System: Microsoft Xbox Rating: T for Teen Developer: Smilebit Publisher: Sega
The History Lesson
Ah, Panzer Dragoon. I remember it like it was yesterday: the day I first stumbled upon the $399 Sega Saturn in 1995. The first game that I bought for that system was a weird-looking thing entitled Panzer Dragoon. When I took it home, I was enthralled. The opening CG cinema, though a bit ugly (not too ugly, mind you) by today\'s standards, was a thing of beauty at the time. The game itself was even better. It took the twitch gaming of 2D games and transplanted it into a 3D world smoothly. Later, the game had two sequels which appeared on the Sega Saturn: Panzer Dragoon Zwei, a straight shoot-\'em-up sequel to the first PD; and then, the shockingly good role-playing game Panzer Dragoon Saga, which many consider to be one of the greatest RPGs of all time. Then, something terrible happened for all the Panzer Dragoon fans out there: Team Andromeda, the developer of those great games, disbanded after Saga was released in 1998. The news hit me like a ton of bricks. All hope for further PD sequels all but vanished, except among the diehard fans, who kept hoping against hope, as fans tend to do.
The Present Day
Enter Smilebit, one of Sega\'s autonomous development studios. Smilebit became adept at designing games for the Microsoft Xbox, having developed and released 2 games for the system last year: Gunvalkyrie, a 3D shooter/platformer; and Jet Set Radio Future, a stylish action romp through a cel-shaded neo-Tokyo. Then it was announced that they would be developing a sequel to Panzer Dragoon for the system, entitled Panzer Dragoon Orta. After the cheers from all those Saturn PD fans subsided, the big question came: Could Smilebit do the series justice, especially considering they weren\'t Team Andromeda (although the team consisted of some former members of the ill-fated studio)? That\'s what I\'m here to talk about.
Panzer Dragoon Orta (or PDO) is a fast-paced, rail-based, 3D shoot-\'em-up that has a lot in common with Nintendo\'s Starfox series of 3D shooters. When I say rail-based, I mean that the game forcefully moves you around; you can\'t roam about the world freely. It\'s not a bad thing, though, since the pace would be immensely slower if the developers made it possible for the player to explore the world. After all, they wanted to create a shooter, not an adventure/platformer. Anyway, the game places you in control of Orta, a mysterious young who is imprisoned in a tower at the beginning of the game. She is about to be killed by several Dragonmares, bio-organically enhanced dragons who were bred for war by the Empire (the source of evil in the game\'s world, at least in the beginning). Suddenly, she is rescued by another dragon, who should be familiar to those of you who played the first few PDs. The story is quite good, for a shooter. I won\'t spoil it for you, except to say that it is very anime-esque. Take that for what it\'s worth, and note that the reason why you play this game should not be for the story, but for the action.
Smilebit did a fantastic job on designing the look of the game. Most levels have a very organic look, yet some of the airship designs for the Empire look slightly more techno/futuristic. Then we have the highly varied world, which is a thing of beauty. There are serene rivers, swamplands, hot, dry deserts, beautiful forests and plains, and a snow-covered wasteland. Then you have the interior locations in the game, such as inside the Empire\'s mothership, a sprawling vessel filled with hibernating dragonmares, missile-spewing trains, and the odd battleship. One of the later levels has you fighting in a sort of cyberscape, where weird, abstract shapes and enemies abound. You have to see it to believe it, but I\'d compare it to a game like the Playstation 2\'s Rez, or Jeff Mintar\'s Atari Jaguar classic, Tempest 3000, but jacked to a whole \'nother plane of existence. My main point is that the graphics are beautiful in this game! Smilebit took advantage of the Xbox\'s capabilities, and created a stunning, sharp, colorful, and unique world for gamers to explore. Not only is the world great-looking, but Smilebit\'s artists have turned in some of their best character designs, in my opinion. The humanoid characters are well-designed, but they\'re not totally memorable (due to the fact that most of them only appear for a short time in the game). Still, they\'re all special in their own ways. The standout character here is the protagonist, Orta, herself. It\'s quite refreshing to control a character who is female, but is not the typical video game representation of a female. She\'s not a Lara Croft-type, -ed character with a \'tough chick\' attitude and overly hormonal designers. She\'s just a who finds herself thrown neck-deep in a struggle she doesn\'t fully comprehend. I think she is quite a compelling character, and definitely a unique one. Especially since all the other protagonists in the PD series have been males. Other designs which deserve special mention are the dragonmares, which all look weird in their bio-organic armor, yet majestic at the same time. Very cool. Oh, yeah, a final note on the graphics. PD Orta supports 480p progressive scan output for HDTV owners. I do not own an HDTV set. Go for it if you got one, then.
