Bits ‘n’ Pieces
Fledgling studio Robot Entertainment, straight off the RTS Age of Empires, has provided a super-charged action take on the strategy genre in Orcs Must Die! The game, available for download on 5 October on Microsoft’s Xbox Live service and coming to Steam on 12 October, is a tower-defense strategy title at its heart. However, the developers have strapped the game down in its developmental stages and injected it with an adrenaline cocktail, metamorphosing a game that’s just as much a third-person action game as it is a strategic dismemberment simulator. Shining through this amalgam of influences and styles is a tongue-in-cheek title that is all about having a fun – yet frantic – time.
The setup of the game is fairly simple. The player’s character, known simply as the War Mage, is an apprentice in a society known as the Order. Orcs who want to wipe out all of humanity are attempting to break out of their world into the human world, using portals known as Rifts that function as mystic doorways between the two realms. It is the Order’s task to defend the various Rifts located in the orcs’ realm, each located in a different fortress which has to be protected from incoming orc assaults. As it so happens, the War Mage’s master, a great and powerful sorcerer and defender of the Rifts, is killed during the game’s introduction in a orc raid. Rather than mourn his own death, he laments the fact that humanity’s hope now seems to rest squarely on the shoulders of the dim-witted War Mage.
The Call of Battle
Robot Entertainment has done a terrific job making the battles as furious and chaotic as possible. Wave after wave of orcs will pour into your fortress, all with the single-minded goal of taking whatever fastest route into the Rift. While you’re usually given an allowance of a few enemies that can slip by into the Rift, let too many through and it’s game over for humanity.
Even on the lowest difficulty setting, the waves of orcs are immense, and will constantly force you to fall back and re-formulate your strategy on the fly. In between assaults, you’ll generally only have a few seconds time to heal, regroup, and possibly lay some new traps.
Expect mountains of bodies piling up as your traps trigger, reset, and trigger again. It is even possible to push enemies back into traps they’ve already run through, to be damaged by them a second time. Experimenting with different types of traps is encouraged, as combinations of traps can work much more effectively than alone. For example, the steam trap merely lifts and suspends enemies for a few moments. But add to this a swinging club placed on the ceiling, smashing all enemies lifted into its reach, and you’ve got a bloodbath on your hands.
The base stats of all traps can be upgraded by spending a set number of previously earned skulls; thus, traps may reset faster or have an added effect. The skulls needed for upgrades are hard to come by in later stages though, so they must be spent judiciously! Of the two difficulty levels available at the outset of the game, only ‘War Mage’ allows players to earn a ranking of up to five skulls in each fortress. However, by Act II, ‘War Mage’ becomes incredibly difficult. Switching to the ‘Apprentice’ difficulty will allow most players to get through the game – it isn’t easy, but manageable. However, only a maximum of two upgrade skulls can be earned per level on this setting.
The game also presents numerous types of enemies besides orcs. Some, like gnoll hunters and ogres, are barely damaged by most traps, and must be dealt with in a different fashion. Flying enemies enter the skirmish about halfway through the game, impervious to all ground-based hazards and posing a real threat to archers placed on high battlements. Again, quick thinking and problem-solving are key to swiftly adapt to the ever-changing face of the battlefield.
The Best-Laid Plans of Mice and Men…
With as heavy of a focus on all-out combat and action as this game has, it’s surprising how engrossing the strategy component is. True, there aren’t deep menus filled with screen after screen of stats, but setting traps and defenses in clever ways, and even learning how to make multiple types of traps work together, is an ever-evolving game in and of itself. Before the orcs break through the gates and into your fortress, you’re afforded a small amount of funds with which to set up the most basic fortifications to your keep (killing enemies will earn you additional monies you can spend on more elaborate trap setups in later rounds). However, once the fray commences, it will often be necessary to change strategies quickly and abandon some ideas that just didn’t pan out. In one level, I thought to make good use of a conveniently placed pit of lava, setting up spring-loaded floor launchers to propel the smelly orcs through the air and into the inferno. Well, through the air they went, all right…right across the lava pit, landing only meters away from an otherwise unprotected Rift. You’re welcome, orcs.
The level design itself is just as, if not more, important. Finding and exploiting environmental hazards and natural choke points (or else, creating your own), can turn many a tide in battle. One level, fittingly called “Chokepoint”, had a narrow opening that all orcs had to squeeze through early on in the map. Covering the entire floor with tar traps to slow the orcs in the bottleneck (a trap I otherwise used rarely) and positioning a squad of archers up high on either side of the chokepoint made for a veritable orc slaughter. Practically nothing got through alive, between the criss-crossing arrows zinging in from every direction, and the War Mage throwing fireballs into the tar-slogged mass made for a devilishly good time.
In stark contrast, other maps require different approaches. Some fortresses are very open, without narrow passages to corral your quarry in. Other times, there are twisting passages and staircases to memorize and defend, or multiple Rifts with multiple access routes. Leaving any one of these unattended too long will spell certain doom. I occasionally found it necessary to literally carpet the floor in front of a Rift in spiked floor traps, knowing I’d be busy running and patrolling the halls of the fortress.
Tongue Firmly Planted in Cheek
Amid all the glorious carnage and hectic chaos of battle, the game never loses sight of one important element: the enjoyment for the player. The simple-brained orcs are hilarious to listen to as they shamble along, sometimes spouting lines like “Oh no you did-ehn’t!” and “I do what I want!”, all delivered in perfectly phlegm-filled voices that sound like slime oozing over gravel. The interplay between the War Mage and his deceased master is also cleverly entertaining; although one is deceased, they take turns narrating the story, the old mage taking on flashback between acts. The story itself is fairly bare-bones (Orcs are bad, keep them away from the rifts, you’re our last hope, etc), but it isn’t completely abandoned either. Barely into Act II, a mysterious ethereal voice calls out, as another entity begins to take part in the proceedings.
After besting all levels on Apprentice mode and challenging yourself with War Mage mode, players will eventually unlock the final Nightmare mode, which takes the difficulty to unheard-of levels of intensity. Meanwhile, there is some replay value, as you can go back to previous levels and attempt to rack up more skulls. Moreover, once you’ve unlocked a new trap for your arsenal, you can then take that into battle in previous fortresses, allowing for new ways to creatively crush your foes. In fact, so many options to dismember the orcs exist that no two playthroughs will be the same, and plenty of strategy can be exchanged between players.
The Final Verdict
Orcs must die is a superbly entertaining and strategy game with a ferocious action component. Models look good and both environments and characters are vibrantly colorful. Although the story is little more than bare-bones, it is told through voice-over with beautifully drawn stills taking the place of cutscenes in between acts. However, the action is where it’s at, and with 24 distinct fortresses to learn the ins and outs of, along with an arsenal of 17 upgradeable traps, 6 weapons and spells, and unlockable allies that grant stat bonuses or improve your offensive capabilities, the game allows for a huge amount of customization in how you defend its keeps. The nature of the game also allows for easy expansions in the form of new weapons and traps and new fortress maps to protect. There is a ton of fun to be had here, and the game is well worth its price of $14.99 or 1200 MSPoints.