Orcs Must Die! was a surprisingly good first title for Robot Entertainment. It proved popular enough to warrant an ambitious sequel that featured co-op and a mountain of content spread across the main game and several DLC expansion packs. They took feedback towards the original and tuned everything to a very solid experience. Their games offered a fantastic blend of action-RPG, third person shooting, and tower defense. Fending off hordes of orcs while properly chaining and placing traps offered a great tactical challenge yet still kept things simple enough that most of the levels didn’t go over your head. Wrapping it all together was a solid comedic story that endeared players both to the Warmage and later the Sorceress. The end of Orcs Must Die! 2 left with The Order fighting the orc hordes having finally been reformed, with both heroes as the new leaders. We had a strong hint something more was to come, but no idea what another sequel would hold. Not lot of people expected that would be an Orcs Must Die! MOBA, but Orcs Must Die! Unchained is just that.
Full disclosure, I am a huge fan of the series thus far. According to Steam, I’ve clocked over forty-one hours into Orcs Must Die! 2 and I haven’t stopped wanting to play it yet, let alone finished all the content. To say I was a little surprised at the move towards the MOBA genre would be a serious understatement. Still, I’d heard good things from some fellow press who had had the chance to play, so I gave it a shot. Having spent some time with it and even comparing the gameplay to the original games, I’ve become more and more confused with what Robot Entertainment’s goal is, and what their designers were thinking. While admittedly a number of aspects of the first two games do lean towards the MOBA spectrum, it is an odd choice. Let me explain.
The gameplay in Orcs Must Die! and its sequel was balanced by the fact it was both a player versus NPCs shooter/action-RPG brawler, and a tower defense game. Only one to two players participate in a defensive battle to try and stave off the horde while continually updating their trap layouts. This alone provided the simple but deep core game offers, encouraging replaying maps with new tactics. This was further encouraged by emphasizing customization of your loadout. You could choose what traps, weapons, and special gear you could bring along, letting you go from being a melee focused brawler with proximity mines to a sniping mage with a complex web of traps. It was built around trial and error that rewarded even your worst experiments without removing the incentive to try harder. Getting a five skull rating not only meant more skulls to purchase new gear and abilities, but also made you feel like you had truly mastered a level. It wasn’t about rushing to victory, in fact the game even pauses between certain waves to let you assess your current setup to remove useless traps and adjust to deal with new threats. It could be a very challenging game, but much like the best sort of challenge, it was fair and forgiving. There was no competition to do the best on your first try, without even understanding what everything you have does or getting access to all your gear. As action-strategy titles go, its actually one of the most relaxed yet intricate ones. It is the perfect game to kill time with, even scratching the lootfest itch since you’ve got literally over a hundred items to unlock across two full campaigns and four mini-DLC campaigns.
Now bearing all that in mind… Orcs Must Die! Unchained is almost the exact opposite of this. Matches require you to think on your feet from the second you start, early mistakes can critically hurt your team, and almost any sense of controlled progression and customization go out the window. Why would you do this? In fact, if I’d be quite blunt, the only aspects of the games that remain are placing traps, waves of enemies spawning, and a fair amount of brawling and shooting. That’s all I can see that remains. Physics is all but removed from play, with most traps just being traditional wall and floor damage-dealing traps. Any sort of special modifiers for traps now come as separate traps instead of being one of two unlockable upgrades that change your playstyle. Traps now limited to only four maximum or any one type, and usually only one for those with modifiers. Enemy variety is all but gone save for converting the bomb throwing dwarves into enemies, the healing gnomes, and giants like ogres and trolls. There aren’t really any distinctions other than that. I saw a few armored Ogres, that’s it. No Frost or Fire Ogres, no flying enemies, and the supposedly existent cyclops enemies never seemed to pop up in any match I played. No, all that variety and all the skill required to kill them is gone. Headshots don’t matter, and as a result recoil is almost non-existent as well. Just hold down the left mouse button and you’ll keep firing off shots. You can only use the prescribed weapon given to every character, unless you get lucky and find one of the bonus weapons, which will use a ton of your mana for a single shot and have been neutered significantly.
It’s not even old ideas that seem to have just been tossed aside or mishandled. New items like Glyphs that let you upgrade your troops with a buff, or Weaver characters that give you specific bonuses mid-battle, are locked off as you have to attain specific levels before the game even lets you use certain items that you can receive well before you reach the chosen level that they unlock. Certain characters are described as being used one way, say, a support character, but when I played as the said character, I was then chastised by teammates for not using the character exclusively on offense. Other characters that sound like offensive fighters were used almost exclusively for defense. Level design is so specific about where you can and can’t put traps, that it removes almost any sense of creative strategy aside from “what order shall we buy the same ceiling smashers and arrow walls with this time?”. There is a little more variety to spawning waves of enemies, as certain characters at least have different buffs to different species of enemies, but the bonuses came across as insignificant. Worst of all, the game has so totally thrown away its original unlock system, which bear in mind was very player-driven and rewarding, for a card deck system. According to an interview at PAX 2014, this was inspired by Magic the Gathering.
