Orcs Must Die Review

November 30th, 2011 by

Vital Stats

Genre: Tower Defense
Players: 1
Online: Leaderboards

Developer: Robot
Publisher: Robot
ESRB Rating: T
Release Date: 10/11/11


  • PC
  • x360

It’s hard to believe that just a few short years ago tower defense was mostly confined to cultish flash games. Indies have have since stretched the genre into multiplayer, dropped player perspective to the trenches, and even stripped out the walls. Orcs Must Die is best understood against that backdrop. It’s a payoff game that emerges from so much industry to refine innovation into polish.

Let Us Hunt Some Orc
Orcs Must Die primarily concerns the War Mage, last of an order barring orcs from the unready world. War mages stand on the scary side of an interdimensional tear, setting traps for anything stupid enough to lumber through. Fortresses were built around the rifts to aid defense, but the doors are inferior construction and some of the layouts came from obviously suicidal mages.

I mean really, who puts EIGHT doors around the contested dimensional rift?

Defending the rift means first directing the War Mage to reinforce the defenses, then thinning the horde and mopping up leftovers during three orc waves. Rinse and repeat until you run out of either orcs or luck, and you have the core gameplay cycle.

Your defenses break broadly into weapons and traps, but traps are the primary limited resource in Orcs Must Die. Traps categorize into damage and physics, with damage traps whittling down the horde while physics traps push them off cliffs (gold star to the animators for hilarious flying orcs). Your build resources roll in with each dead orc, but interestingly there’s no sell penalty, so you recover 100% of the value when you remove a defense. Orcs Must Die is the first game I’ve seen try this approach, and it pays off in freedom to completely reorganize your defenses on the fly. You don’t really realize how much you hated a useless punishment mechanic until some developer thinks to remove it, and I hope the genre internalizes this lesson.

Freedom to reorganize aside, your traps are surprisingly slow. After a trap pops, there’s an excruciating reset period where three or four orcs can pass unmolested. Even the extremely expensive always-on traps are fairly weak. So, in moments of bad synchrony, large groups can march through your entire gauntlet unscathed.

Weak traps are a little disorienting from a perspective of traditional tower defense, but not strictly a bad thing. Instead, they refocus the game from pure strategy and more toward action as you’ll be stemming the tide early in the build, and mopping up toward the end. So this is a tower defense game that doesn’t need a fast forward button, because the War Mage is never stuck waiting for build resources during orc waves. Weapons are mostly high fantasy equivalents of venerable FPS weapons (e.g. assault rifle, shotgun, etc.), though there’s also a physics weapon so you can pitch orcs off cliffs alongside your traps.

Rube Goldberg (Death) Machine
If this all sounds complex, it is. I haven’t even touched on the Weaver buffs that customize you and your 25-ish traps, the toggle between build and fight control contexts in the FPS-style interface, or the upgrade system. This is a game where depth is commensurate with complexity, and you have to allocate some mindshare to it to wring out the good stuff. There is an easy mode if the difficulty seems overwhelming, and the developers have done an amazing job packing so much control into a relatively elegant interface, but this really just isn’t a casual sort of game.

Complexity does have some perquisites, however. Orcs Must Die features the smartest and richest level design in the genre. You’ll spend some time defending the usual bottlenecks and pincer positions, but it’s not long before enemy paths start branching, crisscrossing, and extending into depth. Soon enough, they’ll be charging up spiral stairs, under boiling oil and untrustworthy chandeliers, and through claustrophobic hallways whose every surface accommodates some sinister device. The level design adds a sense of place, a rich playground for cheery violence, and some challenges the genre has never seen.

Orc AI navigates the complex space by following left- and righthand rules and charging up the center. You end up with orcs streaming just everywhere, which makes for an interesting pain in the ass if you want to stop every last one. If those aren’t enough to keep you busy, there are also specialized enemies who preferentially target you, your troops, and and your orc-channeling barricades.

Not Easy Being Green
The gameplay may be complex, but the presentation is very focused. The game is about cheerful fantasy orc slaughter, and it stays on message. The War Mage is a nice combination of brash, irreverent, and stupid that makes him a suitable action hero. He hails from the one-liner school of action dialog, and the voice work is so saturated with enthusiasm that it’s contagious. The orcs are clumsy, cowardly, and amazingly stupid. The fortresses are aggressively gothic, and the soundtrack owes a lot to Night on Bald Mountain, though with rather more electric guitars. If you like unrepentant caricature action, Orcs Must Die will keep it coming right to the end. If that sort of thing gives you a headache, you’ll want to brace for aneurysm.

That said, the game could have used a separate voice and sound slider. Orcs in a meat grinder tend toward rudeness, and can really cut into the dialog. It’s not like the story is so nuanced that you must hear every last thing, but it’s a shame to miss the quips the first time, and likewise a shame to suffer them over and over again.

I Come Bury Orcs, and to Praise Them
There’s a lot going on in Orcs Must Die, much more than you’d expect from the brisk action. The game has clearly benefited from the last five or so years of obsession with accessibility, but complex trap mechanics and occasionally cruel level design ultimately betray it as hardcore. That said, the game’s distinguishing trait is polish. Trap mechanics aren’t just deep, they’re easy to use. Level design transcends complexity to richness. The game strikes a storytelling tone and keeps it. Orcs Must Die is a worthy addition to the genre and the medium.

What It Costs: $15

What It’s Worth:
To The Hardcore: $20 (buy)
To The Genre Fan: $20 (buy)
To The Casual: $0 (skip)

As a personal aside, I’d like to highlight a practically invisible feature. I started out playing Orcs Must Die with keyboard/mouse and switched to controller part way through. I did it while building traps, and it switched seamlessly. Moreover, the instant I touched a button on the controller, the HUD button feedback INSTANTLY SWITCHED OVER to the new input type. Now that we, as a species, have mastered this technology, every game for the remainder of human history should work this way.


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  • 1 Alan De Smet Dec 5, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    I was bored of the tower defense genre, but Orcs Must Die was a blast. The ability to join the fight kept it interesting, as was the piles of amusing ways to kill orcs. Trenched tried much the same, but the demo bored me, in part because I really didn’t care about the monsters and the limited tower installation positions felt forced.

    It’s not a perfect game. Audio levels are problematic; sometime you miss plot over the sounds of murdering orcs. There at least one overly powerful trap combination, and a good dozen garbage traps. But, it’s fun to murder orcs.

    I got to the final level, took it for a spin and decided, screw this, but I had a lot of fun prior to that point.