REVIEW – Orcs Must Die (XBLA)

Orcs Must Die’s biggest issue is its release date.  Released approximately two weeks after Gears of War 3, Orcs Must Die is essentially a more colorful single player Horde mode with its fast paced gameplay and cartoony traps.  The question is, should anyone play this when five-player Horde 2.0 mode is now available?

Although the basis behind Orcs Must Die is similar to Gears’ it retains a flavor all its own.  You play as a mage apprentice tasked with holding back an onslaught of orcs from reaching a magic gate which is linked to the human world.  Why this deadzone between the orc’s world and the human world exists, and why the orcs just don’t travel straight to the human world is a simple question to ask, but the player can expect to slay a sea of these green goblins.

The strategy behind each of these arena based levels is how to best utilize available traps, invoking a strong sense of Tower Defense gameplay – the more orcs you kill, the more money you earn to buy new traps.  Spiked floors, arrow walls, spring boards, tar pits, archers, barricades… thoughtful placement all are necessary in bringing down the green beasts.  Starting from their spawn point, the orcs will travel through the stage with the goal of reaching the magic gate at the opposite side.

Completing each stage usually revolves around two important tactics: funneling the orcs to a centralized location and backpedal straffing with the automatic crossbow.  Because this game is a single player experience, thoughtfully placing your traps is the key to success from the overwhelming orc throng.  Like Left4Dead, orcs will blindly charge in your direction with speed and in mass numbers.  Unlike Gears where each kill is deliberately planned, Orcs doesn’t require, nor does it allow, accuracy whatsoever.  When using the auto crossbow, the player can only spray arrows into a general direction.  Sure you can zoom in a little bit with the Left Trigger, but the arrow’s accuracy is random at best.  Out of the thousands of orcs that I killed, I think I saw the coveted “headshot” pop-up indicator twice which might also indicate a hit detection issue.  And to provide an indication of the quantity of orcs that funnel through each stage, I unlocked the “kill 1000 orcs” Achievement just a few levels into the campaign (and there are dozens), and each level only lasts a few minutes.

Using the shoulder buttons to scroll through available weapons and traps is difficult when fighting off the orc horde but works well enough when you have time before the next wave starts, although an opening tutorial would have been helpful.  Like the infinite and rapid-fire crossbow, the sword, the other default weapon, allows for quick swings and will never break.  However, the sword seems underpowered, especially when trying to tackle large number of orcs at once, making the crossbow the preferred weapon of choice.  Other items like the bracelet, which gives the player the power of a Jedi Force push, works well but only in the right stage; there is no point in having this weapon take up a precious item slot if there are no pits to push the orcs into.

Each stage has its own leaderboard and the player is rewarded with points to permanently level-up available traps.  Unfortunately, it takes quite a while to be able to purchase that next trap upgrade which slows the game’s progression.  And even though the player earns access to a new trap after each beginning stage, it isn’t hard to see the repetition after the first handful of levels.  Again, using the choke point backpedal crossbow technique becomes routine and typical.  Later levels start introducing new environmental hazards, like teleporters, stairs, and multi-tiered stages but it feels like these elements were mindlessly implemented to add artificial challenge.  Level design is good, but not the best. Each level is basically the same: place traps, kill orcs, repeat.  There are no civilians to save, RPG leveling-up abilities, story arc… it is hard to stay focused for long and having these types of features absent from the final product seems like a greatly missed opportunity.

Orcs Must Die is quite the colorful and cartoony game, but the environment and even the orcs all look the same.   The controls are also quite floaty and take some time to get used to; like the random spraying of arrows from the auto crossbow, running, dashing and jumping all retain the same floating and imprecise control.  Well, at least the game is consistent with its fast speed of gameplay.  Even the main character is generic and lacks any significant personality.

Perhaps if Orcs was released a few months prior, or if multiplayer was introduced, I would have enjoyed it more.  Coming off the success and high entertainment value of Gears 3’s Horde mode and even Halo’s FireFight, it is difficult to hold Orcs Must Die in the same light even though it has a radically different aesthetics.  But even analyzing this game as its own entity, the straightforward features and emptier design leaves something to be desired.


Not As Good As: a multiplayer experience

Also Try: Toy Soldiers

Wait For It: the new Halo Anniversary FireFight map(s)

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