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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Review: Orcs Must Die! (PC)

The humble Orc and his position in the world of fantasy is an unenviable one. Whether it is in Dungeons & Dragons where they are a low-intelligence, low level brute sent to provide a barrier between you and a chest of treasure, low-intelligence servants of Sauron and Saruman in Lord of the Rings, or low-intelligence MMO grinding fodder, their role is clear. They are simple pawns in the game of life; there to allow the hero to get tougher. And thus is born Orcs Must Die!; a game all about killing Orcs. And how is the best way to kill legions of Orcs? Tower defence.

I share in the grumbling that tower defence is a genre that’s been done to death. There are many variants ranging from the cute (starring bloons, penguins, Final Fantasy) to the decidedly more monstrous (Two Worlds) but either way most offer rather similar fare.
For those uninitiated; there’s this nice, well trodden, pleasant little path. It travels right to what you deem precious. And then there’s a horde of unfriendlies trying to move through this path. You have to defend said treasure and to do that, it's simple; all you have to do is put up fortifications and defences (or, in this case, traps). Cue confrontation. Your defences work, the horde is killed and the day is saved. And then a tougher wave of enemies shows up, and soon you’re using more powerful tools to defend many different paths from all sorts of unfriendlies. Good thing they all fight in single file.

To an extent this is what to expect from Orcs Must Die! It has achieved all the basic benchmarks of a tower defence. However, the canny developers over at Robot have offered a great deal more. They offer RPG. The game is not played from the eagle eyed perspective from the basic tower defence games. Here, the player’s role is not only the place the towers, but also personally fight on the front line (with your choice of ranged or melee weaponry). Immediately that makes for a more personal experience.

The all important challenge factor is present, too; skill is rewarded (headshots kill in one go) and the higher levels (and difficulty settings) are definitely not for the faint hearted. Given the camera perspective, the game allows character to only focus on one horde at a time. Whilst this is rather simple when a single horde is attacking, the addition of multiple hordes quickly builds some truly challenging stages.

Further, most aspects of the game have benefited from some careful level planning, reflected in an impressive depth. So which boxes does it tick? Variety of enemies and capabilities of such? Tick. There is a mix of fast, slow and powerful, as well as the more exotic flying enemies, and those that can destroy the traps you lay down - everything you could ask for. Variety in traps and tools at your disposal? Tick. RPG related character growth? Tick (when he player advances enough, they gain access to full development trees). Are you sick of checking boxes now? tick.

Production values are high. Graphics and animations are well done (although perhaps not to the standards of a AAA game), and 'fantasy' physics are gleeful. Controls are easy, logical and appropriately sensitive, creating an uncluttered interface. Music is exactly what I’d want to hear if faced with a marauding horde of Orcs and despite the fact I normally am not a fan of grinding, the repeated squelching sound effects representing severed Orcs parts was remarkably satisfying. All in all, the product is finely polished.

Another feature that truly deserves plaudits is that the brilliant writing. Light hearted humour abounds. Opening cut scenes reveal how you are an apprentice to a great mage who, due to cracking his head on steps after slipping on kobold blood, finds himself about to undergo rigor mortis, with the worlds fortunes left onto the none-too-trusty hands of his rather unashamedly incompetent apprentice. Even if the wizard may have had a point, it is fantastic writing, immediately providing the 'screw you, I can so do this’ mentality. In other words; I was hooked.

I can recommend that anyone who doesn’t sympathise with Orcs to try this, as it offers a great combination of some of the best aspects of RPGs and tower defence games. Whilst it may lack on the truly high end tactical nous, the intelligent combination of gently balanced opposites: mass-slaughtering enemies (grinding to some) with the rather cerebral tactical aspects of tower defence holds a little for just about everybody. Ultimately it’s fun, light hearted, and a great way to escape into a virtual world for a few hours.

- Owen S

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Review: Orcs Must Die! (PC)
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