10 Oct 2011

REVIEW: Orcs Must Die!

Any game whose name fits the format “[insert species] Must Die!" is clearly not one to be holding its cards close to its chest - whichever race it happens to be casually discriminating against. This is not the quiet child, sitting in the corner, carefully studying its textbooks whilst the other kids laugh and play. This is the obnoxious brat, the one dancing on the tables, picking his nose and flicking its contents at his peers. You may think that’s a bad thing, you may take an instant dislike to him. But he's not really a brat, he's just acting up for the attention. He's as smart as the kid in the corner, but he just wants to be loved.

Orcs Must Die! is that child. It's supremely, almost unbearably goofy, but also well aware of its underlying strengths. And it’s bloody wonderful.

The current trend for tower defence games is to place the player within the action, to provide them with an avatar and encourage them to get their hands dirty instead of floating around somewhere in the ether, endlessly building and rebuilding blockades and gun turrets. Here, you can shoot. In this game, your default inventory item is a repeating crossbow with unlimited ammunition. This is cause for celebration.

OMD! embraces its action stylings without apology, allowing the player to place defences whilst they merrily skip about the place, firing wildly and watching lumps of gore fly hither and thither across the screen. It doesn’t care that you want to employ optimal defence patterns, Grandad, it just wants you to have fun. How can you possibly deny it that?

As with anything these days there has to be a back story to justify the premise and, aside from it being borne of the standard fantasy fare, there’s enough good humour (although little actual good humour) in the telling that it remains fairly inoffensive throughout the course of the game. You play the part of an apprentice guardian tasked with defending the gateways to ... Oh, Hell, it doesn’t matter. You need to fight off wave after wave of orcs and other beasties in a varied succession of levels without letting a predefined number of them reach your base (or bases) before the final attack ends. That covers the basis of play entirely.

Your methods for getting this work done involve traps, the aforementioned weaponry and your own personal cunning. The traps, in particular, are a joy to utilize. Spikes, blades and spring boards can all be used to thwart the green tide. Hot tar slows the enemy down to allow them to group together before stepping forward in bloody symphony into whichever sadistic device you’ve summoned into the world. Archers and guardsmen can be placed to aid your cause and will act independently of your own actions. To list the rest of the items at your disposal would be to swamp this review, but rest assured there will be something for you, whoever you are.

My favourite trick? Placing gunpowder barrels on spike traps as an explosive contingency plan. There is no greater joy than watching a final gang of orcs slip past you when you’ve one of these at your back. I’ve laughed like a maniac so many times whilst playing this game that I have to wonder if its not me that should be stopped.

In order to place traps and other helpful objects you’ll need to earn money from murdering enemies. If you string a bunch of kills together then you’ll receive an extra bonus that increases your chances of reaching a higher grade - rated in skulls - when the level ends. Skulls act as currency in upgrading traps outside of play, making your favourite devices more effective or cheaper to place. It’s a system that really rewards return plays because you won’t be expected to pass any of the levels with flying colours on the first attempt. The emphasis here is on experimentation. Well, that, and bloody murder.

The pacing of play must also be commended. A couple of times each level you’ll be given respite for as long as you want prior to another onslaught. These free periods are blessed relief when you’re under pressure and allow you to spend as much time as you wish to take what the game has taught you and put it into action. Despite its difficulty, OMD! promotes playfulness. If you don't like where you've placed certain traps or even if you want to redesign your entire playground of death, go ahead and make the changes at this time. You won't be penalised for your error. This isn't a hardcore game for the most part, but it does reward wily thinking and you'll learn as much by discovering what doesn't work as you will by what does.

At some point during your experience of OMD! you’ll wonder whether the game will ever stop expanding. I haven’t even touched upon the range of elemental spells at the guardian’s disposable. I haven’t mentioned the unlockable Nightmare mode at the end of the main campaign. And what about the research-trees that allow purchasable upgrades to increase cash flow and ability effects for a cash sacrifice mid-game? How on Earth can they pack so much into one tightly formed package? It’s honestly a wonder.

My only complaint arises from what is arguably the games strongest design feature. At times there may be too much freedom to express your bloodlust, especially when five or six different enemy types are beating down your door. It’s an odd gripe, I’m aware, and in my experience never fully manifested itself as a genuine annoyance, but for less patient players I imagine that the range of weaponry and traps available in the later stages can become slightly overwhelming when searching for the best solution to a particularly tricky green-bellied problem. If trial and error really isn’t your thing, then it would be the only time you would catch me questioning whether this game was worth a purchase.

For everyone else, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s easy to learn, pleasantly addictive and incredibly rewarding in its unfettered diversity. You may get stuck, you may pull your hair out, but you’ll likely always be back for another go. Above all, this is a game about discovery and, despite it being determined to act the fool, I have found it consistently surprising in its efforts to please.


Jason Staub said...

Next you have to check out dungeon defenders, the other really good tower defense game coming out this month

Rowan Davies said...

I may well catch up with it following its release as I'm interested in seeing how it compares to this, but I'm feeling a little overwhelmed by tower defence games at the moment.

On the other hand, I've just noticed they're boasting splitscreen co-op for Dungeon Defenders which I might not want to miss...