Poor Orcs. They get abused so much in many games, and none moreso than in Orcs Must Die!. They get squished, set on fire, chopped, smashed, frozen, thrown into goo and generally abused to the nth degree. But when it’s this much fun, even the NSPCO (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Orcs) will probably have a great time with this Steam and XBLA title.
When boiled down to it’s absolute core, Orcs Must Die! is a tower defence game. On each level you have one or multiple rifts, a door through which hordes of Orcs – and later, other monsters – will eventually pour with the intention of breaching the rift. Your task is to stop them reaching the rift by placing a variety of both lethal and debilitating traps in order to impede their progress and destroy them before they get there. The twist comes in the fact that rather than most Tower Defence games where you’re a disembodied entity commanding the action from afar, here you’re on ground level as a character known as a Warmage who doesn’t just set the traps and forget them, but has spells and weapons, allowing him to get physically involved with the battle at the same time.
On the outset it seems like a simple twist, but it makes a massive change to how you feel when playing the game. Rather than setting a trap elsewhere and concentrating on the flow of enemies coming from the other end of the map, now you’re really taking a hands-on management approach, trying to crowd control and lure the Orcs into your well laid traps and in a sense “massaging” the flow of enemies into your more elaborate setups. You can pick from a variety of spells and weapons, but you also have to bear in mind that these also take up slots (as you can only choose from so many traps at the start of each level) so another layer of strategy becomes apparent, as you try and decide how much you leave to your traps and how much you deal yourself in mopping up stragglers or trying to personally plug up the leaks in your defences.
The enemies themselves make sure you’re kept on your toes too. Though the game starts off with Orcs, there’s fast moving enemies that can sprint past the slower traps, flying enemies that force you to plan more vertical based traps, Gnoll Hunters that run straight for your character, thus impeding you from taking care of the Orcs manually and forcing you to manage your resources and attention. There’s larger enemies that take a lot of punishment before they go down and are too heavy to set off certain traps until they’re upgraded, and later on these come in armoured variants that require a more focused approach. To balance this, more traps are unlocked as you go through the levels, starting off with floor spikes and arrows that damage groups of them right up to giant pendulums and catapults that take a long time to set up but cause some devastating damage. Of course, it’s up to you how exactly you decide to organise these traps in order to get the most out of them, both in terms of damage done and in terms of all important income in order to earn more traps.
And this is all done with a sense of great humour and an overall atmosphere of fun. The graphics are bold and colourful, the enemies explode in visceral chunks but with a playful demeanour and the hero himself spouts off quips and comments in a very Bruce Campbell-esque manner. It’s obviously a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and is all the more refreshing for it. It also manages to avoid some of the pitfalls many tower defence games occasionally fall into, most notably that of there only being one specific way to solve the levels. A big factor in this is the Weavers, unlocked by the second act, which can grant a range of buffs to yourself or the traps. These are then further divided into a sort of skill tree of buffs that have a couple of routes to go down, so as a result the way you complete a level nearly always feels like your way, rather than taking someone else’s method. In addition, some levels have their own specific traps and features such as turrets and pots of boiling acid or fire that also encourage you to come up with a different solution to every level, rather than sticking to a tried and tested prescription.
However, it should be noted that Orcs Must Die! is no cakewalk. Indeed, after the first couple of levels there appears to be quite the difficulty spike and later levels can almost seem overwhelming at first. It can be all too easy at times to be overwhelmed by several Gnoll Hunters coming straight for you, while at the other end of the map some Orcs have breached your defences and are making a beeline for the Rift. Of course, there are people who will relish the challenge, and a Nightmare difficulty mode – along with the five skull ranking system and leaderboards – will provide a good deal of longevity to the game, but anyone coming in from the rather sedate difficulty of the demo expecting the same will quickly find themselves being given a rude awakening.
Overall, Orcs Must Die! is an impressively polished title that feels more original than it probably should, but such an obvious-in-hindsight twist on the Tower Defence formula gives it a depth that proves the experience of killing Orcs is altogether more fun when it’s as hands on as this.
Verdict: Head Shot
Platforms available: PC (Steam), XBox 360 (XBLA)
Platform Reviewed – PC
For more information on our scoring policy please read this page