I spend a lot of time moping around, mourning the death of traditional RTSs after everyone else has gone off to play some dumb MOBA. I can’t even muster the energy to rail against MOBAs, because I’m too busy being dejected that Starcraft online would just be a string of humiliating defeats. I’m a lot fun at parties. At least it keeps me busy. Mourning the death of traditional RTSs is a full time job.
But sometimes I get a vacation. Sometimes something like Infested Planet, Tooth and Tail, or Offworld Trading Company comes along and brings me a little joy. Today is one such day.
Worbital’s name isn’t doing it any favors. I can appreciate the developer’s dilemma. They need a name for a game about planets shooting giant guns at each other, but it has to be a name that doesn’t imply one of the hundreds of half-assed indie fly/fight/trade space games. So they can’t very well go with Orbital War. Instead, they flipped the words and mashed them together. Instead, they called their game Worbital to imply a goofily self-aware game about planets shooting giant guns at each other. It’ll have to do.
I suppose the name fits. Imagine booting up an RTS and each player gets a planet orbiting a sun on a flat 2D plane. Each planet is eight pie slices — fewer if you end up with a smaller planet — on which something can be built. Usually a giant gun of varying sorts. Maybe a defensive shield. Eventually a pilotable rocket or colony pod or some sort of impossibly humongous planet buster. Sometimes just a refinery to make more money or a nuclear plant to reload your guns faster. There are enough choices that Worbital has three factions with some unique stuff. It furthermore lets you customize your loadout once you’ve unlocked some of the cooler weapons and abilities. If you like having to decide whether to bring the railgun or the MIRV for this particular battle, Worbital is happy to oblige you. If you like wondering what type of endgame stalemate breaker to pack for the trip, Worbital will let you ponder the options. Eventually. You’ve got some unlocking to do first.
The campaign is a set of missions you can freely play, and you can skip the cutscenes if you don’t want to watch cartoon space people trying to be funny. The actual missions are kind of puzzles, built to flex the various ways to play and fight. But for me, Worbital is all about the skirmishes, either against the AI and/or friends, in teams or free-for-alls, with a ridiculous amount of adjustable parameters for whatever kind of match you want to play. Do you have opinions about how fast a planet should turn, how much space junk it should spit out when it dies, and how long it takes before the sun implodes into the Gotterdammerung equivalent of overtime? All the while, you’re unlocking stuff. More guns coming up! More options on the way!
There’s something languid about shooting your giant guns while your planet lazily traces its orbit. If you don’t have a clear shot at enemy planets, you can smash other planets for money. Juicy little moons are particularly lucrative. Be sure to save up your shots for the intimately close flybys with another player. A lot of Worbital is timing.
The interface is pretty remarkable, with tons of information and ways to manage your planet, from hotkeys to a diagram in the corner of the screen, to rightclick menus, to just click on the map. To shoot the other planets, Worbital doesn’t expect you to do too much guessing when it comes to threading your way among the lazily revolving gravity wells of your solar system. Every shot counts, so a targeting line shows where your shots will go. Just move the mouse cursor around the screen to adjust trajectory and shot power. The targeting line adjusts in real time. Lobbing interplanetary firepower is as easy as could be.
But there’s another level of skill involved in Worbital, which involves more active participation and more careful timing. It takes that most precious of RTS resources: your attention. Ideally, you’ll want to focus damage on a specific part of another player’s planet. I mean, sure, you’ll eventually chew away the outer layers and start landing shots on his juicy molten core, leading to a fatal chain reaction. But it’s better to actually shut him down by targeting specific things he’s built. Unfortunately, one of the biggest obstacles to playing Worbital well is Worbital itself. It provides ample information for the stuff on your planet that you’ve built, but it’s totally mum on the stuff on the other guy’s planet. What are those purple shots he’s firing? What are those green towers? What are those blue energy balls? What is that squat round building? Worbital all but tells you to mind your own business. You will find no equal opportunity tooltips here.
The other part of playing well is playing defensively, and this is where Worbital’s claim to real-time strategy has to cede a little ground to arcade action. Being defensive in Worbital often means actively triggering defenses, whether it’s temporary shields, magnetic repulsors, or short-range defensive gunfire. You can play Worbital as a slugfest where you and the other planets punch each other until cores start detonating. But if you take the time to look a little deeper, you’ll find a clever interplay of countermeasures, counter-counter measures, and endgame trumps. This is a far smarter game than you might realize at first, but you might not appreciate that until you start unlocking the advanced doo-dads for each of the three factions.
My favorite thing about Worbital is its absurd Tex Avery quality, with all its back-and-forth artillery whacking and laser shooting and rocket flying and planet thrashing, like the science fiction version of a wolf with a skillet trading blows with a pig with a mallet. It’s a cartoon colorful version of that ancient French movie where a rocket ship gets stuck in the moon’s eye. Worms — the classic Team 17 videogames worms — in space with all the weapon variety, but with planets instead of worms, with orbital paths instead of terrain, with gravity wells instead of gravity, with a real-time strategy game economy instead of a tit-for-tat turn based artillery duel. There’s no waiting for your turn here. There’s only waiting for your laser to swing around and line up just as the other planet emerges from behind a moon. Or waiting for the shells in your Big Gun to reload. Or waiting for just the right moment to fire the Scattershot that you hope will intercept that incoming nuclear missile. Wait for it. Wait for it.
As I’m playing Worbital, I’m wondering why this isn’t a whole genre. The basics have been done before. You’ll find a game on Steam called Interplanetary. It’s a turn-based version of interplanetary artillery-fests, with actual rotating globes in a 3D space, full blown base-building, scouting against stealth, and a detailed tech tree. It’s also an interface mess and far too much guesswork for a serious strategy game. I also recall a strategy game from, gosh, the 90s? You built a base in an asteroid belt to harvest asteroids, sweeping along its orbit as you fought another player’s asteroid base. Search me if I remember what it was called. Probably Space Bases, or something. That was back before all the videogame names were taken and developers had to resort to word mash-ups like Worbital.
But what hasn’t been done before is something this accessible, smartly paced, and most importantly, playful. There aren’t many strategy games that make me giggle. But how else can I react when I knock my friend’s planet off its orbit and watch him frantically trying to build something to brake his shattered globe as it drifts toward the sun? How else can I react when he fumbles a missile launch and wastes an expensive nuclear warhead on a passing moon? Or when he flies his Asteroids-style manually controlled attack ship into the asteroid belt at the edge of the map because he came at me too fast? How else can I react as a cloud of debris from that moon rains down on his already damaged rail guns? Worbital isn’t just a smart strategy game. It’s a stellar comedy.