Full Review: Quite possibly the world's greatest shooter.
?From the shadows of history, a legend reawakens.?
Above you see the phrase that has accompanied Sega's long awaited release of Panzer Dragoon Orta, and whether the fact that the slogan can be taken two different ways was on purpose or not, I don't know. But it certainly can. For one, the most obvious choice, is in correlation to the storyline in the game, and previous Panzer Dragoon titles ? every so often the legendary ?Dragon of Destruction? will appear, locate a human rider, and then they'll work together to destroy whatever evil is threatening what's left of the decimated world. That's a given, but the line can also be used to describe the Panzer Dragoon legacy in general. Considered by many Sega enthusiasts to be a legendary franchise with a very slim chance of making a revival in the current, or future, generation of consoles, especially since the developer of the original three, Team Andromeda, disbanded in late 1998, Panzer Dragoon Orta marks a ?reawakening? of the series after almost 5 long years. And Sega, and shooter, fans alike will be happy to know that Orta, which was developed by Sega's latest superstar subsidiary, Smilebit, continues the legacy flawlessly, with one of the most engrossing titles I've played in a long, long time.
The story in the game follows the exploits of a young girl named Orta ? from her lifetime of being shackled and callously thrown into prison, to the time when she encounters the legendary dragon and begins her most important adventure. The game opens up with an impressive CGI intro that showcases the Empire, whose goal is to capture Orta, releasing five deadly dragonmares onto the city where which she is being held captive. Amidst the dragons' tyrant of destruction they stumble upon the tower where Orta is imprisoned, bust through the walls, and are on the verge of capturing her when another mysterious blue dragon comes out of nowhere, fends off the dragonmares, and takes Orta as his own. Now, with a blaster in hand and the shackles still dangling from her body, the frightening girl and the dragon must escape the empire's wrath, and find safety. Thus, the game starts you off in the devastated city, forcing you to fend off dragonmares and the empire's forces from the offset, which might be a fairly difficult task for the unseasoned gamer. But if you want to take on the challenge of Orta, this is something you're going to have to quickly get used too. It's obvious that the two month delay allowed Smilebit to fine tune Orta's difficulty to a staggeringly perfect level, as it's always challenging, yet rarely ever makes you feel cheated or frustrated, which keeps Orta an enjoyable experience from beginning to end. Of course, the story will also keep you glued to your seat until all 10 episodes have expired. This is where the game's production values really shine; showcasing well-done cut-scenes and story sequences that progress Orta's tale of self-discovery flawlessly. Naturally, long-time fans of the series will be more in tune to what's going on, while, to put quite honestly, newcomers to the series will have a few question about Panzer's world and what's exactly taking place.
With Panzer Dragoon Orta being based off the shooter inspired gameplay system found in the first two titles in the series, Panzer Dragoon and Panzer Dragoon Zwei, and not the RPG, yet equally impressive, Saga, there's a lot in common with those classic shooters, but there's just enough extras to make it a much more entertaining, and rewarding experience. The game is a rail-based shooter ? meaning you automatically follow a predetermined path that you have virtually no control over. However, you are allowed limited movement in any direction for dodging enemy attacks and/or obstacles, and various parts within each level allow you to take different routes. Additionally, since enemies come at you from every which way, you can turn and look in any direction. This is controlled by the L and R triggers, which turn you in ninety-degree increments in their respective direction, while pressing them in together does a 180 (very useful and efficient in certain situations). Your firepower comes in three different forms ? Orta's rapid-fire blaster, your dragon's lock-on lasers, and your dragon's berserk attack. Rapidly pressing down the A button shoots Orta's blaster, which inflicts limited damage onto enemies, but it's primarily useful when shooting down their projectiles. The dragon's lasers, on the other hand, are where most of your damage will be coming from. Holding down the A button and moving the cursor across your enemies allows you to lock onto multiple targets, and shoots them down once you let go of the button. However, the new addition of different dragon forms makes these abilities, and the berserk attack, function differently depending on which from you are using.
Base Wing, Heavy Wing, and Glide Wing ? these are the three different dragon forms that are available to you, and if you wish to be successful in Orta you must not only be good at taking advantage of each of their abilities, but you must also learn to switch between each on the fly (done by hitting the Y button), as each from is invaluable to your survival. The Base Wing is the all around dragon, sporting a good laser lock-on rate, high mobility, and the ability to use the Glide manuever (more on this very important ability later). The Heavy Wing has limited mobility, can't lock onto very many targets at once, and can't use the glide technique, but all that's more than made up for in it's very powerful laser blasts. Lastly, the Glide Wing's merits lie in its incredible maneuverability and extra glide attack support, but it can't shoot lasers. Still, it has a greatly expanded firing radius for Orta's gun, which can now lock onto and follow targets. As for the berserk attack, this is something that began in Zwei, and has been expanded on greatly in Orta. Basically, it's a powerful attack your dragon can unleash once the berserk meter is at max. In the Base Wing form your dragon will let loose a multitude of laser blasts that automatically lock on and seek out targets (very useful for multiple opponents on screen). The Defense Wing will shoot one concentrated beam that does massive damage; this is most useful against a single opponent (i.e.- a boss), but also has to be controlled manually. Finally, the Glide Wing has it's own bag of berserk tricks as well. Activating the attack will not only seek out and inflict damage upon your enemies, but it also replenishes a small portion of your lost life. This is actually, believe it or not, a pretty big move for the series, as the original two shooters never gave you the ability to regain health.
