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Orcs Must Die!

(Microsoft Studios; US: 11 Oct 2011)

Orcs Must Die! has plenty of personality, which is good for a tower defense game. Its core mechanics are, by necessity, very similar to a slew of other games; thus it stands out from the crowd, but at the same time it understands its place in a crowded genre. There’s no slow learning curve here like in Plants vs. Zombies. Orcs Must Die! assumes you already know the basics of the genre and throws you into the fire without hesitation. This is not a good game for tower defense rookies, but if you’ve already proven you mettle against the countless hordes you’ll appreciate how quickly it gets to the action.


The horde in this case consists of orcs that burst through various gates around a level and make a beeline for the “rifts” you must protect. The levels are naturally maze-like, and it’s up to you to make that maze as deadly as possible. Since the game is played from a third-person perspective your character can jump into the battle at any time, though like any good tower defense game a well organized system of traps can take care of an orc horde all on its own. But it never hurts to help. You start with bladestaff and crossbow, though the former is pretty useless since it requires getting up close, and the latter is permanently in your inventory, so it’s clear which one the developer thinks you should use. Over the course of the game you’ll unlock magic spells that all come in handy in particular circumstances.


The magic and weapons have their uses, but the traps are the real stars: floor spikes, tar pits, spinning wall blades, a swinging mace, fire pits, and lots more; it’s hard not to feel at least a little sorry for those poor orcs. While you earn a new trap every level, up to 25, you can only take a fraction of those into the actual level. Early on your inventory is limited to four weapons/traps, up to nine by the end. So it’s best to only take the traps you think you’ll need. Thankfully, you can run around the level, studying it, finding the choke points, and creating a plan of defense, before you choose the traps. Since the first wave of orcs doesn’t start until you hit a button, you’ve got plenty of time to set things up and pick the appropriate traps. If the orcs get through your defenses you have no one to blame but yourself.


Once the first wave starts you’ll get three or four in a row, but then you’ll get a break and traps reset: If a barrier was damaged, it’s repaired; if a fire pit burned out, its set aflame again; if a Guardian Archer (another kind of trap) died, he’ll come back to life. This is great because it means your money is never wasted, even if a trap breaks.


At this point the next wave won’t start until you hit the button again, giving you time to adjust your strategy. It’s nice of the game to provide you this moment of peace, because it’s the only time you can effectively set new traps. I say “effectively” because while you can set a trap any time you want, it’s hard to think strategically when you’re staring down a horde of orcs. Breaking up the action like this allows you time to place traps smartly; it’s a subtle trick that ensures the game remains strategic and never devolves into a mindless shooter.


When you do place traps smartly you earn skulls, which are used to upgrade your traps. The game is oddly stingy with these skulls: getting the max of five in a level demands a perfect defense. Literally, you can’t let a single orc reach the rift(s). And since upgrades cost quite a bit of skulls, and since you never know what kind of trap you’ll unlock next, the game inadvertently encourages you to hoard as many skulls as possible for as long as possible. By the end you’ll have figured out which traps are your clear favorites and worthy of an upgrade, but by that point the game’s almost over.


However, there are a lot of reasons to replay previous levels. Every trap and weapon you unlock can be used during a second attempt. It’s fun to go back to the beginning with a maxed inventory and a smorgasbord of death traps and utterly destroy the orcs—though this does make it easy to game the system. Just play through on Apprentice (easy mode) to earn all the traps, and then start on War Mage (normal) with a significant advantage. Since the difficulty ramps up pretty fast, it behooves you to game the system in any way you can as soon as you can because that advantage won’t last long.


The story is pretty throwaway: orcs invading and you must kill them; does it really matter why? The final cut scene does tackle an interesting idea regarding the role of magic in a fantasy world. On one hand, it’s interesting enough that it’s worth exploring more, but on the other hand, who really plays a game called Orcs Must Die! for the story?


Like the best tower defense games, Orcs Must Die! will make you see the world differently: you won’t just see hallways, you’ll see choke points; you won’t just see bridges, you’ll see an archer’s nest; and something as innocuous as stars will become objects of fear because you can’t place traps on them. Remember, when you start plotting how to best defend your home in case orcs burst through the front door, perhaps it’s time to put down the controller.


Or pick it up again to test your theory. Just in case.

Rating:

Nick Dinicola made it through college with a degree in English, and now applies all his critical thinking skills to video games instead of literature. He reviews games and writes a weekly post for the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters, and can be heard on the weekly Moving Pixels podcast. More of his reviews, previews, and general thoughts on gaming can be found at www.gamehounds.net.


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