Premature Evaluation: Guardians of Orion

Though you wouldn’t necessarily expect realism from a game in which jetpacking clone soldiers do battle with a tag-team of robots and dinosaurs, Guardian’s big-name lizards are mostly creatures that co-existed at the end of the Cretacious period, rather than a best-of selected from across the dinosaurs’ 162-million-year stay on Earth. That said, the developers do find their imagination outstripping paleontological fact in the occasional creation of all new dinosaurs: one that resembles a rhino and another that can lasso the player with its tongue. But in some ways, the dinosaur mash-up is a longstanding paleontological tradition/hazard. Fake dinosaurs continue to plague the study, and though those fabricated wholesale are easy enough to identify with modern methods of analysis, it’s still sometimes hard to spot those that have been restructured or amended to create “new” species to further line the pockets of unscrupulous fossil dealers.

Each week Marsh Davies leaps from his dropship into the untamed primordial land of Early Access and unfeelingly obliterates the nascent species he finds. This week he’s turning dinosaurs to chum in Guardians of Orion, a co-op wave-survival shooter. It’s also a top-down game – which you wouldn’t necessarily guess from some of the footage used to advertise the game on its Steam Store page.

I don’t know who this Orion is but most of your time in the game is spent guarding a slow-moving hovercraft as it pootles about hoovering up crystals and inexplicably barking about pizza. Of course, as we all know, the one thing that offends dinosaurs more than the theft of crystals is unexplained developer in-jokes, and so they have, as an entire clade, put aside their differences to unleash vicious retribution upon this harvesting machine. Though you may have some sympathy with the dinosaurs here, you and up to three teammates are deployed to ensure the crops will not fail, bringing to bear your vast technological superiority, which, divided among three playable classes, includes shotguns, assault rifles, grenades, short range teleportation, invisibility, jetpacks and healing beams.

A recent New York Times article on China’s Tianyu Museum of Nature, supposedly the largest dinosaur museum in the world, quoted a Chinese paleontologist who estimated that 80 percent of marine reptile specimens in Chinese museums had been altered or artificially combined. Market forces have maligned archaeology for as long as antiquities have been sought, and perhaps one of the most widespread examples of zoological forgery was perpetrated by the Danes, who sold incredible quantities of narwhal horns to gullible nations in the 15th and 16th century under the pretext that they were unicorn horns. Elizabeth I was one such dupe. Indeed, perhaps as a smirking acknowledgment of this profitable trade, the throne chair of Denmark is itself made from narwhal horn.

Nonetheless, the dinosaurs’ numbers alone provide a challenge, and some of their famously large members – Tyrannosaurus Rex, Bertie Three Horns, Twatadillo and MegaHorse – can do you considerable harm while absorbing huge amounts of lead. This is to say nothing of their robot allies, who spit out grenades or chop you up with glowing katanas. It makes combat a frantic affair, as you use your short-range teleportation to blink out of the mosh pit while thinning the herd of fast moving enemies or concentrating fire on the major threat, all the while keeping an eye on your harvester’s health.

This is a crowded genre with many fine exemplars, however, and Guardians of Orion currently struggles to throw up the sort of split-second tactical switches which keep combat tense and interesting across successive waves. Fighting one dinosaur is much like fighting another: regardless of its size or health pool, you don’t want to get stuck in its teeth, so you dodge and blink away, chipping down its health from range. It’s a little one-note. These sorts of games benefit from abrupt changes in the flow of combat – either forced upon you by the combination of enemies you face, or resulting from a synergy of your team’s abilities. There are signs that this is what Guardians is working toward: your support class creates a healing bubble, which naturally draws players and their dino pursuers to a single point. The need to keep your harvester in good health also forces the team to refocus, and robot soldiers with range weapons defy the usual kite-n-kill tactic.

This deception was directed at aristocrats who coveted the reported mystical powers of the unicorn - an easier target, perhaps, than gulling academics in 2015. And yet, even since the advent of carbon dating, attempts have been regularly made to pull one over the archaeological world, sometimes as a gag, sometimes for fame, but mostly for money. And when going rate for a unique Persian mummy reaches 20 million dollars, perhaps it’s no surprise that such schemes stray from mere mischief to murder.

But there isn’t yet the critical mass of divergent tactics or unique threats for memorable combat anecdotes to emerge from the carnage. Indeed, some of the classes’ unique skills seem a missed opportunity in this regard. The assault trooper is easily the most versatile, with a rifle, explosive grenades and a jetpack which allows him to briefly float above enemies or reposition himself on outcrops, causing the enemy’s pathfinding AI to wig out. The shotgun-wielding support class can deploy a healing bubble or lob smoke grenades, the use of which I have yet to detect. The recon class, meanwhile, can turn invisible for a short period of time – a peculiar skill in a game entirely not about stealth. The main tactical purpose seems to be temporarily offloading enemy aggro onto your teammates, for which they are unlikely to thank you, though later upgrades can give you a significant damage boost too. She also has an EMP grenade for taking out the otherwise highly-resilient robot enemies, but since they aren’t guaranteed to turn up in any given wave, it makes her a little over-specialised.

All three classes get a short-range healing beam-gun, that they can use to patch up colleagues, or themselves, or to repair the harvester. There’s also persistent character progression – each class gains XP as you play them, allowing you to unlock portions of a skill tree – Jurassic perks, if you will. Mostly these are simple buffs, or cooldown reductions, but the highest levels offer some mechanical changes: the support’s healing bubble can be upgraded to deal damage to enemies, while the assault’s jetpack now sets creatures on fire. Though even with low level characters, the way the game graduates failure makes its challenge very manageable. You can get downed and revived rather than killed outright, but should your colleagues dawdle, or you end up being swallowed whole by a T-rex, then you’ll respawn on the dropship and traipse back to the fight within half a minute or so. The game’s only over if the dinos destroy the harvester, and even that is a two tier process: you can top up its health at any point, but once it’s downed, you have a second chance to get it all the way back to full health within a time-limit.

