It's been a tough time for Sega. Having survived the almost ruinous hardware days intact, the publisher has more recently had to contend with all but a small fraction of its releases meeting with public indifference. In particular its commercial fortunes on the Xbox have so far been dire: Jet Set Radio Future, Gun Valkyrie, Sega GT, Crazy Taxi 3, Soccer Slam, to name but a few, and not a single big selling title between them - and its recent fortunes on other consoles haven't exactly been blockbusting, either.
It was always going to be tough to get its plethora of development studios up to speed with the inner workings of multiple console platforms. The fact that the company is still porting ageing Dreamcast titles such as Shenmue 2, Phantasy Star Online and Sonic Adventure this far down the line gives the impression of a company struggling to come to terms with its reinvention.
As important as Sonic?
But those days are nearly over, if Panzer Dragoon Orta is anything to go by. Finally the Japanese software giant has a title that not only pushes the platform it's written for, but has inspired the kind of excitement that Sega used to be synonymous with. One of the EG team was moved to utter last week: "this is the most important Sega release since Sonic The Hedgehog". Blimey. We'd better take a closer look.
The long awaited follow up to the revered Sega Saturn title tells the tale of a population on the brink of extinction, its planet almost destroyed by years of intense battles. A band of rebels rises up to take control of their destiny, and in true mysterious gaming story nonsense, a young girl named Orta becomes "mankind's only hope". Yes, really.
It's the usual paper thin plot, admittedly, but such suspension of disbelief is a formality once you engage in this intense third person shooter that follows in a long line of classic Sega blasters such as Space Harrier, and more recently Rez. It borrows the lock on control system that worked so well in Rez (and, fundamentally at least, in the original Panzer Dragoon), and features the relentless assault of enormous creatures that Space Harrier trademarked all those years ago - albeit dressed up in some of the finest shiny new clothes we've ever clapped eyes on.
Of course, Panzer Dragoon Orta has plenty of innovations all of its own, and is arguably one of the most strategic shooters we've ever played. It's not often we're moved to play a tutorial mode, but this one is almost a necessity, largely thanks to the complexity involved with dealing with the numerous types of attack. The combat variation wouldn't necessarily be an insurmountable problem were it not for the fact that you have so many ways of dealing with your foe - some being more efficient at dispatching them than others.
On a basic level you have three different modes of fire available to you at once. Normal, Heavy and High Spec, and each can be cycled through with the Y button. Normal is the middle of the road, well balanced cannon, and holding down the A button will lock onto about eight targets at once. Releasing the button then unleashes a destructive blast onto each of the enemies - but it's not the most powerful of the set. This accolade befalls the Heavy gun, which can only lock onto three targets at once, but inflicts far more damage - the smaller number of targets it can take out at once means that when you're overwhelmed it can be real struggle to avoid being hit.
However, the High Spec weapon has a much wider target area than any of them, and although it can't lock on, this high speed cannon can take out incoming projectiles with ruthless efficiency - useful in the many situations when clusters of enemies rain down upon you. Despite its deficiencies, it does give you the useful ability to activate a Homing Glide offensive, which not only attacks the enemy forces, but sucks up their hit points, in turn replenishing your own. Getting to know which gun is appropriate in what situation is the key to progression, and our initial attempts were littered with failure as we came to terms with which weapon to use - and when.
Far from employing the usual third person shooter mechanic of staying stuck behind the player, Panzer Dragoon Orta utilises a fantastically well realised 3D system. Enemies can approach on any side, and often even above or below you, and a radar in the top right hand corner displays the, as red dots in relation to your Dragon, which sits in the centre. To cope with this 360 degree combat, Orta can switch to a side view by pulling the right or left triggers, sending her clockwise or counter clockwise respectively. Each tap on the trigger will send her 90 degrees in the given direction, with the player able to then steer Orta in the precise direction of her enemies.
Further control options are available to allow the player to briefly alter the speed of the Dragoon; tapping X activates a boost, while hitting B momentarily reduces your speed. In boss encounters, or particularly aggressive mid level encounters it is often necessary to use the speed control to dodge out of the way. Likewise, the choice of fire mode 'morphs' your Dragon and subtley affects its manoeuvrability. In our experience the High Spec gun seemed to be the best option, thanks to its ability to take care of the masses of projectiles that the enemy delights in sending your way.
Another feature of your impressive arsenal is the Berserk weapon - once fully charged you can tap the black button to unleash a brief all encompassing 'smart bomb' blast that gets you out of sticky situations. As you'd expect in a Japanese shooter, boss encounters come thick and fast, and are both spectacular and evil. But not always spectacularly evil. Only sometimes; that will depend on which of the three skill levels you plump for.
With such a comprehensive, strategic array of attacks available at any one time, it's just as well the game backs it up with a generous serving of eye candy that will sate even the hungriest graphic whore. The ten stages are all deliciously well rendered, with backgrounds of the highest calibre, featuring lush detail at every turn - and as such it's no exaggeration to state that these are possibly the finest visuals we've ever witnessed, all delivered at a rock solid frame rate even when the screen is packed with foes - which, by the way, is regularly.
Talking of foes, in keeping with the incredibly slick backgrounds, you're treated to a continual array of delightfully well animated, finely detailed and well realised creatures to dispatch. It may only be a shoot 'em up at its core, but the believable, credible world that Sega has created with Panzer Dragoon Orta allows the game to skilfully transcend its trivial roots. Supplemented by a regular assortment of cut scenes, the story of Orta's battle against the repressive regime and her encounters along the way with new friends and foes is expertly dealt with, even though for most of us, the fantasy tale isn't necessarily to our tastes. No matters. The breaks these cut scenes provide are extremely welcome after the intensity of a ten minute boss battle.
Look in the box
As with so many other well crafted games, there's a ton to unlock too. As well as multiple routes hidden within each level, Panzer Dragoon's 'Pandora's Box' mode contains many a treasure that real hardcore players will delight in. Each creature and world has an in-depth explanation stored in the Encyclopaedia, while the Gallery lets you check out previously encountered foe at close quarters. Later on you'll even be able to unlock subquests that allow you to play the game from the Empire's perspective, giving it a tremendous amount of replay value.
On the downside, the game is ultimately a very pretty, albeit very playable shoot 'em up, and therefore becomes repetitive very quickly. Granted, the scenery changes, the type of monster changes, but all too soon you realise that you're merely guiding a cursor around a screen, shooting, dodging, and admiring the view. It's a very pretty view, let there be no doubt, but the chances are you'll tire of doing the same thing over and over again. Also, once you've mastered the controls, it's possible to blitz through entire levels on your first go - and with only 10 levels to plough through this is the kind of game you'll have licked in a weekend.
Panzer Dragoon Orta is a beautiful game - and stands as a landmark 3D shoot 'em up; a refined, well designed and intelligent title and marks a real progression in the genre. If strategic blasting sounds like your idea of gaming nirvana then look no further. Sega's back, and about time too.