Tower defence games have come out of their shell since flash games and the App Store took off and have infected even AAA games (although having it in Assassins Creed: Revelations wasn’t the best idea). With the sheer abundance of them comes a huge scale of quality, from being very well made too being firmly in the category of shovelware; thankfully Orcs Must Die! is definitely a quality package with the added bonus that you aren’t simply watching the action, but using a character to unleash your own type of hell on the orcs that are the main enemy in the game.
The premise is almost as obvious at the title of the game, though stating that you just kill orcs and nothing else doesn’t exactly paint the best picture, and it would lead to a very dull review! You are a magical apprentice set out to defend the magical portals of the realm with a set of traps, a crossbow, magic and your trusty sword, preventing hoards of orcs that pour through various entrances in the map. After each level you are given a new trap or spell to use and a set of orc skulls depending on how well you have done, which can be later used to improve your arsenal. Furthermore, you rack up xp after every kill that allows you to add further traps to attack/defend with. Very few of the traps that you are given ever feel useless, and it is immensely satisfying to combine a spring trap nicely lined up into a wall of spikes without having to break a sweat.
The learning curve is perfect as you start with minimal places where your enemy can come from. Traps come in a few different flavors with each favoring either pushing the orcs back to give you some time or to straight out kill them. As you gain access to more traps, and eventually a power up system focusing on your own combat or the usefulness of your traps, more exits and larger orcs and ogres start to test your skills. Getting through a level is never stupidly difficult, the mistakes you make are down to your trap placement or positioning not the unfairness of the game, but gaining the full rating on each level provides a worthier challenge. Added to this, you can up the ante by starting the whole game again on a harder difficulty after your first play through.
Controls are intelligent, with the HUD is clean and precise enough for you to set off any amount of spells at your disposal with little trouble. The standard health and magic bars help with balancing the game as you will die if you rely on your sword alone.A helpful mini map is also located in the corner of the screen, a great way to plan where to attack, not so great if you are the nervous type and don’t enjoy seeing your inadequate defences laid to waste!
The story itself takes a backburner throughout, a tower defence game rarely needs a Final Fantasy style storyline to motivate it, with your character being an apprentice of a great mage. As an interesting twist, the mage got given you as a punishment as the hero isn’t exactly the most straight edged and intelligent character in the gaming universe. The game riffs off the irony of the safety of the realm being placed into the hands of someone whose brain cells are lacking. It adds a nice layer of humor to the constant action you are faced with. Semi cell shaded graphics add a nice fantasy basis to the premise, more Warhammer 40k stereotypes than Lord of the Rings fear mongerers, with deaths coming in the form of explosions or decimation into bright splashes of blood ,whilst vocally shouting that they want their mummies.
The whole game looks very much out of a comic book and it never seems to take itself too seriously which is a good thing. Defence games don’t tend to have a large amount of longevity, and, simply by the game type it is, Orcs Must Die! has the same problem. There is no massive end of level boss, or some massive undertaking or emotional payoff that will reel the player in. Beginning to end, the game shouldn’t last longer than 4-5 hours, which is extended if you count for achievements, upgrading everything and playing through again on the harder difficulty. As there is no large motivation to continue playing, beyond the occasional need for pure unadulterated violence, it falls into the trap of pick up, play and put down again within in the space of 45 minutes. The music, though fitting into the theme, seems to play the same soundtrack over and over again with minor variations. There is only so much hacking and slashing can hide before the music borders on irritating, Furthermore the upgrade system that uses the in game xp only comes into play half way through the game, something which seems odd to me as it’s a well thought out addition and would benefit from being introduced into the game sooner rather than later.
These, however, are really rather minor quibbles as Orcs Must Die! is a must purchase, and is perhaps one of the best XBLA available at the moment, with a sequel in the works. The combat is fun and satisfying, the learning curve at just the right pace and the graphics and style all combine to an amazing and amusing package; well worth the Microsoft Points!