Review: Orcs Must Die!

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Tower Defense games have traditionally been played from a top down view with a mouse or a cursor of some sort used to place each defense along a set path to stop waves of enemies or creeps from either capturing or destroying something of value to the players.  The great thing about tower defense games is that concept is simple to understand but can take many hours to master.  Often times the creeps will appear in waves of many different types that are immune to one type of attack or have a stronger defense. Adding to the complexity is the method of input, either touch a la iOS devices, or mouse on PC, or some form of cursor manipulation with a console controller.  Sense of control has always felt a bit lacking to me playing tower defense games with a console controller.  Movement sensitivity is either too slow or too fast, or menus to select various towers never feel responsive enough to be able to select the right defense type quick enough to defeat the constant waves of creeps.

Robot Entertainment spins the tower defense concept on it’s heels with a pretty awesome point of view in Orcs Must Die.  Instead of viewing everything from above as a map overview, OMD is much more akin to a third-person action shooter as the camera view is placed over the shoulder of the last of the War Mages.  His crosshairs can be swapped between aiming a crossbow, sword and spells to an assortment of traps.  Trap placement is quick and switching between traps is handled by pressing the bumper buttons.  Movement is just like moving any third-person action character on screen and once orcs are close enough, combat plays out just like a great action brawler.

Now with a name like Orcs Must Die you’d expect just that.  Orcs die in so many crazy unique ways depending on the combination and placement of traps as well as the various spells that the War Mage can cast.  The levels start simple with one entrance that Orcs appear from and they make their way to the Rift portal so that they can destroy the power held within.  Traps start out as floor spikes and walls of arrows such that when waves of Orcs step over them spikes come shooting up, piercing multiple enemies and leaving their bodies in jumbled piles.  The wall of arrows is another satisfying sight, especially if the trap is placed on both sides of a hallway.  As the Orcs walk into the path a swoosh is heard and a rain of arrows flies out, tossing Orcs into the air as they are assaulted with the deadly shafts.

As levels are completed, awards are presented in the form of up to five skulls for defeating the level under par (the time set by Robot Entertainment) as well as not losing any Rift points.  These skulls can be saved up to purchase enhanced versions of traps which reduce the cost of the traps, add more damage or add poisons to slow and damage Orcs even more once they’ve managed to slip past a trap.  Each completed level also introduces new trap types or spells which add to the War Mage’s arsenal.  During the beginning of each level the War Mage picks which spells or traps he can use from his spell book, place the traps, and then activate the oncoming waves of Orcs.  As the waves of Orcs are defeated the War Mage earns additional currency to place more traps.  After the second or third wave of Orcs in any given level, the War Mage is given a short breather, allowing more traps to be placed without the threat of more Orcs attacking.

Of course Orcs being ugly, smelly, nasty enemies, they consort with all sorts of other bad guys.  Level progression introduces new enemies that swarm along with the Orcs such as giant Ogres, flying dragon whelps, tiny, swift Kobolds or truly nasty hyena-like hunters.  But the War Mage also has hidden allies in the form of Weavers that offer spell and trap enhancements that can help tip the balance of power in the Ware Mage’s favor.  As with any compelling strategy game though, only one of the Weavers’ enhancement trees can be activated per level using the same currency to buy traps.  The War Mage must choose carefully between spending all his money on the Weavers, having nothing for traps, and then deal with Orcs in direct melee combat or choose to spend all money on traps without the benefit of the Weaver bonuses.

One of the great things about Orcs Must Die is the replay factor.  As I mentioned above, level completion awards the War Mage with new traps or spells and these unlocked spells and traps can then be selected during earlier levels.  In the earlier stages Orcs travel down much more constricted pathways and some of the traps earned later in the game are not only devastating, but are just a riot to watch as Orcs blindly move into the direct path of ceiling smashers or pendulum axes.

While I can honestly say it is a blast to watch huge waves of Orcs getting tossed about by arrow traps or spring loaded floors, I also find the later levels to be frustrating.  The little kid in me likes watching all of the mayhem and shouts from the Orcs as they stumble into my traps, but the grown adult gets frustrated as I find myself having to defend waves of Orcs from two to three different directions at once with a limited budget for traps and a feeling of being overwhelmed with so many things going on at once. Throw flying dragon whelps, swift kobolds, swarms of Orcs, a giant ogre and a few hunters out at the same time and all I end up doing is watching my Rift points drop to zero.  Part of that is probably my fault for not learning how to best employ all of the various traps that I’ve unlocked, but I think that new trap introduction could be better explained.  I dislike the idea of having to go outside of the game to read forum posts or watch a video on the best way to beat a level.

Later level difficulties aside, Orcs Must Die is a fantastic game.  The art style is unique, sort of a mix between the cartoony World of Warcraft and a more serious and deadly Lord of the Rings.  The music is a romp as well, mixing stately medieval themes with a jamming rock ‘n roll vibe.  Additionally, Robot Entertainment has added a great leaderboard system to keep players coming back for more as friends scores are reflected on each level, which can cause a bit of a rivalry to see who can take the top spot.

Available on XBLA, Steam and On-Live, Orcs Must Die is definitely worth buying.  OMD offers plenty of replay value, with easy to learn, difficult to master spells and traps, along with unique and challenging level design. Of course the best reason to play is the complete satisfaction of watching swarms and swarms of Orcs dying by frost, fire, spikes, arrows or being flung through the air by various traps.

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Pros:
+ Fun traps and spells
+ Quick levels offer plenty of replay
+ Leaderboard challenges
+ Great use of console controller in a tower defense game

Cons:
- Harsh difficulty spikes in later levels
- New trap types are given very little explanation on how to best use them

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC via Steam; also available on Xbox 360 via XBLA
Publisher: Robot Entertainment
Developer: Robot Entertainment
Release Date: XBLA – 10/5/2011, PC – 10/11/2011
Genre: Action / Tower Defense Strategy
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.