I’m no scientist but I’m going to go out on a mechanical limb (the kind they use to fix satellites) and suggest that Blackish Games’ New Orbit offers one of the finest approximations of space navigation you can experience on a handheld device. All the more remarkable when you consider it’s a bleak-looking 2D top-down affair that merely requires you to prod at the screen from time to time.
You play an engineer aboard a sliver of a ship. Nearby is the wreck of your mother-vessel, ravaged by an unseen enemy. All you know in your confused state is that you’re of Teutonic heritage, somewhere deep in Triterian territory – wherever that is – and in a shuttle that’s either going to fall to pieces, run out of fuel or be discovered by an enemy patrol and then fall to pieces. Aside from a dispassionate AI, you’re lost and alone in the dark depths of a flat, uncaring universe.
New Orbit’s controls seem relatively simple – you press the screen to activate thrust and as soon as inertia is cancelled out, you edge in the direction of your greasy fingerprint. It sounds easy and initially it is: Guidelines in front and radiating from your vessel show acceleration, heading and speed, as well as the direction and the relative gravitic strengths of various asteroids and planetoids that pull you into their gravity well. It’s very easy to grasp and even easier to avoid crashing into something. But when your mission is to cast a steady orbit rather than simply avoid said dangerous rocks, or land on them, things get considerably more difficult. Especially so when you find yourself tasked with navigating a celestial body ringed with debris and proximity mines.
New Orbit plays a little like the cellular-level Thrust-a-like Osmos, which is among the most relaxing games you can ever hope to play on any platform. 20 minutes of Osmos before bed and I promise you’ll sleep like a baby. New Orbit however is not relaxing. It’s a physics foundation lesson, a space sim in its purest form. While you can disengage your brain and zoom about the stars, the haunting rasping music and grey stellar backdrop only reinforce the sense that the universe is a cold dead place. You just want to get home, breathe fresh air and be with people.
Rather unfortunately the game enters stasis after a “pilot” episode of eight missions, roughly 2-3 hours of play. For the price it’s excellent value for mobile gamers. It’s a simulation that plays like a puzzle game, a quest for survival with hints of adventure, but you’re left wanting more: more of what happens to the castaway hero, more about why the Node Collective and Triterians are at war, and whether there are any new tracks to compliment the wonderful tune that plays out the credits – one that for 30 seconds threatens to reach the heights of Portal’s ‘Still Alive’. Sadly there is no more. It’s been four years since Episode 1 was released and aside from an Android port in 2013 there’s been no expansion to the storyline, just a few “deleted missions” for buyers of the PC/Mac version – which at ten times the price of the handheld edition doesn’t constitute particularly good value.