You don't need to be a fan of Sega's 8-year-old Panzer Dragoon fantasy shooter series to appreciate the outstanding Panzer Dragoon Orta. But if you were fortunate enough to have played the Panzer games for the Sega Saturn, you'll be especially thrilled with this latest installment, an Xbox exclusive developed by Sega's talented Smilebit studio that not only showcases the power of Microsoft's console, but is also one of the best traditional video game shooting experiences ever made. Panzer Dragoon Orta is surprisingly long for a single-player shooter, and it's loaded with great extra features that are sure to keep you coming back to the game's 10 diverse and challenging levels. You'll find that the game's mechanics are deceptively simple, and that there's some real depth hidden beneath the incredible good looks and fast-paced, epic action. All this adds up to an experience that every Xbox owner ought to indulge in.
Since Panzer Dragoon Orta is a pure shooter, you'll probably be struck by its rich and detailed story and setting, though the plot elements never intrude on the action of the game. The Panzer world is beautiful and surreal, with its own language and bizarre technology. But it's a world of strife, dominated by a mighty empire and its vast fleets of airships yet constantly threatened by dangerous creatures that evolved from biological weapons used by an ancient civilization. Orta, the young main character of the game, has little knowledge of any of this, however, because she's been a prisoner her entire life for reasons unbeknownst to her. The game begins when a squadron of the empire's dragonmares, which are basically hideous-looking dragonlike jet fighters, attacks her prison. Orta is rescued from this peril by a being that instantly becomes her most trusted ally, a proud winged creature that looks like a cross between a conventional dragon and a stag beetle. Now Orta finds herself desperately fighting off the empire's forces, bioengineered foes, and more as she sets out to find some answers. She soon crosses paths with an ominous character named Abadd, who seems to know much more than she does about her true nature. At any rate, all this is merely the context for a series of levels offering up relentless action against strange foes in vividly detailed environments.
It's easy to criticize the core mechanics of Panzer Dragoon Orta, as the game is essentially a rail shooter, a dated action subgenre that forces you onto a set track, like on a roller coaster, and expects you to merely point and shoot at everything that gets in your way. This simplistic style of gaming became all but extinct when successful first-person shooters such as Doom and GoldenEye 007 afforded players with the freedom to move about at will. However, Panzer Dragoon Orta's modern presentation and gameplay nuances make it far more than just a shooting gallery. The presence of a rather lengthy tutorial suggests that this isn't just a game about reflexes and button mashing, but one with some real strategy to it. That's not to say the game completely eschews the conventions of the traditional shooter genre, because it doesn't--there's never a dull moment during Panzer Dragoon Orta's long levels, and they all feature (and usually culminate in) protracted battles against powerful bosses. But these are gameplay elements that will never go out of style. They're what help make Panzer Dragoon Orta an intense and memorable shooter, like numerous others in the past, only with state-of-the-art technology and superlative production values.
More specifically, the core gameplay of Panzer Dragoon Orta is similar to that of the first two games in the series. You view the action from a third-person perspective and can use the shoulder buttons to rotate your view 90 degrees at a time as an onscreen radar display informs you of where your enemies are coming from. You'll find yourself rotating all around, using Orta's rapid-fire pistol in conjunction with her dragon's homing lasers to inflict grievous damage upon her enemies. The left analog stick moves the dragon and your targeting reticle. Your ammo is unlimited, you never have to worry about reloading, and using both attacks is simple: Pressing and holding the fire button while "painting" foes with the reticle causes the dragon to lock on to multiple targets for its homing laser attack, releasing the button fires your lasers, and tapping the button makes Orta shoot her pistol. The homing lasers are generally much stronger than the gun attack, but you'll learn to use both in conjunction, because only Orta's pistol can shoot down the numerous enemy projectiles you'll constantly be trying to avoid. It may not sound like a big deal, but the fact that Panzer Dragoon Orta alternately requires you to tap the fire button and hold it down during nonstop action sequences lends the gameplay a completely different feel from that of any shooter other than its predecessors.
There's also a lot more to the gameplay this time around. For one thing, at any point you can rapidly cycle through your dragon's three different forms with the Y button. The base wing form is described above and will be familiar to those who played the first Panzer Dragoon. It's maneuverable, its homing lasers are quick, and it can acquire many targets at a time. Meanwhile, the heavy wing presents a larger target for its enemies, and Orta can't fire her pistol quite as quickly either, making it difficult to defend yourself while in this form, but the heavy wing's powerful lock-on blasts are the most damaging to armored targets. Then there's the glide wing form, the smallest and seemingly the weakest, especially since it can't use homing lasers at all. But the glide wing is by far the most maneuverable, and in this mode, Orta's pistol auto-acquires targets in a wide radius, making it perfect for avoiding enemy attacks or easily picking off incoming missiles. Each dragon form also has its own berserk attack, a special move that becomes available once you've dealt enough damage to your enemies. The concentrated heavy wing beam can do huge damage to bosses, while the base wing's flurry of homing lasers can clear the area of multiple foes, but the glide wing's health-absorbing attack is the most useful since there's no other way to restore your life during a level.
