|System: Xbox 360, PC|
|Dev: Robot Entertainment|
|Pub: Microsoft Studios|
|Release: October 05, 2011|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Blood and Gore, Violence|
by Shelby Reiches
Orcs Must Die! The name itself is a battle cry, and appropriately so. A twist on the classic tower defense sub-genre of real-time strategy games, Orcs Must Die! evokes shades of Warcraft, Deception, and Brutal Legend in equal measure. Most immediately comparable to the PC-exclusive Sanctum, Orcs Must Die! changes things up by giving the player a face, and throwing that face into the action. Slashing and shooting, slinging spells and placing traps, slaying alongside minions, Orcs Must Die! is a hectic, fast-paced, and enjoyable diversion.
You've doubtless played a game of this sort before, but even the basics of Orcs Must Die! are unique enough that they beg explanation. Rather than constructing towers to cordon off sections of the map and guide enemies down a specific path, the vast majority of traps are either flush on the floor, glued to walls, or hanging from the ceiling. There are barricades that can help keep enemies in line, but they're expensive and best used sparingly, in conjunction with a mass of stacked traps.
And the traps do come en masse, ranging from the basic floor-spikes and blade walls to steam vents for levitating enemies and physics-based contraptions. Physics-based, you ask? Many levels contain deadly hazards, such as pits of acid and lava, and the game provides players with spring-loaded launchers and wall-mounted push-plates to fling enemies to their demise. Players themselves control a War Mage (apprentice) who wields a crossbow and a bladestaff, as well as a variety of elemental spells. The crossbow's accuracy decreases if fired quickly, the character's fragility precludes excessive melee, and the spells are limited by a slowly-recharging mana bar, nicely balancing the game toward a dependence on careful planning rather than desperate combat.
Let's step away from the gameplay for a second (we'll come back, I swear) to talk about the tone of Orcs Must Die! As the exclamation point and direct title indicate, this is a game that doesn't take itself overly seriously. The maps are bright and colorful, the traps exaggerated (though still menacing), and the enemies have extreme proportions that make them appear appropriately dimwitted. Speech is used sparingly, just enough to pull out the player character's arrogantly dim-witted personality, exclaiming "Winning!" as a particularly large swell of orcs is rent into giblets by a storm of arrows. His face does bear a slight resemblance to that of Mr. Sheen, though his jaw-line is exaggerated to "dashing" proportions. He's also the vehicle for most of what little story there is, providing a small update as he muses to himself at the start of each map.
A fantasy epic this is not. You are, or were, an apprentice War Mage, helping your master and the other war mages defend the rifts that lead from the orcs' shattered world to your own, presumably idyllic land. Your master, however, died when he slipped and cracked his head on a step, leaving you—the most inept War Mage apprentice of them all—in control. As such, the rifts are at the core of each map.
And that's almost literal. Glowing blue vortexes of energy sit, sequestered away in a small room or a corner thereof (sometimes two, forcing you to defend multiple rifts at once) and enemies charge toward them in waves, many falling prey to your carefully placed traps and minions. A counter by the mini-map tells one how many more enemies can escape into the rift, but players must be careful—certain monsters, such as ogres and gnoll scouts, count as five enemies, and dying begets a five-point loss as well.
The book of traps and abilities expands over the course of the game, each level completed granting you a new entry in your spell book or another form of aid, such as the Weavers, who act as a talent tree of sorts, either boosting your traps and minions in some manner or strengthening your character's abilities, making him a deadlier combatant. Players are limited, though, by spell slots, and while they're always given their crossbow, everything else from the bladestaff to traps, minions and spells must be carefully chosen at the beginning of a map. It's also worth noting that the Weaver boosts are purchased using the same currency with which one buys traps, and they reset at the beginning of every level, demanding that players carefully balance their upgrades with their trap placement. Remember, you will be judged.
The game's judgment comes by way of its ranking system, rewarding players with up to five skulls for the successful completion of a level. One's ranking is influenced by points earned, a mix of killing enemies using fast-paced combos—the liberal application of player attacks alongside traps and minion damage—and the number of enemies who make it into a rift. These skulls aren't merely for show, either. They can be used to upgrade most of the traps and minions in your spellbook, increasing their effectiveness or reducing their cost. These upgrades are permanent, purchased between levels or from the main campaign menu and carrying over from level to level.
And there are many levels. A couple dozen of them, in fact. While the earliest can be completed in minutes, later levels can take a significant chunk of time to play through, with more waves and greater numbers of enemies traversing more complex environments. There's a short break between each wave, and the assault pauses after every third to give players a chance to alter the playing field. Traps can be sold back for full value at these times, any damage to them being automatically repaired. This is a game that is confident in the challenge its design already poses, offering almost complete freedom in how one rearranges one's existing gauntlet.