The internet is alive with takes on the tower defence genre, but these titles rarely see console releases. After all, why pay for something when you can play a flash equivalent online? Over the last couple of years, those folks that have managed to scour their way through the dregs of the millions of online flash games have been greeted with a few hidden gems, such as the monstrously popular Plants Vs Zombies, which has successfully transferred itself from the realms of the desktop to become a popular console and even mobile game. Now, here comes Orcs Must Die!, a spin on the tower defence formula that tries something different without straying too far from the blueprints of its online predecessors.
So as you may have guessed, the idea here is to fight off waves of orcs and monsters in a bid to stop them entering a portal to the outside world. You take control of a young apprentice magician who takes over the role of portal defender after your master falls to his death (quite literally). The storyline is pretty much unimportant though, and as soon as you’re ten minutes into the game it becomes quite obvious that it’s almost entirely irrelevant. Each level lets you set up before the chaos begins, and when each wave is over you have a set time to prepare for the next lot of orcs to hit. Killing orcs will earn you points to spend on strengthening your defences, but the time between each wave is very limited, meaning most of your choices need to be decided on quickly to avoid a messy start to the next round. The game starts off nice and easy, but with no real tutorial you’re sort of left to fend for yourself and work out everything as you go. This isn’t really a problem if you’re a strategy veteran, but the difficulty curve is pretty steep and some players may find it a little difficult to grasp at first, especially when the waves come thick and fast.
There’s plenty of different traps and you unlock more as the game goes on by completing levels. Many of these torturous traps involve spikes, such as the spiked floors that pop up when an enemy walks over them, or the spiked walls that are triggered when an enemy passes, but more options open up as the game goes on, including purchasable units such as archers. While most traps are used to damage enemies, some serve to hinder the orcs in different ways, such as slowing them down or even poisoning them. You have full control over where you place these traps, and all levels require some level of strategy to complete. Putting different traps in different places effects how things pan out, and badly placed traps can mean the difference between life and death. This is probably the main strength of Orcs Must Die!, the traps are varied enough and open enough possibilities that you’ll spend hours just trying stuff out to see how many enemies you can take out at the same time.
Unlike most defence games, you actually take control of the lead character and you can make your way around the map and help your defences fend off the oncoming waves. You’re equipped with basic weapons and magic spells which can be used to wade through enemies when things become a little heated on the battlefield, which is often the case with Orcs Must Die! as the amount of enemies your usually facing dwarfs your forces.
The enemies are pretty varied, ranging from your everyday orc to fast little gremlin-like demons, flying bats and brutish creatures that take a beating to take down. The cartoony artwork of Orcs! fits the game’s self-mocking style and the character modelling is perfect. The environments are also well put together and no two maps are the same, meaning your strategy is bound to change between levels.
Orcs Must Die! isn’t without its problems, but you don’t really notice them until the latter half of the game. It’s definitely fun, but once you get around 80% of the way in, you realise you’ve seen it all before. Fair enough, you get the odd new trap or power, and upgrading and planning new strategies and making new combos is addictive, but when you look past this you realise this is just the same game you’ve spent the last few hours on repeating itself. Nothing really grabs your attention and, at times later on, Orcs! can feels stagnant and frustrating rather than strategically satisfying and fresh like the early half of the game. It really comes down to how much time you want to put into creating new combos and upgrading your traps though, there’s a lot you can get out of the campaign if you put your mind to it.
The campaign itself is lengthy enough to keep most players satisfied, and there is a Nightmare mode for players who desire a harder challenge after the main game is over. This mode replays earlier levels but obviously on harder grounds; guardsmen don’t regenerate, waves are bigger and have harder and faster units and the crystal has less points. There aren’t any online options, but you can enter an Xbox Live leaderboard to compare your scores with everyone else if you want to get a competitive buzz.
Altogether, Orcs Must Die! is well worth splashing your Xbox Live Points on if you want a simple, fun and satisfying strategy game. Unless you’re a massive strategy nut though, you might find the latter half of the game lacking somewhat. Still, Orcs Must Die! throws some pretty entertaining scenarios at you and spending time trying out different combinations with the traps is great fun. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and, in turn, you shouldn’t take it too seriously either. Take it as what it is, a fun, semi-shallow but altogether satisfying orc torture chamber that can be picked up for a blast whenever you fancy relieving some stress.
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