Developer: Robot Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
We rated Orcs Must Die! when it released last year, even nominating Robot Entertainment's downloadable hybrid as one of the Best Strategy Games Of 2011. The tower defence genre received a healthy dose of moment-to-moment action that complimented rock-solid strategic play (with ex-Ensemble veterans involved, this was a foregone conclusion), resulting in a deceptively accessible thief of time. We were provided with an arsenal of traps, a trusty crossbow and a legion of orcs to point them at... and followed the clear instructions on the tin. Killzones were created. Carnage ensued. Orcs died, because they must.
But we wanted more.
Outside the twenty levels, we had little to keep us coming back, and we craved co-op so badly we started imagining phantom companions sitting next to us on the couch. A mere nine months later, and Robot Entertainment has returned with a numerical sequel - in name, at least. In practice, Orcs Must Die! 2 feels like the game they wanted to make in 2011: a definitive, infinitely deeper and multiplayer-supported edition that refines their big idea into the real deal.
The core gameplay conceit is still present and correct. Forced to protect a portal from ravening waves of orcs and other magical beasties, you'll scurry around some mines to place traps in the path of the oncoming horde, then run about like a loon gunning down invaders in straightforward third-person combat. Though other tower defence games encourage you to work out how best to use different towers in tandem, Orcs Must Die takes the concept further by allowing players to construct intricate mechanisms of spikes, acid, flippers and magical constructs in an effort to create a perfect killzone; the TD equivalent of Lemarchand's Box.
Perhaps you'll bounce orcs into a ceiling of rotating razor blades and douse the survivors in acid? Maybe you'll force the armies through pools of brimstone, peppering them with arrow traps and finish off any stragglers with Paladin defence constructs? More likely, you'll do something else entirely, and desperately add your own firepower to the defence to plug the gaps. The balance between thoughtful strategy and hectic action is once again spot-on, but this time, it's infinitely deeper than before.
The addition of a new character, the arrogant and somewhat scantily-clad Sorceress, affords an entirely new take on the action. Though both classes can wield much the same traps, new abilities - such as a powerful charm spell that temporarily bewitches foes into fighting amongst themselves - makes her completely distinct from the War Mage in gameplay terms. Pleasingly, both characters level up independently, so we can develop markedly different builds. Which leads us nicely onto Orcs Must Die! 2's second major improvement: a radically revamped skulls and upgrade system.
Completing levels and in-game challenges rewards players with skulls to spend in an enormous spellbook of upgrades. Each trap can be improved through three levels, becoming more potent, and radically altered by a selection of unique upgrades that change the way you'll use them. Want to put arrow traps on the ceiling? Go on then. Instead of being bound to a single crossbow, we can now spend skulls on a massive number of new weapons (each of which packs a secondary fire mode with a unique combat role) and improve them accordingly. Equippable items can be bought and boosted, providing statistical increases and buffs. There's more variety in terms of traps than ever before, including some nifty auxiliary defences that can increase gold supply or other more esoteric functions, allowing players to continually experiment with new combinations of defences and express their own personal play style. Should you fancy a new upgrade before tackling a tough stage, a new Endless mode is on hand to provide an infinite supply - vastly increasing replayability into the bargain.
Critically, Orcs Must Die! 2 now contains all the robust and addictive thrills you can only get from persistent RPG systems, without succumbing to monotonous grind in the process. Dungeon Defenders suddenly has a major new contender.
You're able to freespec your character at any time, refunding all skulls in the process. This respec system occupies an interesting middle ground between permanent RPG character development and versatile experimentation, and it's worth noting that many players will find this setup slightly awkward. Having to completely rebuild your class when you only want to swap skulls from one skill to another can be a little vexatious, to say the least. However, it's clear that Robot Entertainment wanted to deter players from using this feature too often, letting us take pride on our evolving characters while able to rectify any grievous mistakes. It's there if you need it.
Now that there are two characters, we can finally get to enjoy the single greatest evolution that Orcs Must Die! 2 brings to the table: online co-op. The original was crying out for multiplayer, and the sequel demonstrates that there's no better way to enjoy the experience. Both classes compliment each other perfectly in terms of skills, working together to cull the most dangerous advances and splitting up to fend off multiple assaults. Many of the levels have been designed with co-op in mind, featuring two or more attack paths that one player will find difficult to adequately defend, as well as a host of dynamic hazards to augment your defences. You'll need to communicate effectively to efficiently share out your communal money pool, but doing so pays dividends. This is how Orcs Must Die! was meant to be played, pure and simple.
That said, this new focus on cooperation can make Orcs Must Die! 2 problematic for solo players. The aforementioned co-op centric levels essentially provide major difficulty spikes on what is already a seriously uneven challenge curve - it's not impossible, but you'll frequently wish you had someone else along for the ride. I'm not willing to penalise Robot Entertainment for brilliantly balancing their maps for two players (it's a good thing), and clever use of overlapping traps and killboxes will get you through, but I can't help but feel that a dedicated solo campaign might have been a good idea.
Content-wise, Orcs Must Die! 2 is no slouch. You'll net fifteen levels (all of which are eminently replayable), the aforementioned Endless mode and a set of ten classic maps if you happen to own the original game. However, you'll doubtlessly notice that it's built on the same engine as before, with little in the way of graphical updates and very few audio improvements. Thankfully Orcs Must Die! 2 still looks and feels great thanks to an eye for attractive caricatured art design and a dry sense of humour.
Orcs Must Die! 2 released as a PC exclusive, which will doubtlessly delight a few hardcore players. But, sadly, this means that our dreams of kicking back with a mate on a couch for marathon sessions has become exactly that: an impossible dream. Splitscreen multiplayer doesn't make an appearance, and while an Xbox 360 version seems to be perfectly possible due to Microsoft Studios acting as publisher, it has yet to be confirmed. Considering how fantastic the online co-op is, however, you can chalk this up to our love of all things nostalgic - it's an observation, not a criticism.
- Co-op multiplayer fulfils our wildest fantasies
- Deep, satisfying and addictive RPG-style upgrade system
- Retains the brilliant balance of strategy and accessibility
- Co-op focus can compromise singleplayer fun
- Major difficulty spikes
- Precious few graphical or audio updates
The Short Version: Orcs Must Die! 2 is the game Robot Entertainment wanted the original to be. More importantly, it's the game we all wanted it to be. Despite only nine months in development, this effortlessly superior sequel delivers addictive depth, massive content and sensational co-op multiplayer.
Basically, Orcs Must Die! 2 is a must-buy if you have even the vaguest shred of interest in cooperative action, tower defence or RPGs.