Orcs Must Die is a shining example of what happens when former AAA developers are unshackled from a big publisher and able to do their own thing. The franchise has been developed by Robot Entertainment, a company formed from the ashes of Ensemble Studios after its closure by Microsoft.
While the company was initially tasked with keeping Halo Wars and Age of Empires 3 going, it also began work on Ages of Empires Online, a free to play spin on the iconic Ensemble franchise that has sucked many an hour of this writer’s time since it launched a year ago. During this time it also managed to release the first game based upon its own IP, last year’s third person tower defense title Orcs Must Die.
Microsoft has now taken the reigns of Age of Empires Online, which has freed Robot up to work on its own projects. This means a sequel to Orcs Must Die, which was released last month. Imaginatively called Orcs Must Die 2, it brings coop play to the table, along with a whole bunch of new traps (plus tweaks to existing ones) as well as a revamp of the levelling system found in the original game.
For those who haven’t played the original Orcs Must Die, the game is a shining example of truth in naming. In classic tower defense style increasingly more difficult waves of Orcs and other monsters try to get from their entry point to ‘rifts’ that you have to defend. If too many get through then its game over.
To counter this you have a combination of traps and weapons. Traps can both hinder the progress of the Orcs, and do damage to them. In a perfect world you want enough of them to wipe out the Orcs completely before they reach the rifts, in reality you’ll also spend a lot of time running around the map fighting Orcs yourself.
What results is a game that is half strategy, half frenzied action. Thanks to a liberal mix of enemy abilities you need to pay attention, deploying different types of traps to counter them. This manifests in many ways, and means that you’ll often need a degree of trial and error with your kill zones.
Funnelling Orcs into one area of the map full of sticky, spiky, burny traps is possible using barricades. But then just when you feel like you can sit back and watch the carnage, saboteurs will appear and blow up barricades if they get close. Within seconds that carefully constructed Orc destruction zone will be rendered useless, as all sorts of nasties head through the newly found gaps and you scramble to keep them under control.
You don’t start out with a heck of a lot of traps anyway. To buy traps in a level you need coins, which come from killing Orcs. So your initial setup may only be a handful of traps placed strategically, which you then need build upon quite rapidly as successive waves arrive. This whole process is beautifully balanced, and you rarely have a moment to relax as you keep placing more traps, and shooting more Orcs.
Your initial trap repertoire starts out small, but as you complete levels you earn ‘skulls’. These can be spent on your character, adding more traps and weapons, or upgrading existing ones. Your character is permanent, saved to Steam Cloud, which means that the more you play, the more powerful your loadout can be. Thankfully you can also respec at any time (without penalty), building an appropriate arsenal for the upcoming challenges.
Where Orcs Must Die 2 really comes into its own is with co-op play. This two-player mode places both players on the same level, where they have separate coin pools and trap setups. This mode uses exactly the same levels as singleplayer, and is in many ways what the game is designed around. Most of the levels have multiple entrance and exit points, and having players split responsibility is the optimum way to cover them all. Frantically running about the map, covering choke points and backing up your partner when big nasty monsters is a heck of a lot of fun.
Once you have played through the fairly short campaign levels Robot has given players several options to keep the fun rolling. The first is through the ability for owners of the original game to play through all the classic levels within Orcs Must Die 2. This in and of itself is wonderful, it not only gives players of the original something to do but it transforms the title into an expansion pack of sorts for those new to the franchise.
However it is endless mode where the fun really continues. As the name says this is a series of challenges where the waves of Orcs just keeping getting tougher until they overwhelm the player. What results are glorious kill zones, traps liberally lining every inch of floor, wall and roof as the coin piles up over successive waves. Not only do the waves get bigger, but the enemies get tougher, making for a continuing challenge as the game proceeds.
Robot has also started releasing what it calls Weekly Challenges for the game. These are competitions to get onto the online leaderboard by playing a map with specific trap and enemy loadouts. It encourages thinking outside the box, and is a neat way for Robot to interact with its community on an ongoing basis.
We have found ourselves sucked into multi-hour coop binges with Orcs Must Die 2 an awful lot lately. In terms of sheer, stupid fun it is one of the best ways to spend $15 on Steam, especially if you have a friend willing to join in on the glorious carnage that awaits.