Tower defense games: love them or hate them, you had better get used to them because the genre looks to be staying around for a lot longer than most people expected. The idea of TD games is relatively simple but somehow developers keep coming up with inventive ways to both expand and evolve the genre as a whole. The latest trend developers seem to be clamoring to is the concept of giving players a controllable character to use during the waves, allowing you to get directly into the action rather than just sitting back and watching the events unfold.
Orcs Must Die is the latest release from Robot Entertainment, the same studio that handled and maintained all post launch updates for Microsoft’s Halo Wars after Ensemble completed the project. Robot has taken the traditional tower defense formula and added in a bit of dry humor, a wide variety of stages, and a wealth of upgrades that ultimately deliver one of the most addicting games in the genre to date.
The premise is rather simple, as the last of a line of medieval war mages, all of the hopes of humanity rest on your shoulders as bloodthirsty orcs are invading. It sounds simple enough but the problem lies in the personality of your character; he isn’t the most adept student of the magical arts, he just happens to be the last one alive. Humanity doesn’t have any other choice and you are put in the position by default, not because of your ability. That game places you in a variety of dungeons, each possessing at least one “rift” which serves as both a source of your power and a portal to humanity. Wave after wave of angry orcs invade each dungeon with one purpose: overrun the rift and deplete its power, destroying it and you in the process. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to guard these rifts using a variety of traps, magic and weapons, and perhaps have a little fun along the way.
This is a tower defense game at the core so the basic premise has a line of enemies proceeding from one or more entrance points to your rift(s). Each stage varies in the amount of spawn points and routes offered which only serves to complicate things. You will need to take your time, survey your environment, and decide just how you are going to stop the “orcly” procession. With each stage that you complete, you are given a new tool of destruction. These range from a variety of traps which you can place around the environment to enchanted weapons which allow you to take them out head on. The fun though is had using your acquired traps to turn the environment into a playground of death and destruction.
The traps that you will earn run the gamut from spiked floor boards to spear launching wall panels to spring loaded catapults that propel your enemies around the stage. There are about 17 traps and weapons in total to collect and each one opens up a variety of possibilities to manipulate and already dangerous environment. Many of the stages also include hazards such as lava filled pits and cauldrons of boiling tar, which you can use to your advantage throughout each wave. As I have stated, there are more than just traps awarded to you during your progression through the stages. You will also be awarded weapons such as magic spells that freeze your enemies or set them on fire, as well as enchanted warriors / guardians that you can position around the stages to assist you in the battle.
Your weapons and spells are fueled by a mana gauge that recharges slowly over time. Some of these are incredibly high powered and use up your bar a lot quicker than others, especially when you begin utilizing the ones with two different firing modes. Just like your trusty crossbow, each one features an alternate, high powered attack to help out in those really tight spots where you need and extra boost of power.
While you are free to lay out your traps pretty much anywhere that you please, they don’t come free. There is a fee for placing a trap and you pay that using coins that you earn throughout the game. How do you earn more coins? By killing more orcs of course. The more you kill, the more you earn, enabling you to then kill even more. Ah the circle of life!
This is where Orcs Must Die truly succeeds. There are dozens of ways that you can deck out the different stages in order to take out the orcs. It is a ton of fun to combine trips and makes them work together, almost like a giant Rube Goldberg machine of death and destruction. Your creatively is only limited by your sick mind (or lack thereof) and the amount of funds that you have earned. There is a certain feeling of satisfaction when you set up an particularly deadly area that slows the orcs down to a crawl, while pounding them with spikes and spears from almost every direction; there are always a few that will make it through these locations as your traps reset their selves, but then they get launched back into the midst of the deadly barrage as soon as they step on a catapult tile when they thing they are safe.
In addition to unlocking the different traps and weapons, you are also given a chance to power them up. Completing a stage will award the player with a ranking of 1-5 skulls; as you accumulate skulls you can then spend them on enhancing your arsenal. Why not power up your floor spikes with a dose of poison to make sure that the damage continues to be inflicted after they step off of the plate? Perhaps power up your wall spears so that the distance which they detect enemies and that they travel are doubled? The choices are yours but you have to make your choices wisely as the skulls don’t come easy and some of the upgrades are rather expensive. You can try to build up a bank of them on the easiest difficulty if you choose, but the game limits you to earning only 2 per level when using that setting; if you want to really build up some skulls to spend you will have to do so on the normal mode (or hard / nightmare when you unlock it).
Later on in the game you will be given a third section of your arsenal in the form of mystic “weavers”. These are magical spirits that you can elect to have power you up over the course of a stage. While you will eventually earn the services of three different weavers, only one can be selected in a given board and their effects will only be felt during that stage. The powers that they offer you include thing such as the ability to earn additional money with each orc killed, quickly reloading on your traps, and enhanced effects on guardians placed around the stage. Each one seems to cater to a different gameplay style and it is a ton of fun to experiment with them and use them at different times. It almost feels as though each one creates a different experience and enhances that already deep variety of gameplay offered in the game.
Sure, this all sounds good, but the important question is how does it play? The answer is “like a gem”. The controls in the game are tight and responsive and the gameplay itself is incredibly fun and addicting. If there is any room for concern with the game it is with the various difficulty spikes that you will experience. You may find yourself cruising along a level or two and feel absolutely no challenge presented to you and then the next level will completely kick your butt. This happens quite a few times through the 20+ level campaign. Just when you think you are getting the hang of things and cruising a long, the game will emphatically put you in your place with a new, ridiculously hard level. This is when you will find yourself going back to the earlier levels and trying to max out the skulls that you have earned so that you can spend them on enhancing your traps to give you an advantage for the later levels.
Whether you are using a controller or a mouse and keyboard, movements and utilization of your arsenal is easy and feels naturally mapped. You get to choose which weapons that you will take into battle prior to beginning each stage; it is important to fill in your inventory slots in an order that makes sense to your plan as you will need to scroll through the options on the fly in the heat of battle. This is done using either the scroll wheel on your mouse or the bumper buttons on the controller (I used a wired 360 controller on the PC). The action can get incredibly hectic and you will need to stay on the move a lot. Purchasing and laying traps in the environment is as easy as pointing and clicking as the game projects your highlighted trap onto the screen for easy placement. The entire control scheme is designed so that you can keep up with the incredible pacing time and time again and it makes the game all the better in the long run.
While I don’t have any complaints about the gameplay itself, the voice acting that Robot has used for the main character can become quite annoying after a while. Your character is supposed to be a dim-witted mage, the slacker of his wizard class and he comes across as such. You cannot do anything in the game without him spewing a ridiculous one liner or taunting the enemies with obnoxious cat-calls and insults. It comes across as humorous as first but it won’t be long before you have heard all that he has to say and then he will quickly become nothing more than a broken record of obnoxiousness. Eventually you may find yourself playing with the sound turned down, I know that I did.
Orcs Must Die is a ton of fun and offers and insane amount of replay value. Gamers who like to challenge their selves to improve their performances with find plenty of reason to go back for more time and time again. The inclusion of online leaderboards only enhances this for those types of players though if you really want to join in the competition you will need to beat the game on normal and unlock the nightmare difficulty level. That is where the big boys play and where the real scores can be earned. If you are even remotely interested in the tower defense genre, this is a shining example of what TD games have to offer.