Orcs Must Die!: Review

It's like making Orc Salsa!

Box Art
Title Orcs Must Die!
Developer Robot Entertainment
Publisher Microsoft Studios
Platform PC, XBLA
Genre Action Defense
Release Date October 5, 2011

It isn’t often that a game’s title so clearly establishes the experience ahead. Although, of course, there’s more to Orcs Must Die! than this titular fact, it’s a pretty solid foundation to latch onto. OMD springs from the increasingly popular tower defense genre, and throws you into the trenches. If you’ve never heard the term ‘tower defense’ before, it’s a pretty straight forward concept: you start out with a certain amount of cash and a few attack ‘towers’ at your disposal, and have to set them at strategic points in order to stop several waves of enemies from reaching their goal.  While tower defense has roots dating back to the 80′s, it was largely buoyed on by fan-made maps for popular RTS games like Starcraft, and has now become a full blown genre, particularly popular with indie developers due to the genre’s ability to provide a robust and satisfying experience within a limited setting.

This level's called 'Chokepoint.' That's a hint, Antoine.

Orcs Must Die! is not your average indie title, even though it retails for a budget price and comes technically as the developer’s second title. Published by Microsoft and developed by Robot Entertainment, OMD features an impressive developer pedigree. Robot Entertainment was formed from the remnants of Ensemble Studios, a developer best known to PC gamers for their classic Age of Empires series. After Microsoft shuttered Ensemble, Robot Entertainment stepped from the ashes and went on to develop Age of Empires Online.  Inescapably abrasive Free-to-play elements aside, AoE Online was a fairly solid and polished translation of the AoE series to the Massively Multiplayer world, and brought with it a colorful and humorous new art style. Thankfully, Orcs Must Die! steps forth with all the best components of Robot Entertainment’s work thus far, and wades into new territory – a little genre that I like to call… (pausing for effect)… (still pausing)… (okay, here we go) - action defense*.

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The tower defense aspect of OMD is fairly straight forward; each round progresses through a number of waves, in which orcs spill through in increasingly overwhelming numbers and variations, all in an effort to make it through to your rift gate. If a certain number make it through, well, there goes humanity, and it’s time to try again. Luckily, the game provides you with a wealth of traps (OMD‘s version of towers) to help stave off the green beasties, ranging from Elven Archers, to Sticky Tar Traps, or the happy-slappy Swinging Mace. Without the traps, you’re not defenseless either – there are a number of weapons and spells that you can use to fend off your enemies directly, and you will always have your crossbow to fall back on. However, these are best looked at as a garnish on top of your trap chokepoints – while it’s not impossible to complete some levels with weapons and spells alone, this approach is probably not going to do too much for your final score. Unlike traditional isometric or top-down tower defense games, OMD is set in the third person, flinging you over the shoulder* of the Apprentice, the game’s stalwart hero. Thanks to this, traps can be set just about anywhere, as long as they’re on an appropriate surface – be that the floor, ceiling or walls. Effectively, this shift to the third dimension provides a staggering array of strategies in completing any stage. While you start out with just a few traps, every level unlocks a new trap, weapon, guardian, or spell, and once unlocked, you are free to go back and try previous levels with everything you’ve acquired. This makes your first run through the campaign almost like a very long (yet welcome) tutorial.

This is a good example of how not to play.

With a poor (or even average) control scheme, the core gameplay mechanic of setting traps could be a nightmare, marring the entire experience. I’ve played a number of third person games that tried to fuse in strategy elements, and in most cases, the interface was a clunky mess (I’m looking at you, Brutal Legend). That is not the case here. At least with the keyboard and mouse*Orcs Must Die! carries an incredibly efficient interface, and it makes setting traps every bit as effortless and fluid as the fast-paced gameplay requires. At the beginning of each level, you select up to nine traps (excluding your ever-present crossbow in slot one) to place in your ‘spellbook,’ and each is mapped to your number keys in the order you’ve selected. Once the round begins, there’s no take-backs, so the planning phase is always crucial. Once selected, to place the trap, you simply move your aiming reticle to the desired surface – if you can’t place it somewhere, a giant red ‘no’ symbol will appear. If you can, the trap will appear bright green and display its range in a translucent red arc, showing you exactly what you’ll get before placing it. Controlling the Apprentice is a breeze as well, and it’s genuinely entertaining to zip through the levels, bounding over obstacles on your way to frantically trap a corridor on the other side of the map.

And then a better example of proper Orc slaying was had.

Perhaps the greatest draw to Orcs Must Die! is the incredible depth of replay value that it offers. Although there is technically only one mode (Campaign), there are three different ‘styles’ within this that drastically change how you play. The first, is the way that pretty much every newcomer will play, and that’s just getting through the campaign alive. Your first run through is really just about unlocking all the traps and experimenting with them. Now, as the game has about 27 stages in its campaign, this will take a fair chunk of time, and it’s true that after beating it once, many will never touch the game again. However, if that’s the case, they’re missing out on quite a lot. Every time you complete a level, you’re scored between one and five skulls. These skulls also double as the game’s one form of permanent currency. You see, each trap has a single upgrade level, and these cost skulls – a lot of them, and as the game reminds you, there’s no refunds. Upgrading the traps will either add an effect, make them more powerful, or reduce their cost. However, even getting all five skulls on every level on the normal difficulty won’t yield you all the skulls you need to upgrade every trap, so deciding just which traps to spend your hard earned skulls on is incredibly important. Which brings us to the second style of play: going for all five skulls. Getting five skulls on a level is no simple matter – you have to ensure that not one beastie makes it through the rift, all while hitting a target time set for that level. Beyond that, though, nothing matters, so it’s all about finishing the levels quickly and with no leaks.

