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Orcs Must Die! Review

Date: October 24, 2011
Author(s): Mario Figueiredo

There seems to be a major emphasis on killing an innumerable number of zombies in gaming today, but it’s important that we don’t ignore another threat: orcs. In Orcs Must Die!, you’re provided with the right tools to kill hundreds, if not thousands, of these grunting annoyances. Go ahead, paint the town green.

Introduction; Gameplay

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.

Orcs Must Die!

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.

Orcs Must Die!

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.

Orcs Must Die!

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 Must Die!

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.

Gameplay Continued; Audio; Graphics

There are three levels of difficulty in Orcs Must Die!. Nightmare is unlocked once we beat the intermediate War Mage mode (equivalent to a normal difficulty mode). Nightmare difficulty is one very tough nut to crack. Orcs come in bigger numbers, are harder to kill, and we no longer have the luxury of time. The pause period between waves is removed and the game becomes a veritable race between orcs running towards the Rift and our frantic attempts at putting traps in their way as fast and efficiently as possible.

Melee combat becomes the norm at least during the first waves of each fortress. There’s some strategic component that gets lost and the Nightmare mode becomes more of an action-oriented experience. This falls in the face of one of the game biggest strengths, which is precisely the successful pairing of strategy and action.

That being said, Nightmare mode is necessarily only for those wishing exactly that type of experience (which yours truly tends not to). So it can be said Nightmare mode ends up producing an entire new game requiring a whole different approach to beating it. Two games in one sounds good to me. What probably is lacking is a difficulty ramp for those wishing to fully retain the strategic aspect of the game. I’d like play a harder War Mage mode, but still be given the ability to plan and execute my trap placement ahead.

Orcs Must Die!

During War Mage mode, every fortress level opens up a new trap, weapon or guardian that we can add to our arsenal. The actual placement of traps and guardians (as well as the purchase of Weaver skills) costs money. We have a small amount at the beginning and are awarded more as we kill orcs or at the end of every wave. Orc waves are composed of several orc invasions with small (a few seconds) respite periods in-between. At the end of each such wave we are given again the “Release the Horde” option and can take as much time as we want planning our next move for the, no doubt harder, wave that will follow. Every fortress level requires us to defend against 3 orc waves.

The game has no multiplayer option. And this is frustrating to say the least. The single-player element is absolutely brilliant and makes the game. But a multiplayer cooperative mode would probably turn the world on fire. The mixture between strategy and pure action is practically begging for cooperative mode. Unfortunately, that was not to happen. The best cooperative mode you can get in Orcs Must Die is having your friend over your shoulder telling you what to do. But if you are anything like me, a few moments later you are playing it alone again and there’s a dead body on the floor next to you.

Controls are good and the player character very responsive. Everything flows on screen as we command it. However the game comes with fixed control settings and we can’t change them. That is, if you are missing fingers, are left-handed, or otherwise don’t feel comfortable playing with a WASD keyboard setup, you are out of luck. This is unacceptable, and for the life of me I can’t understand why we weren’t given an option to change keyboard settings. No excuses!

Orcs Must Die!

At the end of each fortress we are awarded points and skulls according to our killing performance and whether any orcs managed to reach the Rift. Skulls are used to purchase upgrades to our traps and guardians in order to make them tougher, deadlier or cheaper. However, we are given only one upgrade possibility to each of the traps and guardians. There’s an odd feeling of something amiss here as this is one of those game features that are begging for more depth.

Orcs Must Die! Orcs Must Die!

There must be something of beauty to the important task of riding the world of these creatures. Orcs Must Die! makes sure none of it is unpleasant, even though some of it may be qualified as merely interesting. Game graphics, user interface and cut scenes are expertly drawn, but orcs do feel less developed. Sure, they are to die soon and in big numbers.

Voice acting is what you would expect from a game in a tight budget; competent, not extraordinary. Our player character actor was well chosen. I can very easily connect the voice to the character and the acting to his general demeanor as it was described to us; not very bright, incompetent and boisterous.

Orcs Must Die!

Game sound is nothing short of excellent. It provides the player with all the right pops, plucks, whoshes, stomps, yarghs and vrooms to give anyone that hugely satisfying and emotional maddening sense of, “hmm”, connecting with your enemies. Robot Entertainment’s sound team left nothing to be desired and they deliver us proper walloping in good stereo sound quality.

The musical score for the game is also very good. The action theme (which is also the main theme) fits very nicely both with the game setting as with the sense of urgency delivered by an approaching wave of orcs. The credits piece is also worth listening to. It is a surprisingly good little tune, written by Brent Best, frontman of The Drams. The piece feels like a throwback to the catchy and joyful jazzy style of some of the Henry Mancini work. Listening to it is a delight, and it’s almost a crime that it’s brought to us only at the credits.

Writing; Game Performance; Final Thoughts

Where Robot Entertainment seems to have really missed the mark was with writing. The game tries too hard to be humorous. It delivers it through non-effective one-line jokes and no attempt was made to introduce humor in other way, either through the game art or plot.

This result varies between being boring to drawing the occasional smile or the rare snicker, but fails entirely to activate the more important facial muscles. And yet Orcs Must Die! is a perfect setting for smart and powerful humor that could make the game even more enjoyable to play. A very good opportunity was missed here.

Orcs Must Die! uses the Vision game engine, by Trinigy. The engine renders a pretty and fast 3D environment that can run in excess of 200 FPS on my NVIDIA GeForce GTX 560 Ti with maximum settings at a 1440×900 resolution. Game video settings are what you would expect from a budget game; from lowest to highest settings we can control anti-aliasing only.

The game engine is good enough and the polygon count easy enough on our systems, with the highest settings to be accessible to most anyone sporting even a competent 3-year-old video card. Of an interesting note the fact we can change the camera angle of our viewport to left, center (the default), and right. It’s a nice touch, even if not very useful.

Orcs Must Die!

Orcs Must Die! is a pretty looking game with good enough voice acting and just about writing skills for these artistic elements to not get in the way of our enjoyment. Its great strength lies on game design, and the artistic teams did a great job at keeping up with the pace and not bring about wanton degradation. We could expect more, but that would certainly not match with the game current price. If I’m requested to highlight one team in particular, that has to be the sound team who did a great job.

Final Thoughts

Orcs Must Die! is a gem of a game; an action-driven variation of the tower defense genre that very successfully pairs strategy with tactical thinking. During the best moments, dozens of orcs are filling the screen and being killed at the same time by elaborate combinations of traps, guardians, environmental hazards, and the player character himself, all in a very satisfying sense of utter deafening carnage.

Orcs Must Die!

The game is available on Steam for $14.99 USD. It has an ESRB rating of Teen and is available in 9 different full-audio support languages. Why do you need to know this? If you wanted an excuse not to perform your duty and do your part in patriotic orc genocide, you won’t find it in this game. This is an obligatory buy!…

… Unless perhaps you are missing fingers, are left handed, or otherwise don’t feel comfortable playing with a WASD keyboard setup (shame, Robot Entertainment!).

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