Review: Orcs Must Die! offers a fresh take on tower defense

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Crossbow, blade-staff and spiky floor trap are only the very beginning in this whacky hack and slash tower defense game. Orcs don’t just die; they are burned, crushed, skewered, ground up, mutilated and electrocuted in a very satisfying game. Orcs Must Die! puts you in the role of The Apprentice – the last war mage, whose mentor and narrator has just slipped and cracked his skull after 300 years of killing orcs. Fear not! Despite the Old Man’s misgivings about your ability to protect mankind you have the tools, the magic and the knack for killing orcs to get yourself through this mess.

The first level is pretty straightforward – literally – you have a straight, narrow corridor with an ominously banging door at one end and a rift at the other. You’ll have 20-50 “rift points” at the start of each round and will fail the mission if your rift points fall to zero. You lose one, five or ten rift points each time an enemy makes it through the rift, based on how large they are. You’ll also lose five points if you die, though you’ll respawn without any other penalty. The levels advance in difficulty in a few ways. You’ll not only be fighting bigger, meaner enemies, you’ll also have to deal with greater numbers of waves, multiple spawn points and/or multiple rifts to defend.

At the beginning of OMD your arsenal consists of your crossbow (which is locked in to always be on your skill bar), a blade-staff and two traps: spikes and tar. After completing each level you unlock a new toy and by the end, you can equip up to nine abilities at a time, consisting of weapons, spells, guardians and traps.

The weapons are your crossbow and blade-staff, and while you aren’t required to wield the staff there isn’t a good reason to leave it behind. The staff makes a great oh-shit weapon when enemies get past the traps and you’re low on mana. The crossbow is always with you and rightly so, it provides range and an invaluable stun ability.

There are four spells available, and while you could equip all four you wouldn’t be able to maintain the mana to use them each regularly, and would miss out on other skills. You can pick from wind, fire, ice and lightning, and they each have two utilities – one low mana, one high. They’re an effective part of your arsenal but not always necessary. I usually kept two on my bar, if nothing else to save money rather than trying to fit in another trap.

Guardians on the other hand are a don’t-leave-home-without-it type of skill. There are two types, archers and paladins, though the paladin comes late in the game. The paladin makes a suitable back line defender, but the archers will save your bacon time and time again either from whatever high ground is available, or from a mid-line, or even from a bunkered front. I won’t call them absolutely necessary for normal difficulty, but I’d rather not try to replay each level without them.

The bread and butter of your slaughter is the set of traps at your disposal. These will reliably handle most of your slaying duties, or else control the orcs in a way that enables your archers to pick them off. The majority of your options fall into this category and are either floor, wall or ceiling traps. Each one will either deal damage or reposition your enemy in some way. Something I really appreciate about the balancing in the game is that the expensive late-game weapons and cheaper early weapons are both equally viable options throughout. I did stick to my originals more often than not, and it’s a strategy I condone, but I still felt that it was an option. Getting a five-skull rating on every level may be a different story, but you can play through with a wide variety of styles.

About halfway through the game you’ll unlock the Weavers, who provide a skill tree to progress through during each level. These can either enhance your guardians’ and traps’ abilities or enhance your own killing power with weapons and magic. The skill tree you choose each round will be the main decider of how you play that round, as it will drastically improve whichever set you choose. This will take you from sitting back with your crossbow and wind belt keeping enemies in the traps to rushing the front line and calling in a fury of elements.

I have to say, I knew I was going to enjoy this game from the first mission. I don’t play a lot of tower defense games, so it’s unusual for me to plan on buying one even before it’s released. OMD has a different look though, since it’s played from a third-person perspective rather than bird’s-eye view like most tower defense games. There isn’t much of a story behind the gameplay. In fact you get the majority of it from about four cutscenes spaced out between the levels. The rest comes from some mid-fight dialogue that you may not catch right away. Still, there’s more than other tower defense game that I’ve played, and it really feels like an extra tidbit rather than a missing chunk. Most of the story is spent portraying the hero to be a meat-head mage only a little brighter than the orcs. I saw this as a bit of a commentary on how most tower defense games can be played – with a very simple strategy that forces dumb AI onto a winding path that maximizes damage. After that, most of the time is spent just watching and masochistically enjoying the slaughter. This game certainly has those elements, but also much more.

There is a great variety of traps and minions to use, and a limited number you can take into each area. The levels also vary greatly, changing the length of the path the orcs must take, the number of spawn points, the number of rifts, and the types and number of enemies. On several maps you will get to create your uber trap at a choke point and laugh your best evil genius laugh at how well it contains the horde, but there are also missions that are just too expansive and you will feel the stress of running back and forth constantly to bolster defenses at one end just to run back and personally take care of the other.

There’s a wide enough variety of enemies coming through with different attributes to make you really plan ahead if you want to win the later missions. Some are just plain dumb and slow, others have higher health, some just sprint for the rift at a high speed, and some will bring some extra firepower against you and your guardians. The design is so well put together that each wave is, more often than not, noticeably more challenging. You may be asking the question “How many more must I kill??” but you’re not yawning while you ask that, you’re hunched over and panting heavily, afraid of what devious plot these developers have in store for you.

Combine all this with the challenge of earning a five-skull rating on each level as well as leaderboards and you’ve got a lot of replay value here. If that’s not enough, the Nightmare levels will definitely kick your ass for several extra hours before you make it through. The real pull here though is looking around and finding the perfect spots for your traps, planning out how to use your coins, spotting where to place your archers and then watching all this come together. The clockwork motions of orc killing are indeed intricate and when you do this game right, you have a combination of efficiency and art – in the form of orc massacre.

The one thing I’d say is missing from this game is a multiplayer feature. It’s great comparing myself with my friends and a few thousand others (as of this writing I am ranked No. 2 on the mission “Gateway”!) but it would take the game ahead leaps and bounds to be able to defend a rift with a friend. Whether you shared resources or each earned your own, you could add hours of gameplay and I think pull an even larger crowd. I hope this game has a sequel or some DLC that features this. If the game had some well implemented multiplayer this would be a solid 5 stars. The animations haven’t worn on me even 25,000 kills in. The game wins, pure and simple.

The Good: Chop, splat, zing, whizz! – Oh what a relief it is!

The Bad: I want to play with friends!!

The Ugly: I need more blood give me the blood orcs blood blood Iwanttheblood

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