Orbital Racer adds a twist rarely seen in the sci-fi racing genre. When gaming journalists describe a game as a zero-g racer, we think of WipeOut type games. Something more akin to podracing. However, with Orbital Racer, things couldn’t get any more zero-g. There is no road. Only our HUD to explain where the next hoop is. As a result, the player must master the in game science of speed, momentum and turning physics to get the upper hand.
Orbital Racer is available for purchase exclusively for the PC, now on Steam.
When Orbital Racer first loads up and we are greeted with its menu screen, the game’s presentation is one of sleekness. It’s clear to see that extra care has gone into how the player experiences their journey from the initial menu all the way to the beeping “get ready” horns at the start of a race. This is largely in thanks to the sharp presentation and no-nonsense nature of the game’s menus. Throughout the game as a whole, we see a defined sharpness to everything from ship previews and floating features in space in a such a way that is never captured on consoles.
At the start of a career, we’ll learn that Orbital Racer is subtly all about the passing of time. Unlike most racers, we can’t simply highlight an event and jump right in. If we want to do something on Mars, for example, we need to check the time of that event and whether we can travel there in time. While this may seem like a hindrance to classic gaming conventions, there is also a “Closest Event” option that will allow us to jump right into the action. That aside, a player understanding of travel time across the solar system will become essential to make it to those all important tournament events. It all adds a subtle layer of realism that allows Pawel Dywelski to call his game a simulator.
With all of this in play, Orbital Racer could have used the smallest of additions. Some sense of player progress would have been great as our only indicator after each set of races is how much money we have. Each race finishes with a display of who placed where but there’s never anything to say “this has been unlocked” or “it would be a good idea to go here next”. What this results in is a kind of everything-is-open-to-you-now, open ended gameplay that some players may find jarring to the point of apathy.
All of this emphasis on real world (or space!) physics carries over to the handling of your spacecraft, of which there are three variants to choose from. As you fly from checkpoint to checkpoint, either in third person or from within the cockpit, your game will be all about nailing the perfect drift through each of them. What better place to drift than in space?
This kind of handling is a refreshing change from normal racers as there is an expectation to start turning in anticipation of the next checkpoint long before reaching the current one. It’s a kind of planning ahead thought process I’ve not encountered in racing before now. Getting the technique right is not too hard from the outset, but performing it with efficiency and prowess from race to race is undeniably satisfying. It’s also oddly therapeutic.
That’s not to say Orbital Racer isn’t without its issues. In the earlier races, where your A.I competitors tend to be easier to beat, you’ll likely come first. As a result, for the next round, you’ll start in first position. Oddly, your thrusters are not quite as efficient from the get go as these A.I ships. This results in getting knocked around a little at the start; a kind of backhanded punishment for doing so well in the first round resulting in your view bouncing around, frustratingly – away from the target of the next checkpoint. I found myself often waiting for competitors to race ahead (above or below me) only so I could get a clear racing line through them and back to first position.
That’s just the thing – I don’t think the game would suffer too badly if it allowed racers to clip through one another. If you’re on a challenging race you’ll be in amongst them for a lot of it, resulting in some messy knocking about of ships. It all adds damage, opening you up for the next hit from a rocket or EMP mine. That’s right! You can get your own back with a suite of upgrades, unlockable for every three checkpoints you pass. Admittedly this was an interesting way of implementing powerups that absolutely adds a layer of tactics to every race. The more money you earn throughout the career, the more powerups can be awarded, ranging from a boost in speed to a frag mine. Timing when using these is everything.
For the hardcore space racers out there, Orbital Racer also offers a tougher challenge in handling. Action mode offers the easy to pick up and play kind of mechanics I’ve mentioned so far. But simulation mode serves up a stronger emphasis on the aforementioned physics. It’ll all play into how your ship handles up there in the void of space and a new learning curve be enabled for those seeking a bigger challenge. Yet there is one overriding issue that lies in wait within Orbital Racer that deeply affects the overall score of this review…
To cut a long story short, if you’re serious about career mode in this game, you’ll need to window Orbital Racer and never turn off your PC! A bug within the game, at the time of reviewing meant that I had to do this to delve deeper into Orbital Racer’s career. It reminds me of the time I got a PS2 with no memory cards, so my beloved playthrough of Beyond Good & Evil had to be all in one session (as far as the PlayStation 2 was concerned) or I’d have to start all over again. So what’s going on here? After leaving career mode for the first time and coming back, the tail end of the load screen would welcome me with… nothing. I’d get a fixed screenshot of the last race track I’d played and that was that. I walked away, thinking it was a veiled load screen, made a cup of tea… I pressed all the buttons on my controller and still, nothing. Frustratingly, a mouse cursor was live on the screen so Orbital Racer hadn’t technically crashed per se. It was just… stuck. I tried this several times and yes, it was a recurring problem. A big, big problem for an entertainment product available on the market today.
Graphics and Sound
For a game developed by the singular Pawel Dywelski, as listed on Steam, I admit I’m impressed. Orbital Racer is built off the Unity engine. It’s worth bearing in mind the sheer flexibility of the Unity Engine when we consider the spectrum ranging from the cartoon-ish Firewatch all the way to the photorealistic Layers of Fear. For a graphics suite to offer that kind of range in visuals, it’s clear to see that building an entire game with it on your own is no small task. Orbital Racer leans more toward the Layers of Fear side of the spectrum with the aforementioned sharpness. I played on full settings and it’s fair to say that Orbital Racer had its moments of beauty. The poised quiet of space punctuated with subtle lighting effects and asteroid particles is a kind of imagery I’ll not soon forget. There are even lightly rendered reflections on the inside of your cockpit’s glass as other ships pass by!
Sound design on the other hand, could use a little love. The sound effect for target locking, by default, is too loud and delivers a high pitched beep piercing into your ears suddenly. I would suggest that an overall soundtrack is lacking but hey, this is just one man. Pawel has already impressed me so, for anyone to ask for more than the couple of tracks we hear throughout would be a bit much.
Orbital Racer is clearly a labour of love. It has been designed by someone with a desire to deliver something that offers something different to the community of racing gamers. That love shines through in many aspects of Orbital Racer. From the ability to rev the game up into simulation mode to clearly presented spacecrafts and all their finer details. Race tracks, while being suspended invisible loops of spaghetti in space, are fun to navigate and tactical gameplay is layered on top for good measure. It’s just a shame that this reviewer had to keep his PC on just to keep going.
+ A beautifully rendered game
– Ships always bounce off each other
+ Handling is perfect
– Nearly game breaking bug in career mode
+ Extra challenge for those who want it
– A few jarring sound effects