US: 7 Aug 2014
Labels are important. They’re an effective shorthand for describing the nuances of a thing. They allow us to categorize the world, to quickly make sense of all the stuff within it. Sure, most genre labels are comically vague (aren’t all “shooters” also “action” games and aren’t all “puzzle” games also “strategy” games?), but even the worst of them still gives us some sense of what the experience of a game is going to be about. I bring this up because Orbital Gear is missing an important label that would allow me to forgive its flaws: the “Early Access” label.
Orbital Gear is a 2D multiplayer shooter, two labels that both sum up and do a disservice to the game. You play as a combat mech in space and shoot at other players in an arena (i.e. a multiplayer shooter), but those arenas are made up of several planets that each have their own gravitational pull. These planetary physics make the game unique and fun but also take some getting used to. You’ll spend your first game just trying to hop from one rock to another, getting accustomed to the momentum and speed of the game. You don’t have much in-air control, but the planets are spaced far enough apart to allow you some fantastic slingshot maneuvers, based largely on luck.
There are two modes of play: a standard deathmatch mode and a team-based competition that has you destroying buildings in enemy territory. They’re fine modes with several maps each that all feel unique from one another. There are a dozen guns available, and you can equip two every time that you spawn. This quick switching allows you to easily experiment with all the weapons, which is good because they all have special properties. These aren’t just variations of the standard pistol, rifle, and shotgun. These are strange and awesome weapons that encourage clever use. Overall, the art is slick, and the fast, pounding soundtrack fits perfectly with the action.
So what’s wrong with Orbital Gear? What makes it feel like an unfinished Early Access Game? In short, it’s too fast for its own good. Lag is a constant issue in online games, regardless of which server I connect to, Europe, US, Asia, or Japan. I’ll try to shoot while running, but the gun won’t go off when I click the mouse. Instead it shoots a few milliseconds later, and while that sounds minor, in those few milliseconds I’ve moved further across the map. The bizarre result of this lag is that when I shoot, I see the burst of fire behind me. This turns what should be a high precision game into a chaos of blindfire. The lag was much less of an issue when I hosted my own game and played with roommates, but even then in the most ideal of circumstances, the gun burst was still slightly off. It was playable, but the game was still too fast for its own good.
That was also one of the few full matches of Orbital Gear that I was able to play. This is a multiplayer-only game that has constant issues connecting to other players. I tried to join several games in progress and could even see other players jumping around behind the menus, but right before I could click “Deploy” the game seemed to end, displaying the leaderboard for the match. I could still see and hear the action, but I had no means of joining. This happened over and over again as I tried to join matches. Hosting my own game seemed to be the only reliable solution.
However, the problem with hosting your own match is that the player base for Orbital Gear is so small that simply creating two concurrent games splinters the user base disastrously. I’ve spent more time screwing around in empty games, waiting for someone else to join, than I have actually battling other players.
Orbital Gear gets a lot right, but it’s missing the necessary polish on this core part of the game, and that’s what makes it feel like an incomplete Early Access game. It’s not a matter of a lack of content or bugs, but a problem with the heart of the game.
In playing and reviewing Orbital Gear, I consider this lack of polish as a negative, but with a simple change of label on the store page, that would all be forgiven. Practically, there’s no real difference between an Early Access game and a “complete” game. We live in an age where all games get post-release updates, where all multiplayer games get patches that rebalance certain weapons, and where new content is added periodically to the biggest AAA blockbuster and the most indie iOS game. All games are updated over time, and Orbital Gear is no different. The label is only important as a matter of perception, but perception is important.
The Early Access label is a warning to players. To sell a game without that label implies a certain amount of polish or at least a confidence in the product as “finished” (or at least as “finished” as any game can be in this patch-ridden world of gaming). Players, myself included, are inclined to give a game that admits it is unfinished the benefit of the doubt. And, course, we’re happy to take a “finished” game to task for bugs or balance issues that will likely be patched out in the future.
None is this is meant to suggest that Orbital Gear is a bad game. It’s not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination. It’s more complete than most games with the Early Access label (as one would hope, considering it’s not an Early Access game). It’s slick and stylish and fun… when it works. Thankfully it’s not bad due to an error in design, just execution. It’s a fundamental flaw, but a fundamental flaw that can be improved without having to redesign the game. This is just a matter of polish, making the online action as slick as the rest of the presentation.
About a month ago I received a review code for an Early Access game. I haven’t written the review because I can’t in good conscience pass a critical evaluation of a game that is, by its own definition, incomplete. And I’m glad I haven’t because every time I go back to it more things have been added, and my initial complaints become moot. Without that label Orbital Gear doesn’t get that benefit of the doubt. It doesn’t get that pass. Like an Early Access game, Orbital Gear is a game you’ll play once, and then put aside for a month until it’s updated. It’ll be a fine game when those updates come and the online issues are resolved, but until then, you probably have other, more complete games to play.