You'll also need to get used to the glide maneuver, which lets you quickly speed up or slow down at the touch of a button. The glide wing form, as its name suggests, can use this move more readily than the base wing, while the heavy wing can't glide at all. Gliding serves not only as a defensive measure for avoiding missiles, but also as a powerful ramming attack. Even more importantly, gliding lets you switch to different tactical positions relative to some of the bosses you'll encounter. You'll often need to use the glide move both to avoid some of the bosses' most deadly attacks and to pinpoint their weak points, which intensifies these dramatic encounters. Furthermore, each dragon form can be enhanced independently of the others by collecting DNA power-ups, which you'll usually earn by defeating entire waves of foes. These power-ups not only change the look of each dragon form, but they also increase its maximum health and grant it additional attack power. There's incentive to play through the game trying to find as many DNA power-ups as possible and using different form-shifting strategies. As you master the game, you'll learn to constantly switch between the different dragon forms, using their respective strengths to inflict (and avoid) as much damage as possible.
Three difficulty settings are available, and they influence your enemies' power and aggression levels but don't really change the enemy patterns or the layouts of the levels themselves, even though most levels offer several different routes that you can take to the end. As such, you'll become familiar with a given level after you've attempted it enough times. That seems like something that would diminish replay value, and to some extent, it does--but a big part of all traditional shooters lies in memorizing enemy movements and knowing what's ahead. This is where the shooting gallery appeal kicks in, and Panzer Dragoon Orta rewards you for getting through the levels while killing as many enemies and sustaining as little damage as you can. It's possible to get through each stage without taking a single hit and without letting a single enemy survive, and the deep learning curve of the game, coupled with a built-in rewards system, will inspire many players to attempt to do this.
Most all the game's levels present varied and exciting challenges, though the ones that pit you against the empire's war machines tend to be the most satisfying. You'll likely feel a shiver down your spine as you witness the panicked cries of your imperial adversaries--not because they're evil or because they're cowards, but because Orta and her dragon are apparently the prophesied harbingers of the empire's doom, and you're as evil to them as they are to you. It's not often that you feel a sense of pathos for your enemies in a shooter, but then again, Panzer Dragoon Orta is an uncommonly good game. Some of the later levels aren't as varied or complex as the earlier ones, mostly because they revolve around even bigger boss battles than the ones you'll have survived in getting to those points. Yet even though it can't be said that every stage in Panzer Dragoon Orta has the same level of incredible detail as all the others, each level is intensely enjoyable, and most all of them are spectacular to behold.
Its visuals will certainly contribute a lot to your overall enjoyment of Panzer Dragoon Orta. In fact, it's hard to imagine such an impressive-looking game appearing anywhere other than on the Xbox. Technically, the game's silky smooth frame rate and highly detailed, meticulously animated characters are undeniably impressive, as are the sweeping and richly colored environments. But the artistic design of the game is what truly stands out, lending Panzer Dragoon Orta a look that's unique and an overall visual design that ranks up there with the very best of what the Xbox has to offer. From the fearsome looking dragonmares to the improbably diminutive and terribly concerned-looking Orta, most all of the creatures and characters seen in this game are distinctive and memorable.
The audio in Panzer Dragoon Orta is also exceptional. The constant zapping of Orta's pistol, the swooping of the dragon's wings, the pinging of its targeting locks, and the scorching sound of its homing lasers seem like they'd become repetitive, but you'll appreciate the constancy of these things as the action surprises you from all directions. The beautifully done synthesized musical score never overwhelms the sound effects but is always clear and helps establish the game's epic tone and fantasy theme. A couple of the tracks that play during some of the game's boss battles are especially terrific, and the voice-over work in the game--though it isn't in English--is uniformly excellent, especially for the dragonmare squadrons' Captain Evren and the other imperials. Dolby Digital 5.1 support of course makes the game sound even better if you have the hardware, and the fact that you'll be attacked from all directions means that the surround sound is tactically valuable and not just cool to hear.
For good measure, Panzer Dragoon Orta is filled to the brim with extra features, including a full-on port of the original 1995 Panzer Dragoon game, which, though it doesn't look nearly as good now as it did in its day, is still a lot of fun, boasts a timelessly great orchestral soundtrack, and is well worth playing today. Other extra features include stand-alone scenarios that will test your shooting skills to the fullest, as well as a surprising seven-mission side story from the perspective of an imperial boy in military training. You'll even get to unlock additional playable characters, plus tons of artwork and a virtual encyclopedia about the Panzer Dragoon world. All this should add up to at least 20 hours of gameplay, which is a lot for a single-player shooter.
Overall, Panzer Dragoon Orta is an outstandingly well-executed game, featuring gameplay that's easy to grasp but rewards continued practice, exceptional graphics and sound, a good story, and a lot of worthwhile extras. While the gameplay itself couldn't be called revolutionary, it draws on the conventions that once made shooters the most popular gaming genre in existence and refurbishes them with a few keen, new twists and a terrific presentation. This makes Panzer Dragoon Orta a game that most any gamer would really like, while those who've kept up with the Panzer series over the years should be especially pleased that the series has evolved this well.