It's often been said that it's better to do one thing really well rather than try to do a bunch of things poorly. The team behind Orcs Must Die! over at Robot Entertainment obviously took that axiom to heart, as the game's core mechanic is highly polished. While there are certainly other tower defense-style action games out there, you'd be hard-pressed to say that any other offered more efficient (not to mention varied) ways to eliminate the Orc hordes.
Set in a foreign land, the player is the last of the War Mages. A mystical sect charged with defending magical rifts from the incoming Orc hordes, this particular War Mage is brash, bold and cocky as hell. Your wizened teacher once fought alongside you, but he met his untimely death after a slip-and-fall accident.
Sadly, the War Mages are not OSHA regulated.
Each of the rifts is set within a War Mage castle. The object is simple. Make creative use of traps and skillful use of your weapons and spells to eliminate all of the Orcs before they make it through the rift. Do well, and you are rewarded with skulls that can be used to permanently upgrade your existing items. Skulls are awarded based on the number of Orcs let through the rift as well as the speed with which you complete each level.
Initially, your selection of traps is rather limited, with the game doling out a new trap or ability every level. You don't need the advanced traps to complete the early levels, though they can make it much easier to complete them with a high score. This is one way in which Orcs Must Die! encourages replay. You can always return to a prior level to try again. When returning to an earlier level, you have access to any items and abilities you have already unlocked.
Most of the traps are fairly straightforward items, though crafty minds can arrange them in devious ways so that they play off of one another. For example, the spinning wall blades are expensive and dangerous, but they don't have much reach. The spring-loaded push wall doesn't do much damage, but it can push a group of Orcs a decent distance. Initially, you'll probably use the push wall to knock Orcs into lava, but it also works great when paired opposite the wall blades in a hallway.
Although the traps should eliminate a majority of the Orcs, a handful is likely to make it through your defenses. Killing them requires direct action. The War Mage is initially armed with a crossbow and sword, but you'll also gain access to fire, ice and wind spells. The spells don't cost any money, though there is a mana bar that decreases with each use. You are free to roam the level in third-person view and engage the Orcs mano a mano. Fighting smartly, such as aiming the crossbow and earning headshots, versus just spamming the fire button is suggested; however, when an overwhelming horde sets in, panic sometimes takes over.
Learning how to fight efficiently is a necessary skill if you plan on tackling the Nightmare difficulty mode. On the game's easiest setting, you're free to wade into the slaughter and swing your sword all day. The damage you'll take is minimal. On normal mode, your War Mage can only take a handful of hits before the life bar is critically low. On Nightmare, you'd best avoid getting shot.
Once you get through the game's first act, you also gain access to the Weavers. Spell casters with cleavage, the three Weavers each allow a temporary upgrade tree. You can only pick one per level, and the effects are lost once you complete the map, but the assistance provided is invaluable in the later levels. One Weaver focuses on trap power-ups, another upgrades your weapons, while the third provides movement and defensive bonuses. Pick the one that matches your play style, and go to town.
With solid combat, good map design and creative traps, Orcs Must Die! offers plenty of entertainment out of the gate, but the cherry on top is the sense of humor that pervades the game. Put quite simply, Orcs Must Die! could easily have been an "Army of Darkness" game if it only had the license. The player's War Mage not only looks like Bruce Campbell's Ash character (sans the chainsaw hand), but he acts like Ash as well. The attitude, the one-liners, the general sense of "Good, Bad, I'm the guy with the gun" is found throughout. While Campbell's famous line isn't actually used, the game does poke fun at popular culture with lines like "So, that just happened," and "Oh no he didn't!"
That's not to say the in-game dialogue is just for amusement. It also serves a purpose by calling out the location of the Orcs whenever they pass a key point in the map. This can be immensely helpful, as your attention may be focused on defending another area. There's nothing worse than realizing a group of Orcs got through because you were distracted.
The only area in which Orcs Must Die! is disappointing is the complete and utter lack of multiplayer. Although the game has a great deal of replay value (the single-player adventure is no slouch, either, easily providing 8-10 hours of play on the first run), Orcs Must Die! is the type of game that is just begging for some sort of co-op mode. As is, the only interaction you'll have with other players is via the leaderboards.
A brilliant little game, Orcs Must Die! lives up to its name with gusto. At 1,200 MSP ($15 USD) for 24 levels of highly polished, Orc-killing fun, Orcs Must Die! offers up a satisfying balance of challenge, personality and strategy.
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