Early Access Investigations: Guardians of Orion

Dinosaurs, robots, dropships, phase-blinking, bubble shields; if there is one word to describe Guardians of Orion, it'd be 'enthusiastic'. Though, I just learned of a future update involving dragons, so perhaps 'balls-out' or 'kitchen sink' is more apt.

The successor to Orion: Prelude, a rags-to-riches story in its own right, Guardians of Orion continues the cooperative crusade against all of prehistoria from a top-down perspective. Freshly released on Steam Early Access, David Prassel and friends are looking to capitalize on the goodwill they kindled from the re-release of Prelude. It goes without saying that we've only just set out on the weird, wild path to full release, and while I've got plenty of reservations, Guardians of Orion could be something special if handled with conservative care.

I'm not sure why we're here, but we're here. Currently, Guardians of Orion has players traipse around behind an automated harvester, fending off saurian attackers and robot marauders. Up to four players can answer the call, and four seems a good number when confronted with some of the larger bosses that filter in between waves. Players choice between a number of classes, each with their own array of weapons and skills. All share the ability to commando roll and instantly blink short distances, hover via jump-pack and sprint when needed. Bases are covered. 

It's a tough year if you're a top-down shooter, following in the bootprints of isometric masterpiece Helldivers. The purposeful, well-animated feedback of merely moving and shooting has set the bar against which all else will be measured. As such, Guardians of Orion comes up somewhat short. Weapons don't yet register a sufficient amount of feedback. There's a tackiness to the controls, a sort of lightweight disposability that needs to be anchored by slowing the character down or tuning the animation. 

At this early stage, a lack of fidelity permeates much of the game. The player characters don't feel connected to the landscape, skating on limited strafing animation axes. Painting targets feels languid and imprecise on controller, making mouse and keyboard the best option right now. It just feels a little disjointed. Moreover, there's a busyness to the maps that, in place of adding character, feels haphazard and lacking purpose. The minimap makes it hard to discern the topography, whether a specific globule is depicting impassable terrain or merely representing a change in ground texture. Each of the gameworld's maps offer different climate zones, but the ingredients remain largely the same. These are not irredeemable elements, but loom a little large.

Let me make it clear that this is not a concrete comparison between finished and unfinished titles, that money is better spent elsewhere. Not at all the case. I'm arguing that Guardians of Orion is in such good company, it would be a shame to see Trek Industries not borrow from its peers. To craft the kind of exuberant craziness that it they want, with the necessary core mechanics it needs. 

I would like to see a toning down of the graphical busyness. For a top-down shooter to work, visibility of space is a must. There shouldn't be so much grass, be it jungle or tundra, if developers want to continue with the high viewing angle and smaller grades of enemies. Cleaner textures, less noise. Dinosaurs need to either be bigger, in the case of theropods, or made distinct against the landscape. I could understand if this were a first-person shooter and the terrain itself imposes a more physical threat in camouflaging foes, but ascertaining targets should be secondary to dealing with numbers in a game like this. 

It should be interesting to see if and how the animation changes between now and release. There's room for a few more frames to convey a better sense of movement. More fidelity in strafing. A little more bob-to-footfall in running. Bigger gun assets and flashier firing effects to help illustrate degree of targeting. More impact. More bounce.

This must read like a proper shellacking. And it is. Because I damn well believe Trek Industries have something special here. Tech trees for each guardian class. A frenetic, target-rich world. Freaking dinosaurs and robots, for crying out loud. My fear is that, with each update, they're promising more and more and might bite off more than they can chew or fail to capitalise on. A third-person camera mode has now been greenlit for 2016. Dragons, a new boss enemy. What they should be doing is spit-shining the hell out of the base mechanics before offering game-changers like toggling third-person modes.

At the moment, the title feels like a proof of concept. It has solid net code, even on paltry drip-feed ADSL connections, sports very few technical hitches and scales marvelously.

My hope is that Guardians of Orion doesn't dilute a strong vision in favour of promising the moon to an over-excited community. The last thing the team needs is another Orion: Prelude debacle.  

Hold firm, get the basics right, you'll be a clever girl yet.