Friday, May 11, 2012

ORION: Dino Beatdown Review

ORION: Dino Beatdown, developed and published by Spiral Game Studios.
The Good: Tumultuous cooperative class-based survival, decent selection of class unrestricted weapons and vehicles, upgrades isolated to a single game, $10
The Not So Good: Light on content (for now) means repetition, poor game difficulty balance due to overly expensive weaponry, no allies in offline mode, inconsistent dino AI, repugnant voice acting, recycled map design, some rough edges
What say you? A frivolous, chaotic, inexpensive cooperative shooter in need of more dinosaurs and other assorted improvements: 4/8

Jetpacks. Dinosaurs. Need I say more?

ORION: Dino Beatdown features excellent dinosaur models and terrain, and below average everything else. First off, the models and textures for the three dinosaurs in the game are done well and look great in screenshots. However, dinosaurs exhibit abrupt changes into canned animations that lack realism. Dinosaur damage is also disappointing: just spats of blood and falling over (though the ragdoll physics can be entertaining). The solider models don’t exhibit the same level of detail as the dinosaurs, with slightly lower-resolution texture work and basically the same rough animations. Firing weapons involves quick animations that aren’t as satisfying as in other shooters as well. The map terrain looks great, especially rocky mountains, but each map tends to follow the same basic design mode (narrow canyons separating the bases) with different lighting and ground textures. In addition, dinosaurs occasionally clip through game objects and the player (players can also occasionally pass harmlessly through vehicles); seeing a dinosaur head floating in a wall breaks some of the game’s immersion. Being picked up by the flying dinosaur also looks wrong. Despite some areas that could use improvement, the texturing buoys the graphical side of ORION: Dino Beatdown. The sound design is less impressive, with basic effects for weapons and dinosaurs (whom don’t growl as often as I would like). Even worse is the annoying and constant voice acting, which spouts an unfunny quip after every kill. The music is inoffensive and generic, although I will admit that some of the themes were memorable enough to get stuck in my head for several days. I think that ORION: Dino Beatdown delivers an acceptable presentation for the $10 price tag but definitely has room for improvement.

ORION: Dino Beatdown is designed as a cooperative game to play online, but there is a single player practice mode to acclimate you with the game. However, there are no AI helpers to play with, and the game is really balanced for a full five-person squad: the number of dinosaurs does not scale according to the number of players, so a team of two has to contend with the same number of enemies as a team of five that has two-and-a-half times more firepower. There is a difficulty setting provided that adjusts the rate of income and dinosaur spawn counts, but generally single player should be avoided once the basic controls and mechanics are learned. ORION: Dino Beatdown features three maps that all have the same general layout: hilly, narrow pathways between mountains separate five bases. This means the desert, night forest, and grassland biomes all play out the same. There are some hidden areas to find and the occasional dinosaur between bases, but exploration is a small part of the game thanks to the restrictive pathways. Joining a game is made more difficult thanks to the somewhat buggy server browser (although it isn't as bad as before the patch). While the server browser finds servers quickly, it does have a couple of problems. First, the server player count is incorrect (although not as bad as before the patch, where it said all the servers were full) and you can’t sort the server list by ping. Sometimes the server list does not refresh when the appropriate button is pressed (usually after joining and leaving a match). You also cannot see the other players’ classes when you join a sever (the “TAB” scoreboard is disabled initially), so you have no idea if everyone else is playing recon and you should pick something else to help out the team. As more evidence of the uneven nature of the game, when transitioning from the main menu, some random person's Steam ID replaces your own as it scrolls away; I bet its a developer and someone screen-captured the main menu and made an animation out of it. Also, loading screen hints sometimes have punctuation displayed as empty boxes. So ORION: Dino Beatdown has some areas in need of attention.

Your objective: clear five waves of dinosaurs at each of the five bases. You start at a random base (all of them have the same components in a different layout), and once all of the dinosaurs are destroyed, you move out to the next base of your choosing. The HUD is useful to get your bearings (bring it up using the “F” key) by displaying base locations and buildings, but needlessly obscures your view. Each base has a barracks where you respawn and can purchase character upgrades, a garage for vehicle buying, and an armory for weapon resupply, purchases, and upgrades. There is also a generator that needs to be active for any of those things to work (reminiscent of the Tribes series of games); the dinosaurs love to attack it (must be its shiny green hue), so it must be repaired often (using the recon soldier’s EMP grenade is the fastest method).

ORION: Dino Beatdown features three soldier classes, each with specific advantages and disadvantages. The assault class gets a jetpack, which allows for easy escape and dino sniping from hard-to-reach areas. The recon class (fast becoming my favorite) gets the cloaking ability, and the support class gets a medical gun for healing allies (and yourself). Each class also gets their own grenade type (frag, EMP, and smoke, respectively) and ability upgrade (jetpack hover, ninja (faster cloaked movement), and engineer (repair vehicles)). Credits earned during a game by killing dinosaurs can be spent on weapons and upgrades. Thankfully, credits are not persistent, so you don’t have to spend weeks grinding through the game to unlock a shiny new rifle. Another good thing: any class can unlock any weapon, and since you start out with pistols (the support class gets a marginally better shotgun), you’ll need more powerful weaponry to deal with multiple T-Rexes roaming across the landscape. You can choose between a submachine gun, assault rifle, sniper rifle, light machine gun, rocket launcher, high damage energy carbine, or a laser rifle. Some weapons come with a firing mode selector (the “H” key) and a zooming capability, but you must hold down the zoom control (the right mouse button) continuously as the game lacks a toggled option. Four vehicles are also available for purchase: a hover bike, combat jeep, mech (with extremely useful missiles), and VTOL aircraft. While ORION: Dino Beatdown doesn’t have a super large collection of weapons and vehicles, all of the basic types are included to support a variety of tactics.