Music has always been an important part of the PD experience. In this game, it\'s no different. The music really augments the action going on on-screen. Personally, I enjoyed all the background tracks in the game, from the level themes themselves (which vary from quick-paced orchestral battle music to the more serene, laid back themes) to the boss music, which ramps up the tension with fast-paced percussive rhythm. I thought the music in PDO was just as good as background music in the older PDs, although some veterans of the series may disagree with me. I think you\'ll enjoy it, though. The sound effects in the game are all rich and full, and the game does support Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. I don\'t have the best sound setup, so I can\'t fully comment on the surround sound aspect of the game. But, it sounded great on my little stereo system, so I\'m sure if you\'ve got the setup, you\'ll like what you hear. Another aspect of the sound is the in-game language used. Sega developed a unique language for the PD series, a mixture of Japanese, German, English, and Latin, from what I could gather. This fictional language really adds to the whole mystique of the game, and it really helps to keep the player immersed in the amazing world of PDO. Even the voice actors have the language down, and they do a good job of delivering their lines. I am thoroughly impressed.
Control and Gameplay...
As I mentioned before, the game is a rail-based shooter, which confines your freedom of movement quite a bit. However, this only enhances the game, as the developers were able to focus purely on the intensity of it. Enemies are thrown at you with reckless abandon, and it\'s in your best interest to shoot all of them down, or at least most of them, which is tough to do. I won\'t kid around with you, this is a tough game. On normal difficulty, you\'ll get stuck on certain things. Keep at it. Memorize enemy patterns, and you\'ll eventually get past those tough spots. Now, at the end of the level, you are graded on your performance. Your total score, your shot down ratio (number of enemies shot down compared to the total number of enemies in the level), the number of hits taken in a level, and the time it took you to beat the boss are all ranked. The grades range from S (highest rank) to D (lowest). Then you get a final rank, which uses the same grading scale. Another wrinkle in the gameplay is that you can transform your dragon in three different ways. The first form is the Base Wing, your default dragon, which is medium in size and speed. The Base Wing can fire multiple quick shots with Orta\'s handgun, or up to eight lock-on lasers. It is the most balanced of the three forms. The next form is the Heavy Wing, which is large and slow, but has stronger weapons. The downside is that the Heavy Wing can only lock on to three targets (compared to the Base Wing\'s eight), but the lasers are much more powerful. The third form is the Glide Wing form, which is the smallest and quickest of the three dragon forms, but has no lock-on lasers. However, the gun shots it can fire rapidly do lock on to baddies automatically. All three of these forms are useful in the game, and they can each be upgraded, and they each have own berserk attacks, which are super-attacks that fill the screen with destruction and ultra-awesome special effects. The controls in the game are very intuitive, and easy to learn. The left analog tick on the Xbox controller controls vertical and horizontal movement within the confines of the game\'s on-rails system. You tap the A button to fire Orta\'s handgun, or hold it down to lock on to targets and release to let the lasers fly. The B button decelerates or circles backward around an enemy. The X button accelerates or circles forward around (or through) an enemy. These acceleration and deceleration actions also deplete a glide gauge in the lower left corner of the screen. The Y button morphs your dragon into either of the three forms I discussed above. You can unleash your berserk attack by pressing in on the right analog tick or by pressing either the white or black buttons. The left and right triggers rotate your view 90 degrees to the left or the right respectively. Pressing both triggers rotates your view 180 degrees. Finally, the start button pauses and unpauses the game.Get all that? As soon as you start playing the game, you\'ll find that the controls are easier to deal with than most games, which is good, considering that you want to concentrate on fighting the Empire, not the Xbox controller.
The game is rated T for Teens by the ESRB, which I think is a spot on rating. The box says animated blood and violence, which is true. After all, this is a shooter, so it\'s gonna be violent. There isn\'t too much blood in here, just a bit from bosses. There is a bit of foul language in the game (mostly \'da*n\' and \'hell\'), and there are one or two instances where some characters say the word \'.\' But that\'s about as bad as it gets, and it\'s kept to a minimum, especially compared to some of the other games out there. Orta is a strong heroine in the game, and is not scantily clad, so that\'s a very good thing. I wouldn\'t recommend this game to really young, impressionable children, but for the teen crowd and upwards, it\'s okay.
I think that this is one of the most fun games out there. It reminds me of the old school 2D shooters of yester-year, which I love. It has supplanted Halo as my favorite Xbox game, and is definitely a AAA title for the system. It\'s also a system exclusive, and it contains some fantastic extras which are unlocked during gameplay. I\'ll let you find out what they are. All I\'ll say is that they\'re quite good, and add to an already incredible game. Fans of the series, rejoice! Those of you waiting around, jump in! Give it a chance! Kudos to Sega for another fantastic Xbox exclusive! And, Smilebit... Well, they rock the world! Now, I\'m only hoping against hope for a Streets of Rage sequel... Please, dear Lord, let there be one! ;-)