As an unabashed admirer of the Panzer Dragoon series, I find myself in almost complete agreement with Gene's assessment of Panzer Dragoon Orta. Being intimately familiar with the previous three games, I found it difficult to imagine how they could improve upon the structure of Panzer Dragoon Zwei, which I regard as one of the best shooters of all time. But, with the addition of Glide and on-the-fly transformations, Orta takes the best elements of the previous games and increases the level of technical finesse required. There'll definitely be a bit of learning before you'll earn the rank of "Winged Death," but it's not nearly as exclusionary or esoteric as something like GunValkyrie or GigaWing 2. By achieving a superb balance of autonomic and strategic combat, it's a marvel of design and workmanship.
However, there is one aspect I'd like to bring up: the issue of "rails." While it's true that Panzer Dragoon Orta does not offer free flight in a full 360-degree range, to say that it's "on rails" oversimplifies its formidable elegance.
To paint a more accurate picture of its true nature, Panzer Dragoon Orta functions in a space that's more akin to a "hallway" than a "rail." This is a crucial point. While the dragon is not able to wheel and dart across the entire sky at will, players do have quite a bit of control within the given area. Dodging enemy fire and positioning the dragon for attacks is key and, with the additional Glide maneuver, the field of play is larger than it has ever been.
Some may gripe that this approach is not "next-gen" enough, but that's a very shortsighted view that doesn't appreciate the game's uniqueness and balance. If you ask me, it's actually better that the game doesn't feel like a Star Fox 64 or Ace Combat clone. Those are certainly good titles, but Panzer Dragoon has a completely different identity. By being the only successful 3D incarnation of old-school reflex shooters, there's a mad amount of action going on. At this level of intensity, managing the flying on top of shooting and dodging would be far too overwhelming. From a storytelling aspect, it also helps support the concept of the dragon as a living copilot, rather than a mindless vehicle.
Putting it bluntly, this game is a superior effort that needs to be recognized. In fact, the only area where I could find flaw with Panzer Dragoon Orta was the story. I admit that I'm somewhat biased since I felt the series had already pulled off an unbelievably satisfying ending with Panzer Dragoon Saga. This is nitpicking of the highest order, but Orta's story-based connection to the previous games didn't jibe with me. Taken on its own outside of the context of the first trilogy, it also fails to achieve a strong emotional connection with players the way that Panzer Dragoon Zwei did. I can't take off more than a half-point in good conscience, though. Quite honestly, how many shooters can you think of that bother to include a story at all?
Some may say that the game doesn't reach far enough, and that it's content to be a mere refinement of itself. That may be true to an extent, but when a series this good only manages to reach a tiny number of players in the first place, it's hard to fault the developers for not making more drastic changes. As it stands, Panzer Dragoon Orta is a highly challenging and satisfying shooter. Toss in the outstanding graphics, bold art direction, and an unparalleled wealth of unlockables, and you end up with one of the best 3D shooters in history.