Unfortunately, weapons (and vehicles) are very expensive, usually requiring survival across two or three waves to purchase the lowest quality rifles; the best weapons and vehicles require survival basically through all five base waves, which is impossible using the starting pistols you are given. Fighting multiple T-Rexes with a pistol is, frankly, a bunch of crap and a waste of time: the only viable tactic is to hide in a building and pop out to take a couple of shots, which is extremely tedious and not fun in any way. While the server can alter the initial cash value, death is common within the first couple of waves simply because you lack the firepower needed for success. It can take hundreds to thousands of bullets to take down one T-Rex, let alone three at a time (animals routinely wander in to the base that are not part of the scripted wave). Even more insulting is the fact that you lose your expensive weapon when you die (you can respawn after a round is finished by your allies), adding more salt to the wound. There is also not enough downtime between waves to purchase items, so you will routinely attempt to interact with the upgrade kiosk while getting bitten in the rear by a velociraptor. In addition to buying new weapons, you can upgrade their capabilities (increased damage, rate of fire, ammunition, or faster reload time) for a price. In addition, you can upgrade your character with additional strength, armor, or agility values. While ORION: Dino Beatdown does provide several upgrade options through weapons, vehicles, and upgrades, they are expensive enough where you’ll only be able to afford a couple (if you make it that far).

Ironically, the content that ORION: Dino Beatdown lacks the most is dinosaur variety. The game only ships with three scaly enemies to contend with, each exhibiting specific behavior. First, the raptors are the small, fast dinosaurs that are only a problem if they pin you in a corner. Second, the Rhamphorhynchus (they couldn't just say “Pterodon”?) is a flying creature that picks you up, which might actually be good when being attacked by other dinosaurs. However, they cause damage when you are in their clutches, so you should hammer the melee key (“V”) to get dropped as soon as possible. The T-Rex is just a big freaking tank that throws rocks (instantly killing you) and topples vehicles. The best tactic is to hide in a building (preferably the armory, where you can heal, resupply, and purchase new weapons): only raptors can attack you, as T-Rexes will only clip through the walls and the flying ones can’t swoop down. Cloaking works well against dinosaurs, since they will only track you if they can see you. Using the jetpack also works, giving you access to cliffs and roofs to shoot from. Only the support class is out of luck when it comes to quick dinosaur avoidance, so he must be protected by members of the other two classes. The free vehicles provided make attacking raptors a lot easier, but since T-Rex will flip them over and the flying pterodon will snatch you out of the gunner’s seat, they are not an option unless you have a competent, fast driver.

The dinosaur AI isn’t very strong, as it exhibits some questionable behaviors. I realize the enemy consists of “dumb lizards”, but more should be expected. Exhibited behavior includes missing jumps, completely ignoring soldiers, getting stuck on trees, rocks, and buildings, and colliding into each other (especially the flying ones). Dinosaurs will, by default, simply run straight towards the generator or the person that is shooting them, sometimes moving in a crisscrossing pattern for no discernible reason. ORION: Dino Beatdown works best when lots of dinosaurs are present and their behaviors aren’t quite as obvious, since you’re too busy scrambling to shoot them.

Considering all of the complaints I have levied against the game, ORION: Dino Beatdown is fun if you have a coordinated team consisting of several upgraded classes with non-basic weapons: an assault soldier in a mech, a recon with a rocket launcher repairing the generator, another assault soldier using the jetpack and energy carbine to distract the tougher enemies, a recon sniper up on a hill, and a support soldier healing everyone while piloting a VTOL plane makes for satisfying team-based gameplay. But the combination of powerful dinosaurs and expensive weapons makes ORION: Dino Beatdown too difficult, and most groups simply won’t advance far enough to unlock all of those items.

The first issue with ORION: Dino Beatdown is the lack of content, which the pre-release videos promise will be expanded for free following release. Still, having only three dinosaurs (ironically the most significant limitation, given the game's title) and three classes means gameplay becomes repetitive quickly. That said, the action is so fast paced that you might be too busy shooting numerous giant lizards to care. The fast, plentiful raptor, gigantic, hulking T-Rex, and annoying, flying however-you-say-it all offer different challenges that work well together overwhelming uncoordinated human players. The dinosaur AI is pretty simplistic: the raptors go straight for the generator, sometimes ignoring you along the way, the T-Rex loves to topple vehicles, and the Rhamphorhynchus picks you up at the earliest convenience. The solider classes work well in concert: the jetpack-equipped assault and camouflaging recon soldiers can avoid contact, while the support soldier heals everyone back up. Points earned by killing dinosaurs and clearing levels can be spent on a nice variety of new weapons and vehicles, and upgrades only carry over for a single game (so you don't have to grind for a month to unlock one assault rifle). I also really like that the unlockable weapons are not class-specific, but I wish that everything wasn't so darn expensive on the default settings: forcing each player to fend off multiple T-Rex attacks using only pistols makes the game unfairly difficult and downright frustrating (made even more so by losing your expensive weapons when you die). ORION: Dino Beatdown could have greatly benefited from better balance that would offer chaotic gameplay without taking ten minutes to shoot down one T-Rex using a pistol. The base defending objectives (and encountering the same three dinosaurs repeatedly) can get monotonous after a while, although frequent episodes of constant action make this less of an issue. The environment graphics are dinosaur models are both excellent, although some clipping problems detract from the experience. And turn off the commentary the first time you boot the game; you’ll thank me later. In the end, ORION: Dino Beatdown online could be a riotous, hectic fight against gigantic dinosaurs, offering some fun for $10, if you look past the content shortcomings, unwarranted difficulty, and a handful of technical issues.