You have to hand it to recently formed Norwegian developer 4Bit Games; getting your first title straight onto the Xbox One store is no small achievement, especially when your company had no prior games industry experience. Orbit is a retro-styled space brawler which combines the intensity of four-player multiplayer battles with the intricacies of navigating space flight, whilst avoiding incoming asteroids and working with or against the gravity of celestial bodies.
Each player controls a small spaceship, initially armed with a basic rocket attack. However, each ship has limited power and must store up energy to shoot or expend it by firing thrusters in order to get out of harm's way. Thus the delicate balance of charging missiles and evading attacks begins, with each craft alternating offensive and defensive strategies in order to survive and emerge victorious. In tournament multiplayer, there is an opportunity to select from a range of upgrades between rounds, unlocking special attacks, greater defence, and speed boosts which will often be the deciding factor between victory and defeat.
Battle takes place on a two-dimensional circular field which features a large sun in the middle and varying numbers of planets and meteors in orbit. Each body on the map exerts varying degrees of gravitational pull on the other artefacts on the screen, drawing ships and projectiles to their death in quick order. The trick is working with the gravity to transform the chaos of space into a dance of rotating rockets and spacecraft. At first, habit will have you shooting directly at your opponents and inevitably repeatedly destroying yourself by hitting rocks, planets and asteroids. For the first twenty minutes or so, you'll most likely be flying into the sun over and over but suddenly, something just clicks, and then, like the Rich Purnell manoeuvre in The Martian, you'll be using the planet's gravity to slingshot yourself or your bullets in beautiful well-formed arcs and sending destruction the way of your enemies. Add to that the inclusion of worm holes and special planet types - which will cause objects to ricochet wildly around the screen - and you have a recipe for multiplayer chaos.
The graphics are incredibly simple, with suns and planets represented by white circles on black backgrounds and spaceships rendered as simple sprites in one of four colours. Rockets shoot like fireworks in a cascade of red, yellow, blue or green sparkles and when combined with the suitably laid back dubstep soundtrack, the whole experience ushers in a zen-like calm reminiscent of FantaVision on the Playstation 2. No sooner have you embraced this than you'll be flung into a nearby asteroid or blindsided by an errant rocket from your foes however, so one must keep their wits about them at all times and not fall into Orbit's attempts at generating a false sense of security.
There are three game types available – Tournament, Mayhem and Forge, all of which are competitive and all of which require two to four local multiplayer participants. There are no AI opponents available and there is no online multiplayer unfortunately, so you'll only be able to play when you can convince others to join you. Tournament allows spaceships to be upgraded between rounds, Mayhem features baffling, short-lived mini-games, and Forge promises to let the player create their own maps, but unfortunately, this boils down to simply picking the number and size of planets, their speed, and the amount of gravity they exert. One can't help but feel that the addition of a single player mode or some kind of AI opponents would have been a better use of the developer's time than the inclusion of three almost identical multiplayer modes.
The differences between the modes are minimal as each one breaks down to winning a set number of matches by meeting differing objectives – Kill, Survive and Capture make their goals clear in their names, which is useful as no real guidance is given within the game.
Each goal type will cater to different play styles which adds to Orbit's accessibility - Kill is a straight up fight to the death, with only player kills counting towards the total so beginners can take their time getting to grips with the flight controls. Survive throws asteroids and meteors into the mix and becomes more about maneuvering within your environment, shooting down obstacles whilst weaving in and out of danger. Finally, Capture tasks the player with establishing a brief orbit of a chosen planet or sun in order to take control of it, using everything the player has learned about controlling their craft and working with gravity.
The unfortunate truth of Orbit is that it's a well built, incredibly fun title that you'll rarely be able to play. It's best enjoyed by three to four players as this will crank up the chaos and avoid the lulls that often occur in two player when both fall into a rhythm of repeatedly smashing themselves into the sun. Alone, the player can only view the tutorial and dream of all the fun they could be having if they had three extra controllers and three people who wanted to engage in beautifully designed space warfare. Once you gather these resources however, you'll have a blast!