Just as useful as the dragon's morph abilities is the aforementioned Glide maneuver. I originally thought this would be more of a novelty than anything, but it actually factors into the gameplay quite prominently. The most basic use for the technique is for a simple boost of speed (X button), which can be used to zip past enemies or avoid certain obstacles, and to slow down (B button), which is only really used to prevent yourself from running into something in front of you. But the maneuver can also be used as an attack; just get an enemy in front of you, slam down on the boost button, and whamo ? instant death. Though, far and away the biggest innovation to this technique is during certain boss encounters in which you're actually able to move around to four different sides of your opponent at will. All you have to do is press left or right on the analog stick and hit the boost or slow down button and your able to maneuver yourself strategically, either allowing you to dodge incoming attacks or find the boss' weak spot. Moving around your enemy like this is something that actually originated in Saga, and it really surprised me just how well Smilebit ported this concept over into Orta.
As you can probably tell from my gameplay description, Panzer Dragoon Orta has an astonishing amount of depth for a game that's supposed to be a ?simple? shooter. This certainly isn't a bad thing either. In fact, once your get down the finer aspects of the gameplay, most noticeably switching between dragon types, you get a great sense of accomplishment. Not to mention the fact that the game's fun-factor is immensely high, with incredible level designs, and boss battles that never let up and always keep you thinking. Unfortunately, all this is met with an expected backlash ? the game isn't very long. I'd say it takes between 3 and 5 hours to beat the game for the first time on the normal difficulty setting, depending on your level of skill. Though, comparatively speaking, the original Panzer shooters only covered about 7 episodes, to Orta's 10, and took half the time to beat. Even Saga was considered short for an RPG, only clocking in at 12-15 hours, so I guess you could say Orta was destined to be a fairly short game. Not to worry though, because Orta also has a lot of replay value and tons (I mean TONS!) of extras.
First and foremost, any shooter fan will tell you that the real fun of a game like this is learning every little nook and cranny in an effort to better yourself in each episode. Basically, the game isn't finished until you've mastered every single level. And to help you out in this matter, Smilebit has included a report card of sorts that you get after you've completed an episode. Here you'll receive a letter grade on various aspects of each level ? from your shot down ratio, to the amount of hits you took, to the time in which you defeated the boss; it's all there. However, not everyone cares about perfection, but surprisingly, the game still offers plenty of replay for the average Joe. This is definitely a game you'll want to go through multiple times, if just because it's so darn fun. Plus, the more you play it, the more secrets you'll unlock in the game's vast Pandora's Box.
Yup, just as in previous Panzer Dragoon offerings, the Pandora's Box has returned, and it's better than ever. Here, through your time within the main game, you'll unlock a slew of worthwhile goodies. There's a Panzer Dragoon encyclopedia, an appendix with all sorts of images and movies, and a good deal of sub-scenarios that you can play through ? these side stories don't come close to matching up to the main game, but they are a really great addition nonetheless. Also accessible through the Pandora's Box is an in-depth look at all your flight records and a level select feature that let's you customize certain options and dragon types. Lastly, once you beat the game you're given assess to a flawless mod of the PC original, Panzer Dragoon. The extras in Orta just keep giving, and considering what type of game this is, Smilebit knew exactly what they were doing.
Though, throughout all of this I've yet to even mention one of the game's most impressive features ? Panzer Dragoon Orta is possibly the most graphically beautiful game ever created. Sure, games like Splinter Cell are technically impressive, with amazing use of lighting and shadows, but Orta is just plain stunningly beautiful. Bright, colorful visuals, with a silky-smooth 60 fps framerate, gorgeous high-resolution textures, and incredible particle and explosion effects are what you should come to expect. And that's not all either; throughout each level you'll find incredible special effects that will leave you staring in awe (shooting from behind the waterfalls in Episode 2 is quite a treat, for example). To say Orta has the best graphics on the Xbox would be a pretty bold statement, so let's just say they are up there with the best, and you definitely won't be disappointed. Smilebit is really grasping the Xbox hardware, creating a game that's really fun to show off to family and friends (especially if you have an HDTV).
With all of Orta's graphic splendor, it would be easy to overlook the game's incredible artistic qualities. The look of the Panzer series has always been pretty unique, with strange, yet interesting enemies designs, and a world that's all it's own. Most impressive of all are the various dragon models you'll be using. These dragons are unlike anything you've ever seen, ranging from the bizarre to the just plain cool. Each level in the game has also been given it's own distinctive look and feel, along with it's own breed of enemies to take on. The sheer diversity in the game is very remarkable, and just so Smilebit knows, their time and effort was well worth it.
Orta's audio excels as well. Complete with a beautiful soundtrack (I must have the audio CD) and sound effects that stay true to past Panzer titles, which is no surprise considering that it's the same sound team that has done all of the music in the series. The voice acting is also superb, with each character having their own unique personalities that are very well acted. It's not in English, however. Panzer Dragoon has always used a, I guess you could say modified, form of Japanese that really gives you the impression your on a distant world. Trust me, it sounds very cool, and I wouldn't have it any other way. 5.1 surround sound is also supported to full effect, giving those with a good sound system an even more immersive experience.
Ultimately, Panzer Dragoon Orta delivers all the goods ? a great story, amazing gameplay, drop-dead gorgeous visuals, and a slew of extras that'll keep you occupied for hours. Sure, it's a bit short, but that's to be expected from a shooter of this stature. The difference here is that Orta is easily one of the best shooters ever created. Newcomers to the brand will certainly find much to like, though, those few who have been with the series from the days on the Sega Saturn will be pleasantly surprised at just how close Smilebit has stuck to the series' roots. Panzer Dragoon Orta is a masterpiece through and through, and easily one of the best Sega, and Xbox, games to come around in a good while. Go pick this one up. Who knows, the fate of a Panzer Dragoon Saga 2 just might rely on it.