In this real-time strategy space-based war between the Malus and Alyssian factions, players fight for resources in the mineral-rich fields of an asteroid belt by researching and developing technologies in the areas of energy, materials, construction, explosives, electronics, and academics. Strategic elements of O.R.B.: Off-World Resource Base include scanning asteroids for minerals, establishing mining colonies, harvesting resources, building repair and military bases, defending bases and spaceports, and protecting interests by leading spaceships in combat.
Warfare in O.R.B. encompasses a variety of options, such as detection, ramming and kamikaze attacks, defining formations, ship management (rally, retreat, refit, and repair), capturing or destroying enemy ships, sabotage, spying, assassination, and more. Factions can choose from seven types of responses under the Rules of Engagement when attacked by the enemy: aggressiveness, neutrality, evasion, one of three player-determined custom stances, or no doctrine.
Full campaigns for both factions are available, but in single-player gameplay, the Malus campaign must be completed before the Alyssian campaign is unlocked. O.R.B.: Off-World Resource Base offers tutorials and a skirmish mode, with the latter supporting user-created maps and allowing customization of gameplay options. Other features include five levels of units (combat-suited commandos, fighters, destroyers, battle cruisers, and space stations), visual upgrades as technology is researched, customizable squad logos, and support for eight players in cooperative mode or four in head-to-head mode. Though not officially supported by the developers, a downloadable campaign editor is optional, which allows scripting of in-game cut-scenes.
The single-player narrative campaign takes religious fanaticism into deep space, paralleling the stubborn apocalyptic pratfalls of humanity in typical sci-fi fashion. Two warring factions, the Malus and the Alyssians, have maintained vastly different interpretations of a collection of 4,000 books, the Torumin, which were composed by divine beings believed to observe their every action. Aside from their overwhelming ideological differences, these bitter enemies also happen to be competing for survival amid asteroid belts with scant resources. The end result is a fight to the death in which harvesting rocks in motion and garnishing a technologically superior arsenal are the only hopes for longevity.
This is a far cry from the Battlestar Galactica-like epic quest involved in Homeworld, which is arguably more emotive, and perhaps more sweeping. Nevertheless, O.R.B.'s single-player campaign is presented in a clear, entertaining fashion in which dramatic cutscenes blend perfectly into the action, complimenting the game's flow. Coupled with topnotch visuals, the overall experience is ultimately quite grand.
As in Homeworld, the essential game dynamics involve an easy-to-learn point, click, drag, zoom, and rotate mouse interface, coupled with a series of hotkeys and drop-down menus that make controlling your available units a breeze. Although this method generally involves focusing on units as the center of view, in O.R.B., a handful of icons at the bottom of the screen also allow you to manipulate the environment three-dimensionally without regard to any particular craft, a powerful touch.
You can select a unit in one of four ways. The most obvious way is by simply pointing and clicking on it. This will reveal the unit's health and shield bars, and allow you to rotate the camera around the craft as it is in motion, as well as issue commands. It's also possible to scroll through units using the "H" button, to drag a box around multiple units, and to add them to a group using the "shift" key. When multiple units are selected, the camera stays at a distance to keep them all as the center of focus. When a single unit is selected, you can zoom in close enough to make it fill the entire screen, or far enough to make it seem like a tiny speck of cosmic dust. With the press of a key, you can track movements of your currently selected craft or pull up a navigational grid within which you may indicate multiple destinations for each vessel.
Without obsessing over the many particulars (which are best learned in the fun and thorough tutorial mode), as your fleet grows, it's a good idea to assign hotkeys to grouped units, making it easier to switch between them. In this way, should you happen to be following the movements of a harvesting unit, you can quickly switch to your fighters in the event of an attack on another defenseless craft, such as a recon vessel or mining craft.
The stretch of space dealt with in each mission is finite, but getting from one side of the map to the other can take quite a while, so this is probably for the best (although an option to speed up game time serves well to counter the potential boredom of waiting for your ships to get from point A to point B). One thing that may throw fans of Homeworld for a loop is the fact that as everything moves through the sector you're dealing with, it is possible for a resource asteroid to float off the map, out of your range. This includes asteroids you've already been harvesting. Complicating matters further, there tend to be very few asteroids with any available materials, so you've got to be utterly frugal when conducting technological research and building up your forces, lest you deplete your available resources. This can be frustrating at times, but is not an issue in custom-made games or online matches, in which it is possible to select a higher resource availability level, allowing for less-inhibited growth.
Anyone who thought the wait was over upon this game's release was probably not aware of the excruciating load times prior to each mission. Of course, good things come to those who wait (and wait and wait and wait), and O.R.B. makes up for your ongoing efforts with drool-inducing visuals. As you play cinematographer in the midst of strategizing, you'll be treated to lush backgrounds, excellent lighting effects, well-textured objects, massive explosions, transparent menus, and a level of detail destined to astound at every turn.
At the game's onset, a 2D map appears in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, and it is also possible to use this map to navigate, albeit from a more limiting perspective than that granted in the larger 3D view. Tapping the "space bar" will switch between the 2D and 3D views, allowing you to focus on this flat perspective while still keeping an eye on the more dimensional aspects of the game now displayed in the small corner screen. Effects like this go a long way, further justifying the long wait.
While the single-player mode ultimately reveals a relatively short lifespan and little replay value, a powerful, easy-to-use in-game editor, which allows you to create everything from your own cutscenes to customized logos for your craft, will grant this game a lengthy shelf life for online gamers. Numerous mods have already been posted, and multiplayer campaigns with up to eight warring factions make the space race that much more challenging.
In the end, O.R.B. is no major breakthrough, but it is an exceptional outing suited to longtime RTS fans and newcomers alike. It's well worth checking out.
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