This may have been the case when the body of Persian princess Rhodugune was supposedly found in 2000. The Pakistani police discovered her when raiding a house, following a tip-off about an imminent blackmarket deal to sell the mummy. Immediately it was claimed as a national treasure and turned over to the National Museum of Pakistan for study - though plenty of others were in the bidding. The sarcophagus had supposedly been unearthed in the Afghani border region during an earthquake, prompting the Taliban to demand its return to them. Iran similarly laid claim, since the script on the breastplate indicated it to be the daughter of the great Persian king Xerxes. (It has always delighted me that Xerxes mother was called Atossa, incidentally.) It was perhaps particularly prized, because no previous Persian mummy had been found - its exact method of embalming thought to be exclusive to Egypt. This discovery looked set to be of huge archaeological importance. But, of course, things were not as they seemed.

It makes the game relatively lenient, even on the Insane difficulty level, as it’s rare that an entire team will be wiped in such a way that no one’s available to resurrect the harvester. I don’t mind that this shifts the achievement from simple wave completion to a score based on the number of times you died and revived, but in other ways I’m not sure the game quite knows how to modulate its challenge: the principal difference between difficulties is the number of enemies, but there’s a sweet spot in the variety and combinations of enemies that both too low or too high a difficulty misses.

There are other curiosities, too, like the prodigious quantity of purposeless shlepping. Die and your trip back from the dropship is a punitively uneventful slog across a large and visually homogenous landscape. Side missions present a similar annoyance. Popping up between waves, these are identical in every other way to a regular wave but for the fact that the dinosaurs are clustered over the other side of the map and seem to have abandoned any interest in your harvester, forcing you to jog over, sometimes for minutes, kill them and then jog all the way back.

An American archaeologist came forward to reveal that he had been approached about the purchase of very similar mummy the year before, only to discover via carbon dating that the fragment of the sarcophagus he had been sent in advance was no more than 250 years old. Further oddities revealed themselves: the organs had been completely removed, whereas the Egyptian tradition left the heart inside; the Persian script contained grammatical errors; and dating quickly proved that the body was only a few years old. The woman, of around 20-25, had been killed by blunt force trauma to the neck - raising the notion that she might have been murdered specifically for the purpose of providing the forgers with a likely corpse. In any case, her origin and possible murder remains unsolved and the would-be-princess has since been re-interred. More worrying still was that shortly after the autopsy concluded, a further two mummies of supposed Persian origin were offered for sale, suggesting a murderous production line at worst or grave robbing at best. Hopefully the swift debunking of these claims will bring an end to such a grisly trade - I'd hate to see the throne made in honour of that.

The three available environments and one game mode do not seem overly generous given the price of this Early Access release – and this will only rise as the game’s content swells as it heads towards its December 2016 release date. That said, I’m not sure more stuff is as important a distinguishing feature within this busy genre so much as a considered and honed interaction between the existing elements, creating distinct emergent spectacle and interesting avenues for cooperation. Without that, Guardians of Orion risks feeling prehistoric in the one way it doesn’t intend.

Guardians of Orion is available from Steam for £13.50. I played version 1.0.1 on 04/12/2015.

10 Comments

  1. Zach Fett says:

    You didn’t mention this is made by the Orion: Prelude team, and I’d imagine it’s called “Guardians of Orion” because if I recall correctly the planet you spend time on in Prelude is called Orion.

    I loved Orion: Prelude, wasn’t aware a new game by the devs was coming out, so I’ll have to check this out. I bought Prelude when it first came out as Orion: Dino Beatdown, it was pretty damn glitchy. But the devs stuck with it, dropped the price immensely (a dollar!) and kept working on it. It’s a fun arcade-y dino shooter.

    • Zach Fett says:

      Also it looks like they’re planning to add a third person view, according to the store page. That’d be nice! I prefer that over top down.

    • Zach Fett says:

      Damn you RPS for not having an edit button. It looks like if you own Orion: Prelude you get 50% odd this new game, so if you’re considering buying this just grab Prelude for a dollar and you’ll save $10 once you buy Guardians of Orion.

    • Badgercommander says:

      It’s worth googling David Prassel, the guy in charge of the troubled Orion series. I’ll certainly never give him any money after all the dodgy stuff he’s pulled.

  2. Mario Figueiredo says:

    For the life of me I can’t figure out the title picture. It looks like a T. Rex with a bulbous head and nose with some armoured guy legs sticking out of his mouth and an electrical front claw. What da!…

    • Zach Fett says:

      Looks like a shot of the T-Rex eating up a guy. Pretty sure the “electric claw” is one of those power-up orbs enemies drop.

      However I like the idea of a T-Rex with electrical claws.

  3. gforgrenade says:

    Really enjoyed the hidden essay.

  4. Darth Gangrel says:

    From watching the movie 300, Xerxes always seemed like a son of a tosser and the alt-text confirms that.

  5. Shadow says:

    “Guardians of Orion” sounds like a Master of Orion spin-off, possibly dealing with the ancient war between the Orions and Antarans. The Guardian (or Guardians, in MoO3) was the protector of the Orion homeworld, after all.

    Anyway.

  6. Bishop149 says:

    [More or less ignores game review to read the alt-text]. . . .