By: Armaan Khan
I feel bad for orcs. They get a bum rap in virtually every piece of fiction they’re portrayed in. It’s rare to see an intelligent, civilized orc running around; they’re all vicious, snarling thugs who only know how to crush, kill, and destroy everything in their path. We humans are constantly encouraged to slay them any way we can—a problem that isn’t helped when propaganda like Orcs Must Die gets released, which makes the wholesale slaughter of the species so much fun.
The premise of the game is as simple as the title. You are a Warmage, a member of an elite group of warriors tasked with defending the human world from orcish invasion. See, our world is connected to the orcs’ by a series of rifts, and it’s the Warmage’s job to defend these rifts, because if the orcs are allowed through they will wreck all our nice stuff. The story is light and only there to justify the game’s existence, but it is still very well-presented through magnificently painted still images at the start of every act and high-quality voicework throughout the entire game. The ending is also thought-provoking, which I didn’t expect from a game like this, and made me walk away from the experience thoroughly impressed.
OMD’s gameplay is best described as “tower defense with a twist.” The basic formula is as you’d expect: you’re plopped into a level with a certain amount of gold, which you’ll spend on defenses designed to prevent your enemies from reaching the rifts. The twist is you’re not playing from the usual overhead perspective. Instead, you’re an active participant in the battle, running around, placing defenses, and fighting from a third-person point-of-view.
That’s right: fighting. Unlike most other games in the genre, OMD requires you to take up your crossbow (as well a few other optional weapons), and get personally involved in the spilling of orc blood. You’ll find, especially during the first few waves of a level, that your defenses aren’t sufficient to outright kill everything that passes through them, so this hands-on approach is a necessity for success. The action gets frantic and adrenaline-pumping, especially when you’re dealing with maps in which the enemies attack from multiple entry points simultaneously, requiring you to be in more than one place at the same time.
Another twist to the gameplay formula is that you’re not allowed to use every single defense type in a level. You can have nine at the most—less if it’s your first time through the campaign—so you have to be selective about which defenses you’re going to bring. That means before you even think about fighting, you’ll need to figure out what tools will be best for the job. You’ll spend a lot of time scouting the level before an attack, analyzing the layout and deciding what defenses would be most effective. You’ll set up kill-zones in your mind and figure out the best ways to get from one side of the map to the other in a pinch. You’ll formulate a spending plan, both for your initial budget as well as for the additional cash you’ll earn from killing orcs and surviving successive waves of their attack.
This pre-fight analysis is what makes OMD the immersive, addictive experience that it is. It made me feel like a real Warmage, carefully planning the most effective defense using the limited tools and budget at my disposal. And the battle phase, which had me running around with my crossbow in hand wiping out orcs, ogres and kobolds in one location while simultaneously keeping an eye on the mini-map to see if my attention was needed elsewhere, increased the immersion factor even more. It got to the point where, when my character did his victory dance at the end of a level, I danced along with him because the feeling of accomplishment was so palpable.
The game isn’t perfect, though. The first thing you’ll notice is the lack of a tutorial, so you’ll have to figure things out as you play. Luckily the early levels are a breeze, so you’ll have room to learn and experiment without worrying about failure, but then you’ll get about a third of the way through the campaign and encounter the larger problem: the uneven difficulty curve.
If your first playthrough is on the default “Warmage” setting, you’ll encounter sharp spikes in the challenge levels. You’ll pass some levels by the skin of your teeth, while others will seem ridiculously simple by comparison. If things ever get to be too much for you, you can decrease the difficulty to the Apprentice setting, but if you’re unwilling to do that, you’ll face a very steep challenge at times, often followed by a couple extremely easy levels right after. It’s problematic but never really frustrating, because failure is always the result of flaws in your plan. I never once felt that the designers were being unfair and making the game hard in order to artificially extend the length of the experience. Every unsuccessful run through a level filled me with a desire for revenge against the horde, and I was formulating plans for my next attempt even before the defeat animation finished playing.
Orcs Must Die is available for both PC and Xbox 360, but it doesn’t feel like a port. The only giveaways are the smooth support for Xbox 360 controllers, and the interface that is clearly designed to be readable from across the room and not just from across a desk. Controller users do get a slight advantage in combat, however, since they can just hold the trigger down to rapidly fire the crossbow like a machingun. Mouse users have no choice but to rapidly click the left mouse button to achieve the same effect, which leaves the index finger quite sore after a short while.
Mousers benefit from the superior accuracy of their input device, though, so I guess it balances out in the end. Otherwise, everything about the interface operates exactly like you’d expect a native PC game to, right down to being able to quickly switch between weapons and defenses using the number keys instead of having to cycle through them one at a time like an Xbox player would. It’s a refreshing surprise to see such robust support for traditional input devices in a game like this and much appreciated. If you want or need to tweak graphics and other settings, however, you won’t find much here. Just overall detail levels, which honestly didn’t seem to do much, and volume levels for sound.
Conclusion – Is It Worth The Money?
There’s a lot of fun and value to be had with Orcs Must Die, even if you only play it through once on the easiest difficulty setting. It’s an addicting and immersive combination of tactical planning and hack-and-slash gameplay that is unquestionably worth every single penny of the $15 price tag.
Reviewer’s Note: It’s been pointed out in the comments that you can’t remap the keyboard controls. I didn’t notice because the setup is standard for third person action games, and I was completely comfortable with the layout. I didn’t go looking for the option, because I didn’t need it. That was an oversight on my part, and I apologize. If you’re a lefty, or prefer a non-standard control layout, then you’re definitely going to have issues with OMD’s controls, and you’ll definitely notice that it’s a port as a result.
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