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Panzer Dragoon Orta (Xbox) artwork

Panzer Dragoon Orta (Xbox) review

"Orta takes everything its predecessors had to offer, polishes it until it shines, and then fancies it up with glitter paint and elbow macaroni. It’s just as breathtaking, just as intricate, just as feature-laden, and (wait for it…) even as challenging as the Panzer Dragoons that came before it. What’s that? Do you doubt me? Well, you can decide for yourself, because it even includes the original Panzer Dragoon in its entirety as a bonus!"

You don’t deserve this game. In 1995, Sega offered you a majestic helping of prime rib in the form of Panzer Dragoon, and you turned your noses up, opting instead to follow the “red E” pied piper to a potato salad buffet served in a trough. “Oh, but the Battle Arena Toshinden breasts looked better on the Playstation, Richo! It was an attractive nuisance - It wasn’t my fault!” I hear you whine. Well, shut up, because I’m not finished. It’s because of people like you that people like me have had to endure great hardships in the badlands of eBay to catch up with games like Panzer Dragoon. Blame it on Sega’s track record, or their even-shittier-than-Sony’s marketing campaign – I still hate you. And now, after all you’ve put them through, Sega has returned with a peace offering: the quintessential installment of the Panzer Dragoon series, Panzer Dragoon Orta.

Orta takes everything its predecessors had to offer, polishes it until it shines, and then fancies it up with glitter paint and elbow macaroni. It’s just as breathtaking, just as intricate, just as feature-laden, and (wait for it…) even as challenging as the Panzer Dragoons that came before it. What’s that? Do you doubt me? Well, you can decide for yourself, because it even includes the original Panzer Dragoon in its entirety as a bonus!

This being a sequel to the last Panzer Dragoon game, the story is set in the same fantasy world as always. Since it is a shooter, the story is secondary at best, but it’s the deepest of its kind by far. The scattered remnants of mankind live in primitive tribes in the wake of an apocalypse caused by a highly advanced race called the Ancients in times long past. Of these humans, ambitious groups seek out and attempt to revive the technology of the Ancients, eventually forming an oppressive empire. To stop them from unlocking the ultimate weapon, once again the humble armored dragon appears and chooses its rider. This time it’s a young girl named Orta.

At first glance, Panzer Dragoon Orta is a typical on-rails shooting game, but there are a couple of compelling differences that set it apart from the rest of the genre that its parents helped create. First is the lock-on system. If you drag your cross-hair over an enemy, you will “lock on” to that enemy. You can lock on to several enemies at once, and then unleash a barrage of homing lasers. This apparent “fire and forget” nature of the combat belies the real strategy – many enemies have more than one lock-on target on their bodies, and you are limited in the number of targets you can lock on to in one pass, meaning that you can’t just drag your cursor across the screen randomly and expect to get anywhere. While most gamers can limp from stage to stage in Panzer Dragoon Orta with only a few re-tries, true mastery of it requires dozens of hours of memorization and planning.

Secondly, though the greater movement of your dragon is always forward, you are free to turn and aim your weapons in any direction you choose. Using your radar as a guide, you must fend off attacks from all sides and behind while your dragon carries you forward. This makes for an exhilarating attack on the senses that hardly lets up enough for you to catch your breath.

Taking a cue from Star Fox, Panzer Dragoon Orta allows for acceleration and deceleration. And borrowing from arcade shooters, it features some truly awesome “berserk attacks”, which basically clear the screen of all enemies while providing you with a few seconds of invulnerability. But by far the most important innovation in the series is the new “wing” system. Throughout the game, you can change between three dragon forms – Base, Glide, and Heavy – at will. As one would predict, these are balanced, agile, and powerful, respectively. What makes this system especially unique, however, is your ability to “level up” a certain form of your dragon, causing it to evolve accordingly. Fancy quick maneuvering above brute force? Level your Glide Wing up first, and you’ll run circles around your enemies. Would you rather let your lasers do the talking? The Heavy Wing handles like a big-rig, but demolishes even the toughest enemies without breaking a sweat. Even if there was no other replay value in this game, the three dragon forms can give you a unique experience each time you play.

Speaking of replay value, this game has it oozing from its pores. As you progress through the game you’ll unlock various features in the “Pandora’s Box”, which range from an encyclopedia explaining every minute detail of the Panzer Dragoon world to a full seven-episode sub-game played from the perspective of another character. Add to this the possibility of achieving a perfect score, and with it the coveted “Winged Death” ranking, and you’ve got forty hours of gameplay easily. And then there’s the unlock-able original Sega Saturn/PC Panzer Dragoon, which, although neither here nor there, being a complete game and all, definitely makes the price tag seem mighty reasonable, especially to those who don’t own the original.

Right from the menu screen, the graphics are sleek, crisp, and to the point. There are no too-fancy-for-their-own-good gimmicks, and no bids for the favor of the male genitalia. But the sheer smooth realism that whizzes by you is astounding. Without ever missing a frame, Panzer Dragoon Orta shoots a dozen colorful lasers across a gazillion polygons, then showers the screen with sparks and smoke-trails. You truly have to see it in motion to appreciate it. The dragons and other creatures are all animated based on the movements of real-world creatures, and the massive, surreal bosses often make you flinch as they rumble past the camera. The “futuristically primitive” look of a ravaged future that carries the game along never gets old. If nothing else, Panzer Dragoon Orta’s graphics should leave you satisfied.

I wish I could change the pace here, but Smilebit didn’t skimp on the audio quality either. All of the sound effects are original and engrossing. The constant gun turrets each emit a small report, then a shower of nicked rock cascades on all sides of you. You will know where there’s a ship close whether you see it or not, that is if you have a subwoofer. And wow - the radio transmissions actually sound like they’re coming from a radio! Oh, and it has its own language. That’s right – not English, not Japanese, but “Panzerese”, as it were, which is actually a discernable language. Top that.

The music may go largely unnoticed (as does much great game music), but if you give it a serious listen, it’s some of the best yet on the XBox. When the screen is filled with enemies you’ll hear an epic heroic orchestration, and when you enter into a more claustrophobic environment ambient echoes and whispers take command, accenting the vulnerability of your position. The jungle area sounds like a tribal celebration from the Amazon, and the industrial zones hint at a flutist playing a discordant note for 10 seconds and then scraping the instrument across a chalkboard (in a good way). Bottom line: the music rocks. Hobbyist soundtrack-ists like myself will feel compelled to spend a couple of hours with the sound editing software of their choice after they get a taste of Orta.

The closest thing to a flaw I can think of in Panzer Dragoon Orta is the fact that I don’t particularly like shooters. Even still, anyone who doesn’t outright hate shooters will likely find this to be a must-play, and hardcore shooting fans should go gaga for it. Consider yourselves the kid who threw his ice-cream away but then his mom bought him another one anyway.

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Staff review by Richo Rosai (April 21, 2003)

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