“Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”
I’ve got vivid memories of playing the biplane bits in Diddy Kong Racing and chatting with mates about a dedicated racing game based on flying. We’d always wonder why no one made them: a Wipeout that’s more off the rails, or a Starfox with slalom gates. It was up there with “why don’t they sell blackcurrant lemonade in the shops?”. We just couldn’t understand it.
Thank you, Orbital Racer, for showing us that teenagers shouldn’t necessarily design video games. It gives a clear demonstration of why 6DOF racing games have critical issues, and why most of them have probably died a horrible death at prototyping and testing stages.
In Orbital Racer you fly spaceships which don’t look too dissimilar from top-end drones, although your character is presumably in there somewhere, driving the thing. You start a race with eleven others, and you’re off, aiming for the next red ring. Then repeat, until four laps have been cleared and you have a winner.
In pure racing terms, Orbital Racer is challenging to get to grips with, but you can become a dab-hand. The game’s write-up says that it has ‘plausible thruster forces’, but we’ll have to take their word for it: there’s a huge amount of drift at play, presumably because there’s a lack of air resistance in deep space, and you are swinging through checkpoints, rather than hitting them straight on. The best racers are facing the next checkpoint before they’ve passed through the previous one, which is initially arse-about-face, but becomes second nature.
You get handed homing missiles after a certain number of successful checkpoints, which will lock on, carve into opponents’ health bars, and send them spiralling off course, while your opponents can do the same. Decoys can be pooped out to distract the missiles, but it’s effectively a roll of the dice to see if they’ve worked. After a few races you might well accumulate enough credits for mines and EMP missiles to mix things up.
At least in the first hour of Orbital Racer, you’ll experience one of the clear reasons why ‘tracks’ are fundamental to a good racing game: they’re pretty darn good at telling you where you should be going. When you’ve got an entire 3D view to scan for the next checkpoint, it becomes incredibly important that the next direction is clear. Unfortunately, while Orbital Racer does it’s damnedest to solve the issue, it still comes up short.
You get two arrows on your HUD, one pointing to your checkpoint, and one to the checkpoint that follows. On each ring, you also have a green light which gives an indication of where the next ring might be. The developers clearly know that orientation is an issue, and have chucked flashing lights at the problem to solve it. The problem is that these flashing lights are either bugged or aren’t helpful enough; there are too many flashing lights competing for your attention, and things like your dashboard overlay on top of them. We lost count with how many times we’d overshoot a checkpoint through no real fault of our own, and there were few opportunities to get back to the front.
It’s something you can get used to. With persistence and repetition, plus some welcome accessibility options that allow you to tweak the flashing lights, you can get somewhere close to functional as you learn the routes, and get into the rhythm of scanning for the next checkpoint.
A bigger problem is that there’s no racing strategy when every track is a series of straight lines. When you have no chicanes or hairpins to follow, you are playing a game of point-your-nose-at-the-checkpoint. Find the checkpoint, race to it, and then find the next one. Over and over and over. It’s an interstellar dot-to-dot.
It’s not helped by Orbital Racer having almost zero personality. It’s an iPhone if an iPhone was a racer: all white slickness and sheen, but without any colour or character. It all comes back to the lack of track again. In the emptiness of space, without any billboards, crowds and backgrounds, every track feels identical. You might get a red hue if you’re lucky, because ‘Mars’, or a blue hue, because ‘Earth’, but it’s the same stars, space structures, floating ships and chunks of rock. There are some small attempts at creating interest, as you fly through an asteroid or a Halo-like space structure, but it’s skimpy dressing on samey gameplay. And without landmarks, the orientation issues become more prominent.
The developers double down on the lack of personality by forcing you round each course for four laps, and then requiring you to do it all over again another three times, just with a slightly different checkpoint arrangement. These are what constitute a grand prix in Orbital Racer’s world, and the repetition will grind you into space dust. It’s a crazy design choice, and you’ll be long-done with each course by the time you get on the podium and collect your sponsor’s cheques.
To make things worse, you get a pittance from completing each set of races, so you’ll need to grind away to get the mods you need. While there are eight different planets and twenty-four tracks, they’re as generic as each other, so the repetition drills into your soul and makes a nice little home there. There’s nothing worse than looking at your upcoming race calendar and realising that your future has three more runs on the very same course. You could avoid them, but then you’d drop down the global standings.
The Campaign, with a full calendar of events, the ability to mod out your ship and buy other ships, as well as attracting sponsors, shows that there’s huge potential in Orbital Racer. It has depth and care, and if Orbital Racer was more fun, then it would have done a job and supported it well. There are other modes too, with the Single Race mode allowing you to configure the laps and number of races to dial down the tedium, but removing the cool ‘career mode’ scaffolding as a compromise. Multiplayer is a two-player face off and pretty decent, but the repetition across tracks is just as problematic as with the rest of the game.
We wondered whether a space-sim could be hammered into the shape of a racer, and Orbital Racer on the Xbox gave us an emphatic answer: no, it can’t. Without physical tracks you’ve got no sense of direction, speed, or points of interest. You get desperate for a chicane, a pit stop, anything to enliven the chugging space tour. All that’s left is a series of space checkpoints, and it’s as fun as sitting on the Number 10 to the town centre, stopping at bus stops over and over and over. Wipeout can probably sleep easy.