It wasn't Gears 3, which showed up to the Play Day with Horde and Beast modes for some multiplayer action, that impressed the most at Microsoft's introduction to Gamescom. Nor was it Halo CE: Anniversary Edition, with its Reach-rendered matchmaking modes. Forza 4 attracted the largest gaggle of gurning games journalists, but for us it was the half hour we spent chatting to Robot Entertainment and spending some time with their simple, yet satisfying XBLA action-defence title Orcs Must Die that proved the highlight of the afternoon.
Toy Soldiers proved that you can make defence games better by sticking the player into the action as well, making them an active part of keeping bad things - in this case, slobbering, slavering orcs - from one's door. But Orcs Must Die takes this to new levels. It might be your fortress under attack from ravening hordes of pimply, viridian uglies, but you're tasked with taking the aggressors out. Completely. With impunity.
To that end as the game unfolds on any of the 25 levels, your main objective is to kill orcs. All of them. Their main objective is to get from the gateway to portal rifts that you have to protect. Too many orcs reach the rift and it's game over. It's a simple premise, a fairly classic defence standard at that, and as you progress from starting out with one gateway and one rift, gradually those numbers increase as the game becomes more and more difficult. and you're not just an armchair architect general this time, with a bird's eye view of the action. No, this time you're on the floor, on your own, protecting your halls with your own body.
I say 'alone', you do have a few handy items at your disposal, namely traps of all shapes and sizes: all upgradable to increase their efficiency in fulfilling the titular mandate, with more to unlock as you progress, but more on that in a bit.
Before the first wave begins, triggered with the 'Back' button, you have a limited amount of coinage and five weapon slots to fill with the items of your choice. We plumped for a crossbow, a classic spike trap (the bane of many a tomb raider or Persian prince), a bladestaff, wall-mounted arrow traps and exploding barrels that send miscreants flying when damaged. Sadly we didn't realise the necessity of setting traps at first, hit the 'back' button, jumped into the fray with our bladestaff in hand and were quickly overwhelmed by marauding monsters.
Cue round two.
The first level was a simple one, shaped like an 'L' with an upper walkway bridge near the entrance that provided the perfect vantage point for some crossbow action. We dumped a few explosive barrels near the gateway, slapped a few spike traps down on the ground under the bridge and emptied our coffers with a wall of arrows just around the corner of the 'L'. On came the orcs, a swift arrow to our first barrel sent four of the blighters flying, two more went down from headshots and our coins were replenished as the kill combos added to score multipliers. Soon, however, there were too many to simply keep picking off and they swarmed under the bridge. Happily our spike traps began to do their jobs, slowly at first, at least giving us time to pick off stragglers who made it through. A second wave came forward after that, now containing pesky archers of their own, with a third one after that bringing on some heavily armoured orcs who needed a bit more persuasion to go down. Thankfully we were able to build more traps on the fly, peppering entire patches of floor with spikes, and lining them up with arrow walls for maximum effect. Orcs did die.
The second level mixed things up a little more with two gateways, a central rift, along with flying enemies and multiple routes of attack, meaning we had to be rather more tactically-minded. The initial setup is crucial. You'll be able to pick your prospective arsenal for that level from a spellbook at the start, but once you've chosen your five, there's no going back. From there you deploy your arsenal of devious defences, equip yourself with a weapon and get ready for battle.
At the end of each level, you'll earn a skull rating out of five, dependent upon how many orcs you dispatched, skulls that can be used to upgrade your traps and weapons further, increasing their efficiency, their rate of fire and the damage they deal.
Orcs Must Die doesn't do anything radically different, it doesn't particularly innovate the genres in which it dips its toes too much, but then again it doesn't really need to. By combining a defence title with hack 'n' slash elements, Robot Entertainment have created a game that's imply fun to pla as y and far less mindless than the latter mechanics might suggest. The combination of action and strategy is a well-trodden path, but one with room for a little title that does the basics well. Throw in some charmingly cartoonish graphics and animations and Robot's release of a comic that provides some optional backstory to some of the proceedings and there's an arcade winner here.
A co-operative mode might have been nice, or perhaps a multiplayer mode that sees one player taking on the role defensive manager with the other player marshalling an orc horde against them as some sort of monstrous general but, as the rep on the stand said, Robot really wanted to concentrate on delivering an enjoyable singleplayer experience.
Orcs Must Die will release on XBLA for 1200 Microsoft Points and PC in October. There are potential plans in place for a PSN version down the line, but Robot Entertainment declined to comment on specifics. Nonetheless, we'll be keeping our beady eye on this one.