Platforms: XBLA (Reviewed) | PC
Developer: Robot Entertainment
If Ronseal ever made a game, it would probably look like this. The striking title of this genre mashup from Robot Entertainment serves both as an imperative and indeed the entire theme of the game. You'll be doing exactly what it says on the tin, culling the monstrous blighters in their thousands.
But first, a spot of backstory. Thankfully I don't really have to go into detail here as Robot have lovingly put together a helpful free comic that you can scroll through here which explains all about Rifts, the Order, Orcs and why you really do need to make sure that they die. Essentially, Rifts are the source of all magic, interconnecting portals that bridge magical plains, and you - once your grizzled mentor has accidentally kicked the bucket - are charged with making sure that the hordes of Orcs besieging the fortresses built to protect these Rifts, never get anywhere near them.
So far, so good. Tower defence is hardly a barren genre, far from it. But the difference here is that you're not just marshalling against an onslaught, you're down in the trenches taking the fight to the enemy, backed up by a dazzling array of traps - both mechanical and magical - to help you in your task. Of course, not all of them are available to begin with. At the start you have a fairly paltry choice of weapons and traps - a crossbow, a bladestaff, a spike trap and a tar pit - but they are effective nonetheless. Moreover, it's not long before you're scything your way through levels, racking up the points and the handy skull rating.
Each environment - and there are many, split into three acts full of orcicide - has at least one doorway from which the orcs pour forth, and at least one Rift to defend. There's a limit up in the top right hand corner that essentially serves to tell you just how many gimmies you have left, how many more orcs the Rift(s) can sustain before your time is up. Let too many through and it's game over. At the start of each level you have limited funds with which to set the first of your traps, cycling through options with the bumpers, and placing your instruments of death with the triggers.
But this is a game that's all about flexibility. Traditional tower defence games have you sit back as the waves come, here you'll be haring about the map, popping in a wall of hacking and slashing blades here, an extra archer there, and then you'll remember that you've completely forgotten to seal off one hallway and you'll race across the area to take the fight to the orcs yourself. Although the first few levels are a bit bland, things soon get pretty heavy and the game takes full advantage of the 3D environments to have areas with corridors that twist and turn, over and under, with multiple entrances and multiple Rifts to defend later in the game. Areas of battle will shift and change, and there's nothing stopping you flogging your current defences and setting up a new corridor of nightmares for the oncoming orcs somewhere else. Indeed, the game can become so frenetic that it''s quite nice to be able to go back to the earlier levels once you've unlocked a torture chamber's worth of armaments, set up a fiendish gauntlet and sit back in contentment.
There are rewards for doing so as well. On each level, the game rewards you with a rating out of five skulls, based on your performance. The first couple should yield three, four or five skulls, but later on, when you have no idea which doorway will herald the next orc attack, things can get a little dicey and just making it through some of the later levels is a feat within itself. This really makes it all the sweeter when you return later on with some pimped-out traps to wreak terrible vengeance. Once you finish the game you unlock Nightmare mode, which adds more content, more replayability and, most importantly, many more orcs to kill. It's here that you'll find yourself competing for those high leaderboard scores, the game giving score-hounds something to come back to.
That Robot Entertainment - being made up of several guys who spent time working at Ensemble - nails the strategic element of the game should come as no surprise. But it's the action that will keep you on your toes. In amongst all of the traps, the mechanical scheming and careful preparation, in the heat of battle you are still the orcs' worst foe and, although the melee mechanics are relatively awful, using the crossbow is very satisfying indeed. There's even a nice little zoom function that slows things down just a tad to really allow you to nail those one-kill headshots. Using the upgraded tar pits to arrange a shooting gallery of orcs and systematically exacting the game's titular imperative is a lot of fun.
Orcs Must Die! is crammed with content and replete with replayability, particularly if you're up for a challenge. If there is one thing we would say, though, it's that, as with all good things, you want to share in the experience. This is a game that is crying out for, at the very least, a co-operative option and, although in many ways we should be thankful that Robot delivered such a well-executed singleplayer experience and that we're often banging on about how multiplayer shouldn't detract, I'd frankly love to be killing orcs with a mate.
At the end of the day, though, Robot have created a game on a simple premise that offers up a surprising amount of depth. And of course there are little things, for example, we'd have liked to have the background comic perhaps integrated into the game to provide a little bit of story, and the War Mage himself is a pretty annoying character (imagine if Bruce Campbell had a rather obnoxious sibling), there's no tutorial and the difficulty can spike pretty brutally at times, but the game's really good fun. And that's absolutely enough because the game never makes any pretence of doing anything outside of its remit. You don't really care about any of that stuff because Robot have created a game that focuses you intensely on one thing and one thing only: killing orcs.
- A fantastic mashup of action and strategy
- Accessible, fun and beautifully presented
- Lots of content...
- ...but little outside of the gameplay itself
- A few glitches try to spoil the party
- We wish it had multiplayer
The Short Version: Orcs Must Die! offers up a simple premise backed up with solid mechanics, some lovely, cartoonish presentation and a relatively low price tag. No, it's not particularly original, but Robot Entertainment have created a gleefully violent blend of action and strategy that proves fun in short bursts. We just wish we could double the culling with a friend.