"Will easily trap you for the foreseeable future."
Orcs Must Die was released in a time where the population of tower defense video games in on a sharp rise. It seems like an and every Tom, Dick and Jane is releasing some kind of game within the genre, with a good number of them being successful. From a more traditional build like Final Fantasy: Crystal Defenders (unit placement around each map, attempting to thwart an onslaught of enemies coming down the pipes) to the more “hands-on” approach, such as Army of Darkness Defense (control of the designated main character while placing traps or calling for reinforcements in real time.) Orcs Must Die takes a bit of the latter approach, with more of an emphasis on controlling one character and their attacking capabilities during the waves of enemies funneling through.
While the gameplay always take a center stage within the genre, Orcs Must Die tries to infuse an element of storyline into the madness. Sadly though, there’s little to no caring the players will have for it, since Robot Entertainment (headed by many of the former Ensemble Studios workers, who worked on Halo Wars previously) didn’t really put much effort into making the player care about why your character is laying waste to a legion of orcs, werewolves, ogres and other creatures. The payoff however, comes from the gameplay its self.
Before the initial wave of orcs comes stomping through, the player will be able to lay down traps of various nature. Starting “small” with floor spikes, wall spears and tar pits that snare the impending progress of those pesky orcs may not sound clever in the least, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. With each level completed, a new trap, perk or power is opened up, adding to not only the onscreen slaughter, but giving players more room for experimentation. A good portion of the entertainment value is finding a myriad of ways you can fend off the enemy invasions. Flinging an orc into a pit via spring loaded wall trap placed at the right spot, or laying down a nest of tar pits under a swinging spiked pendulum, the creative combinations that can be had are numerous. After each stage is complete, there will be an option to upgrade each item, spell, trap and other unlocks. The prices vary depending on the trap, and the currency used to purchase them are based off a five skull rating system received at the end of the stage. Skulls can be accumulated and used at the end of later stages to upgrade the higher priced content.
With Orcs Must Die, there’s the added sense in character freedom through each wave of adversaries coming through the two dozen stages available (with a Nightmare difficulty unlocked upon completion.) Ultimately, the goal that players are attempting to complete is the task of making sure the orcs don’t enter the rift, which is the end point to which these creatures seek to decimate. Each stage has a certain limit of the number of foes that can breach the rift, and if that limit is reached, game over, back to the start of that stage. While traps can be laid between the enemy spawn point and the rift, the main character can be guided around the area around him. At the start, a sword and crossbow are available for use, with two modes of attack each, and as certain levels are conquered, magical relics will be unlocked. The two weapons on default are not the most formidable pieces of equipment around, but the secondary functions help out, as well as the ability to land critical hits with the crossbow via a headshot. One of these magical powers includes the somewhat overpowered, though heavily beneficial Ice Amulet, which has the ability to completely encase surrounding villains in an ice cocoon for a brief period of time. While the magical properties run off their own mana bar that will slowly replenish over time, there’s no denying how potent this item can be. The difficulty slowly ramps up regardless, but with patience and a careful look at your surroundings, no stage will seem impossible.
Once Act II begins, a new tree of customization opens up in the form of Weavers. Just as one would set what traps they would like to select for use in their book (not all traps will be available all the time, as each stage forces the player to think about the set number of allowed traps they can wield) a choice between two upgrade paths open up, which are completely optional, though beneficial in their own ways. One book is focused more on the potency of traps, while the other has magical boosting skills, with both sharing similar ideas in terms of upgrading specific aspects. At the beginning of Act III a third book becomes available, adding more customization to each stage. Be cautious with this however — the same points used to lay down traps (which are gained from the destruction of your opponents) are used to upgrade skills in those books. Most of the time, it’s to the players benefit to hold off on focusing too much on these upgrades until the break points between several waves, in which the book can be accessed once more.
Laying each trap and just the all around mechanics are without fuss. Each trap states whether they are wall or ceiling mounted, or designated to lay under an enemy, and highlights exactly where it would be by pointing towards that direction. There’s a jump button, however little use came of it, as there were only a rare few points in which jumping over the smallest wall would prove vital is slowing the progression of the orcs down. Weapon and magic use are bound to LT and RT, with the latter being the main form of attack, and the former providing the special attack that will decrease your mana bar (magic spells will decrease mana regardless of whether LT or RT are used.)
The only other notable bland points to Orcs Must Die, aside from the weak storyline, lies with the audio and visual presentation. The main character will spew out one liners here and there, which are chuckle worthy, though repeat often enough, especially on the tougher stages later on in the game, where losing will become a frequent occurrence. If anything, it feels like Army of Darkness: Orcs Edition, with the verbal quips injected every so often. The music is a bit uninspiring, though mostly forgettable enough. The visual presentation as a whole, does work in portraying the chaos, as well as giving the characters a cartoon-like sheen to them. The problem stems with how recycled the game world its self looks. Each stage takes place within a castle, with each stage having its own pathways, balconies and such, with the occasional multiple enemy spawn point locations. The unfortunate thing is that each stage shares too similar of a color palette, with layouts that, although they change with each stage, still feel like deja vu. The biggest perk to the visual production as a whole is the near consistent framerate throughout. At certain points, players will be surrounded by tons of foes at once, but the simplistic nature of it all seems to have lent a hand in reassuring stability in performance overall, which is a trade-off I will gladly accept.
A year ago, I had just got my first taste of the tower defense world. Never did I think that I would slowly become so engrossed within the genre, and enjoy as many of these games as I have been. While Orcs Must Die is not a straight up traditional tower defense title, the addicting nature of the gameplay, as well as the gratifying experimentation system and sense of accomplishment with each stage falling to your tactical approaches, just begs for a wider audience to give it a whirl. Have you ever played any kind of tower defense game in the past? If you have, I have complete faith that the gameplay and experimentation allowed, will satisfy your needs. Never played a tower defense game before? I implore you to at least try out the demo and give it an honest effort. As it stands, Orcs Must Die is a must play, whether you enjoy the genre, or are brand new, and could start with the demo. A little under two months left to 2011 and I may have encountered the downloadable game of the year.