Could Strategy First's 3D space strategy game be the next Homeworld? Find out in our preview.
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For at least as long as people have been making games, nerds everywhere have dreamed of exploring the cosmos in cool-looking futuristic spaceships. They've been able to do so in countless computer games, including Relic's innovative and very impressive 1998 game Homeworld, a real-time strategy game that let you control a fleet of starships in a fully 3D universe and was later followed by a stand-alone product called Homeworld: Cataclysm. Since then, no game has been able to reproduce Homeworld's brand of fully 3D space exploration and combat. That is, at least until now--or, to be more precise, about five years ago.
Strategy First's O.R.B. (which stands for "off-world resource base") bears a striking resemblance to Homeworld, yet it's been in development since before production on Relic's 1998 strategy game even began. Since then, Strategy First has wisely kept tabs on every aspect of Homeworld that received praise from critics. O.R.B. will be powered by a 3D engine that will let you do everything you could do in Homeworld, including moving and attacking ships in all three dimensions, zooming out to take a far-off view of your fleet, and zooming in extremely close on each highly detailed individual ship. Homeworld's presentation--its combination of haunting music and its convincing representation of starships in space--truly helped convey the sense that its players were alone in the vast reaches of some far-off galaxy. O.R.B. is taking a slightly more conventional approach, but it's no less ambitious than Homeworld. In fact, it's actually more so, and it should be, considering that two Homeworld games have come and gone since the development of O.R.B. began.
While Homeworld put players in command of a fleet of ships that was trying to find its way home, O.R.B. will let players choose to play as one of two different factions at odds with each other in a ruined asteroid belt known as the Aldus system. Aldus was originally home to an ancient and mysterious alien race that has become extinct--little is known about this mysterious breed of aliens, and little remains, except a few traces of incredibly advanced technology that can sometimes be found in the asteroid belt. Now that the aliens are gone, the only known inhabitants of the Aldus system are the Malus, a communal society of warlike beings who tend to favor slow, powerful ships, and the Alyssians, an enlightened group of scientists and thinkers, whose spacecraft tend to lack sheer power, but tend to be faster. The two races encountered each other while attempting to mine the same resources from asteroids--and as a result of a series of miscommunications and their own inherent cultural differences, the two ended up at war. Now each faction strives to cheat the other out of vital resources, steal the other's technology, and defeat the other in out-and-out combat.
But letting you play as different factions won't be the only thing that Strategy First's upcoming game will do differently. O.R.B. will attempt to take traditional real-time strategy mechanics, update them, and adapt them to 3D space. For instance, take the game's resource-management model: Though you'll need to mine resources in order to fuel your research and build an armada big enough to crush your foes, you'll do so by exploring and mining the faces of asteroids. But you'll have to act fast, as the asteroid belt is constantly rotating in space, and if you wait too long, the rock you're mining will end up in enemy territory. Then again, you'll also have the option of building an outpost on an asteroid, which you can use as a new base of operations, and you'll also find that flying through an asteroid field can be a handy to way to slip past enemy sensors.
They Put What In Our Asteroids?
O.R.B. will also take a different approach toward fighting and building up your forces to prepare for battle. For example, you won't be restricted to your own technology tree when researching advanced technologies. Though you will want to conduct research to make your fleets swifter and more capable of dealing out and sustaining damage, you'll be able to get these improvements from other sources. If you happen to beat your enemies in an early skirmish, you'll actually be able to recover their technology from their defeated ships--and if you're persistent, and a little lucky, you might also uncover some extremely advanced alien technology in the form of a derelict ship by scouring the asteroid belt. Relentless researchers will end up adding all sorts of powerful weapons and defenses to their ships, as well as scientific improvements like cloaking devices.
But even the nerdiest space scientists will put down their beakers and tongs when faced with a good starship battle. O.R.B.'s deep-space battles will take place in three dimensions between spacecraft that will bob and weave in all directions while letting loose at their enemies with space-age weaponry. O.R.B.'s two different factions will have about 20 different types of ships each, though the game will let you customize each of your ships with different weapons, defenses, miscellaneous technology you've researched, scavenged, or stolen, and your own custom team emblem, which you'll be able to import into the game.
We had a chance to take O.R.B.'s combat engine for a spin with an early level in the Malus campaign, and what we saw seemed solid enough. Again, O.R.B. will attempt to make use of standard real-time strategy conventions, so you can group-select your units, assign them to a numbered company, and send them to various waypoints on the map in succession. However, everything takes place in three dimensions, and when you're traversing the vast emptiness of deep space, things can get disorienting--especially if you're trying to command multiple companies to move to multiple waypoints or attack multiple targets. That's why O.R.B. has two additional visual aids: a zoomed-out 2D map that you can use to give large-scale orders to your squadrons and a miniature map in the lower-right corner of the screen. That's in addition to O.R.B.'s fully 3D camera, which lets you rotate, zoom, and pan freely.
But we've found that in order to keep track of different squadrons with different trajectories, it seems best at this point to assign group numbers to each squad, then jump to each of them individually (this centers the camera on the selected squad). O.R.B. also has a ship manager window that you can pull up to view the status of each of your squadrons, including your ships' general condition--it's a good way to quickly tell which of your squadrons has taken the most damage. The actual fights can be challenging, especially when you're facing enemies who are faster than you are. However, when you do manage to blast through an enemy ship's shields and hull, you'll be rewarded with a satisfying explosion that leaves behind piles of debris.
Though it's certainly been long in coming, O.R.B. looks like it's coming along. The game's 3D engine and camera seem to work well enough, though we'll have to wait and see how the game's combat system ends up working with its research and resource-management features. We're also curious to see just how those features will turn out in multiplayer play--but we'll find out when O.R.B. is released later this year.
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