Base blends the three-dimensional RTS feel inspired by Homeworld with the tactical challenge that S.F. is known for. I must admit, having played nearly all well-known RTS since Dune 2, this game was the first to challenge me on normal difficulty.
I'm really a ground-pounder at heart, so I always approach space RTS' with a little trepidation. O.R.B. was able to guide me into the interface with a number of tutorial missions that explained the most basic aspects to moving in 3 dimensions, and mining in the Aldus System. The interface is quite intuitive, making viewing the entire map to looking at the hatches on your interceptors quite easy. Learning how to interface with the world is easy, it's learning how to skirmish that will take some time to perfect.
Unlike ground-based FPS where battles rely on numbers to tactics, O.R.B. relies on wing formations and dog-fighting - especially when you are facing equally capable foes. Once you get a feeling for what ships are good against what enemies, you should be off to a good start. As your ships get larger, your tactics will start to resemble naval engagements rather than aerial ones, and that adds to the fun.
The story in O.R.B. is much better than I had expected to find in an RTS. The two campaigns play off each other, so the enemies you fight in one, will not necessarily be the enemies you fight in the next. It is a much better improvement than the standard formula of play side A and kill side B; play side B and kill side A. It's safe to say that once you get into the story, you'll want to know what's going to happen next.
Finally, since the game has a fairly large tech tree and limited resources (it increases the challenge - that's a good thing!) your tech carries over from one mission to the next. There are also missions where your fleet carries over, so you will want to focus on preservation rather than high kill and death ratios. The highly limited resources also means that there will be times when you'll have to make the effort to capture enemy vessels just in order to scrap them. It really requires planning so that your enemy starves himself before you do; even then odds are you'll spend every last credit you earn on every mission.
Nice and sharp, just as I'd expect in a space sim. The close zoom doesn't reveal any lazy modeling, and though they lack ultra detail, it saves the system when there are a hundred units swirling around your screen. The only slowdown I ever had was when I tried to camera inside an explosion, but that was because I was trying to stress the engine. Beyond that, the only gripe I can think of is the short distance at which your ships zoom into green dots on your screen. Yet that is more of a design issue than a gaming one.
Space is silent - I'm usually too zoomed out to hear the gunfire, so all I ever ended up hearing were the ever persistent alarms and various cues. Your ships do talk to you, but it's in some alien language, so voice acting is... un-judge-able. The music is spacey, reminds me of background music to MOO 3, but again it's exactly what you would expect from a space sim. In truth, that's not a bad thing. No points off here either.
It's quite clear that the goal of this game was to make you think about your tactics, rather than letting you pick one unit to build a thousand of. Each ship has its function and you need to learn when and how to use them. The manpower limits and highly limited resources all add to this game in a good way that will offer a challenge on any difficulty level.
The only downside is the lack of multiplayer community available for it. The few times I loaded up gamespy to check for games I rarely ever saw more than 1 or 2 people bumming around in chat. If you are looking to play this online, it would behoove you to have a friend pick up a copy as well.
If you only buy games to play online, well then this might not be the best game to spend your money on, but if you like single play, or just don't have access to a good stable connection, then I highly recommend O.R.B as being one of the best and most challenging RTS' to hit the market in a long while.