Developer: Robot Entertainment / Publisher: Robot Entertainment / Played on: Xbox Live Arcade / Price: 1200 MSP ($15) / ESRB: Teen (Blood and Gore, Violence)
The tower defense genre has always been a desktop game to me, something that I would play through an internet browser between classes, and certainly not something I’d consider a full fledged videogame. In my mind, while these games were always fun, there just wasn’t enough content to justify paying for a physical copy of a tower defense game. So when I heard about Orcs Must Die! at PAX East this year, I was a bit skeptical: a tower defense game that combines third-person shooters with RPG elements? Much to my disbelief, Orcs Must Die! is easily the best game I’ve played in the genre, and it brings a handful of welcome additions that make the game entertaining, difficult, and satisfying.
You play as an unnamed War Mage, the last in a magical line of wizard-warriors. As a War Mage, you must protect the Rift, the source of arcane power. Unfortunately for you an army of orcs lead by a disgruntled previous War Mage wants nothing more than to destroy the precious rifts you’ve sworn to protect. Though you may be the last line of defense against the green-skinned baddies, you’re certainly not defenseless.
Orcs Must Die! blends the tower defense genre with third-person action seamlessly. In typical tower defense fashion, you must stop the orcs from getting from their entry point to your rift. By placing traps in strategic points throughout the level you can slow down and stop the coming onslaught. The variety of traps are both functional and fun: spike traps pierce and snare orcs, swinging maces can be placed on the ceiling, and wall blades hide until an unfortunate orc walks past which causes them to lunge out and skewer their prey. Setting up each trap costs a set amount of gold, and killing orcs grants you more gold to use for future waves of enemies. New traps become available after each stage. With nearly 30 traps to use and unlock you’ll find a collection of tricks that’ll suit your tastes. Many traps work well in unison: for example, the spring trap flings enemies in a desired direction, which can be especially devious when you fling your foes into, say, blades in the wall or off the bridge and into molten lava. I had a lot of fun exploring each of the traps, and the satisfaction you get from seeing your corridors of chaos obliterate masses of orcs is a blast.
Unlike other tower defense games, you don’t set up your traps and simply watch the enemies creep across the stage. You’ve got a few weapons at your disposal to take out the orcs in case the traps don’t finish them all off. A crossbow is good for picking off enemies at a distance, and the blade staff is great for melee and close ranged combat. Getting up close and personal with the hordes is equally as satisfying as watching them meet their demise in your cleverly placed traps. The blade staff and crossbow are surprisingly effective, and are a viable means for eliminating stronger enemies. These weapons also have a magical second attack which are good for stopping large groups of enemies quickly, but only if you have the requisite amount of mana. After about six stages you also gain the ability to spend gold to enhance either your traps, melee and ranged attacks, or magical abilities, adding even more customization to an already deep game. The action mixes well with the strategy of laying traps, and makes an otherwise non-interactive game genre very much the opposite. The game can be pretty rough, with even the medium difficulty giving a good challenge, let alone the nightmare difficulty mode. You’ll probably get your ass kicked in the later stages the first time you play them, but playing through them a second time will ease the pain a bit since you already know stage layouts. There’s only about 27 stages, so the whole game was over sooner than I desired, but replaying on higher difficulties and for higher scores adds some replay value.
Moving and aiming are both intuitive, utilizing the dual control sticks of the Xbox controller. Placement of traps is simple, and between waves you can sell back traps for the gold or move around traps. Melee combat with the blade staff is simple as well: you swing with the right trigger and use the magic ability with the left trigger. Ranged combat isn’t as tight as the rest of the game. A reticule helps keep your shots accurate and successive shots suffer from recoil making them less accurate. Even with a perfectly steady reticule arrows don’t always stay true, almost like the sights are a bit crooked. This becomes a larger problem when combating aerial enemies. Most of these enemies are far away and small, so shooting them becomes needlessly difficult. While this isn’t a big issue at all, it is a bit frustrating to be clearly aiming at an orc and just see your crossbow bolt zoom right past.
Visuals & Sound
Orcs Must Die! might be set in a castle dungeon, but that doesn’t mean it’s lacking in the visuals department. Stages range from dungeons, barracks, and castle rookeries, and each level is bright and colorful. The War Mage and orcs both look detailed and stand out well in the castle setting. The visuals are overshadowed, however, by the above average sound. Intense music plays during the oncoming horde attacks and a more ambient tune plays between waves. Sound effects are a high point too, with the squelches and cries of dying orcs resonating well against the castle walls. Hearing orcs say things like, “Can I go on break?” or “Are we there yet” in a dumb-sounding voice adds some humor to the dire situation, and the back-talking, arrogant War Mage adds his own charming quips. Overall the visuals are varied and the sound is stellar.
As far as tower defense games go, Orcs Must Die! offers a lot more than just simple trap laying. The action mixes well with the entertaining strategy elements of trap placement. The visuals are good and the sound is a definite high point. I only wish Orcs Must Die! Was longer; the game can be completed in around five hours, and after completing each level there’s little incentive to keep playing. Though it may be short, the overall experience to be had with Orcs Must Die! is a good one, that’s an enhancement for the tower defense genre.