Ever since 1954, when Tolkien published his magnum opus and first introduced us to these vile creatures, the message hadn’t been so clear; orcs must die! And they should die for many reasons, the least of which being that they are always trying to kill you. They smell, their skin color is all the wrong choice, they can barely talk or behave like civilized people and they are taller and stronger than we are.
It’s true that for the next 6 decades others tried to champion a cause for orcs. Attempts were made to give orcs a more spirited and well-intentioned demeanor. From being friendly allies to cute pets or thralls (zug-zug! Really? Oh please!). All lies, I say! Orcs are sadistic baby killers and disgusting creatures, bent on the destruction of our beautiful society.
I am shocked and horrified at these creatures’ savagery and will have none of it. Like everyone else, I agree; orcs must die! All of them! Their blood should fill the landscape and their corpses left to rot to show them how our peace-loving and god-fearing society will have none of their brutal and evil ways.
The latest installment in justified orc genocide, aptly named Orcs Must Die!, comes to us from the good folks at Robot Entertainment. The company was created from the ashes of Ensemble Studio, known for the Age of Empires series. 4 designers, 16 programmers and 15 artists have come together to give us a means of exercising our citizen duty by contributing to orc extinction. The question this review will try to answer is not if orcs must die. That is pretty much established. The question is, should we bother? The answer is a resounding yes!
Orcs Must Die! is a derivation of the tower defense genre in which we take the role of a goofy and unfit young mage apprentice (proving that anyone can contribute) tasked with the defense of several fortresses against waves of orc invaders (proving that orcs must die). Inside each fortress there are one or more Rift portal devices. These are what the orcs want to reach and ultimately what our mage apprentice tries to defend.
The game departs from the more traditional tower defense genre by allowing direct control of a player character in a fixed 3rd person action camera perspective. In addition, instead of the more traditional tower, we can opt between planting an assortment of different traps on the floor, walls and ceiling of the fortress, calling for the aid of guardian allies, or adopting melee and ranged combat with the help of weapons and magical devices.
The gameplay can be said to introduce both tactical and strategic elements to the defense of the Rift. Often, both are going to be used in conjunction to help dispatch the waves of orcs that the game is going to throw at us. Traps and guardians take the strategic role. When each new level starts we are given an infinite amount of time to look around the area and take notice where orcs will be coming from and what paths they will follow towards the Rift. This will help us decide where to set our traps and how to best set them.
There are plenty of different traps to choose from and new ones will be gained as we progress in the game. Conversely, direct combat allows us to complement traps and guardians with on-the-spot tactical decisions. Combat is managed by weapons and magical devices. We start with just two and, like with traps, we gain new ones as we progress in the game. All weapons have a primary and an alternating mode, giving more depth to our tactical choices. Finally there’s Weavers, magic wielding beings that can bestow powers on us. They aren’t physically manifested in the game. They act instead as shopkeepers we can purchase skill-like powers from. There are three Weavers, each allowing us to choose from a specialized skill tree.
Every new fortress level in the game earns us one new trap, guardian or weapon (and starting in Act II we are awarded the weavers). Once any of these are acquired, they will stay for the reminder of the game allowing us to revisit already finished levels with our new toys. In addition, traps can be upgraded to cost less money, deal more damage, or otherwise intensify their abilities.
What’s indeed striking in Orcs Must Die! is the vast number of tactical and strategic options available. From very early we realize this and it is hard not to be excited about the sheer array of possibilities open to us. Fortresses are constructed in a manner so that no specific strategy becomes readily evident. There in fact simply doesn’t seem to exist any conceivable way for us to come up with a foolproof plan. Orcs eventually slip by our traps and need to be dealt with by more conventional means. We are always kept on our toes, fixing any holes in our strategy and dealing with its consequences.
Orcs and their allies amount to a sizable ecosystem. Other than the traditional warmongering orc, we get to face crossbow-wielding ones, fast and small kobold runners, dangerous gnoll mage hunters, large and hard to kill ogres, reviving hobgobling shamans, flying hellbats, and many more. Essentially the game tries to match the increase in availability of player weapons and traps with new and more powerful, or more dangerous, foes.
Orcs Must Die does this in an atypical way, however. The game difficulty can ramp up and down as we progress in the game. Some fortresses are much harder to defend than the next one in line. Generally speaking the game becomes harder as we progress. That much is evident. But throughout we will experience sharp ups and downs in difficulty for no apparent reason. However, because the game is in fact made up of a series of fortresses, we can play as many times as we want in any order we wish, none of it matters much. We are just required to unlock them in a linear fashion.