Even the loading screens look cool.

The final style of play is also probably the last you’ll attempt, and that’s gunning for the leaderboards. This type of play differs greatly from the last few, as getting five skulls on a level doesn’t equate a good score, and vice versa. As such, you don’t have to worry about enemies getting through your ranks (except as lost points), or about killing them quickly – rather, you need to play for combos, and it’s all about finding the best choke point to squeeze those out of the oncoming horde. While there’s no traditional online play, OMD has still gathered a pretty impressive community, and it’s all due to the excellent implementation of its scoring mechanisms and leaderboards. Typically, leaderboards are the sort of thing you scoff at. If you’re even within the top few thousand, you might think, “Hm, that’s cool,” but it really doesn’t matter, as there will always be someone better, and always be troves of hackers clogging up the top spots. Even about six months after release, Robot Entertainment seems to be doing a pretty good job pruning the leaderboards of the obvious hackers, and it actually makes the leaderboards feel like a tangible and accessible element of the game. The developer has played their cards right by doing an excellent job of nurturing their community, and creating a dialog with their passionate fans. In response, if you decide to try and dive into the world of the leaderboards for OMD, chances are you’ll find a welcoming community, eager to show you just how they got that record breaking combo.

Gameplay aside, if there’s one other thing that Orcs Must Die! really nails, it’s the presentation. This game is sleek and polished to a truly impressive degree. Menus are both rife with personality and also incredibly intuitive, arranged so that the necessary information is displayed clearly and efficiently. The visuals themselves are a gorgeous blast of color, supremely modeled and programmed to run smoothly. It is also a well optimized game, running fluidly without any hiccups on my mid-range dual core laptop*, and still managing to be eye-catching on the basic settings. I’m not much of a music critic, but what there is seems appropriate – I think I’ve even had one or two pieces stuck in my head at some point. Perhaps most worthy of praise, however, is the voice acting and writing in this game. As each level progresses from dungeon to dungeon without any forays outside or into any sort of ‘world map,’ and has no real NPCs, the game manages to do a lot with very little. There are only four slideshow cut scenes – one to open each act of the game, and one for the ending. Apart from that, the story is told entirely in voice overs as the Apprentices rambles on, sharing what are sometimes truly hilarious anecdotes or observations about the, “Best. Job. EVER.” Every bit of acting is spot on, from the inane chatter of the orcs, to the braggart (yet endearing) asides from the Apprentice. If I have any complaints, it’s that I wanted more – what is offered is a rather inviting and evocative glimpse of a world, and yet that’s all it is – a glimpse. It should be noted that there is a rather awesome prequel web comic available on Robot Entertainment’s site, although it doesn’t seem to have been widely publicized.

No? Not exactly tickling your whiskers? Well, what would you call it? Sound off in the comments!
Left, right, or square on from behind (my preference*) – you can choose which in the options.
We’re not talking about the game anymore, are we?
I do have an Xbox controller for windows, but I’ve never tried it with OMD – this is one particular case where I imagine it would be very poorly suited.

Intel Core 2 Duo 2.00 GHz4GB Ram

Windows Vista 64-bit

ATI Mobility Radeon 4650

CONCLUSION

Orcs Must Die! is a blast and the most entertaining tower defense game I’ve played to date. Every aspect of this thing is slick as a stick of butter – it runs well on a mid-range laptop, the interface is gorgeous and intuitive, and the gameplay controls are about as good as they get. On top of that, it’s threaded together by witty writing, and an expertly voiced main character that, though a little arrogant, is more Zapp Brannigan than Duke Nukem, making him a character that you can root for.  While the story is a bit thin, the developers do a good job of providing one under the limitations of a world that never leaves the format of a dungeon. If you’re so inclined to stick it out, OMD offers plausible leaderboard chasing, and a welcoming community to help you in. In short, this is a title that is more than worth its modest price of admission.

our RATING:

Full Full Full Full Half

PROS:

  • Deep gameplay providing nearly endless ways in which to mash orcs
  • Witty writing propelled by top-notch voice overs
  • Colorful visual style and well-optimized graphics that don’t require a behemoth computer to run
  • Leaderboards that count
  • Swinging Mace – ka-chunk!

CONS:

  • Thin (yet enjoyable) story
  • Those damn explosive Kobold Sappers
  • Would be a perfect game with just a little more content – either in additional modes, or venturing outside the rift fortresses – fingers crossed for OMD!2

BUY IT once it is:

$14.99 (Full Price)

Steam

PLAYTHROUGH DETAILS:

Played for about 38 hours. Earned 29/30 achievements, earning 5 skulls on all Normal difficulty levels. Played a fair bit of Nightmare Mode, finishing up to all of Act 2. Bought both pieces of currently available DLC. Highest Score was in Nightmare, on The Tower: 373,284. Managed to land a score or two in the under 100 leaderboard range, but said position has since dropped. Bashed 35,162 Orc skulls in total. Huzzah!

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