Excuse my outburst here but: …WHAT DOES MAGIC THE GATHERING HAVE TO DO WITH ORCS MUST DIE!?! That’s nearly as ridiculous a decision as Dead Space 2‘s Outbreak competitive multiplayer having a Call of Duty style experience point system when they could have just used the power node progression system from the single-player. Another progression system, might I add, that had similarities to the Orcs Must Die! upgrade system. Why does it seem like developers are afraid to use their tried and true systems, that they know will work for progression in single-player, in a multiplayer setting. Multiplayer progression does not have to be randomly unlocked decks of cards, it does not have to be predefined unlocks that remove any sense of investment in what upgrades you get. Yes, you’ll have to rebalance the original systems, but that does not mean they should be thrown away in favor of systems that are just nails on chalkboard irritating to use. What if you just used the original Skull unlock system from Orcs Must Die!, but made it work more like the Certs in Planetside 2. You could do that, and players could still have a choice in what they unlock, and then they are not literally gambling to try and get the heroes and traps they want. They could still pay money to get skulls, or at least some kind of booster. Better yet, have it be that they can pay for new heroes, and make the heroes cheap when you buy them with real world money. League of Legends makes its players work towards getting a character for free, you could do that too. That would endear players and make them feel invested. It would keep them coming back because they put time in and were rewarded for it. Instead, they’ll only get something they wanted if they are lucky.
And sadly, the list goes on. There’s a launcher now, with two layers and an account system to get through, and it’s separate from the main game, meaning you still have to load the main game upon entering a match, just like Battlelog with Battlefield 3 and 4 on PC. The last thing any PC developer should want to do is emulate Battlelog. What’s even worse for the game though, is that it currently offers something that would have been unique and interesting years ago, but now has serious competition. Releasing a third person MOBA in a world where games like SMITE already exist does not do you any favors, especially when your only major hooks are setting traps and having control over your creature spawns. Removing almost every other identifying part of the franchise is just hurting Orcs Must Die! Unchained. Adding in the new elements that just hinder it, like the card system, and it really just makes the game seem more like a gimmicky rehash of the original ideas, but with the original depth replaced by all too familiar character specifications. Robot Entertainment didn’t so much make a sequel as what feels like a spin-off using the IP to help drum up interest and explain away reusing the trap system.
That’s not say everything is awful. I do enjoy playing the game, when I am not stuck with pretentious teammates calling everyone a “noob” for not playing the way they’d want you to. It isn’t a bad game, it’s perfectly fine and when it releases officially, I say give it a shot. The new free hero every week, the ability to at least create custom decks with your unlocked cards in somewhat similar manner to the old loadout system, and great art aesthetic make the grievances tolerable, but only that if you’re a hardcore fan of the original games. If you haven’t, would I consider this a great entry point? I’m divided on that front, as the traps are seriously rebalanced in notable ways and the style of play here is much more casual in terms of trap placement thanks to the loss of most of the really creative traps. An acid sprayer is an acid sprayer, there’s nothing really marvelous or revolutionary about that. I tried playing Orcs Must Die! 2 one night after playing Unchained, and I did horribly. Then a night or two later, I played Unchained second after playing Orcs Must Die! 2. The difference was clear and just felt unusual, and uncomfortable. It was like going from riding a bicycle and then suddenly riding an exercise bike. Yes, the motions are similar, but each are very different means of exercise and neither is necessarily meant for everyone.
I know there are some people who will probably only experience Orcs Must Die! through this, or prefer it. If you are one of those people, I’m happy for you. If you enjoy this, if you find a rewarding experience in it, then I am happy that you do. It might never be for the reasons I got into the franchise, but I am still happy for you. Because I know what its like, liking something new, and having fans of older entries hate on you. There is nothing wrong with you enjoying this entry over the others if that is what you prefer. And I even think that they really -could- make an Orcs Must Die! game that works as a competitive multiplayer. If Robot Entertainment could get cooperative multiplayer working to the fantastic degree Orcs Must Die! 2 did, I can believe they could do the same with a player versus player battle. I just don’t know if MOBA is the way to go.
Maybe this should have been something more like Overrun in Gears of War: Judgement? Let one side play as the attacking horde, investing their points into the horde and buffs for their infantry. Attacking players could even upgrade their monsters from starting out as lowly grunts to harder and harder enemy types while the other team would be a group of four to five defenders that would focus on traps and mid-battle upgrades for themselves. You’d still have a highly competitive battle that would take notes from MOBA games, and you’ve proven all the elements can work to even this limited degree in Unchained, so why not actually stand out from the crowd? Then you could even go so far as to trying to do a multiplayer campaign (not like Titanfall‘s) with all the humor of the original games. You could flesh out characters with more in-game dialogue, and wouldn’t have confusing pairings where Unchained and Order heroes fight side by side in the current game. Best of all, then you have reason to re-include things like the original enemy variety, h*** maybe even more variety. You could reintroduce cut traps and you could expand some of the older level layouts from the original games to fit the scale. That would stand out, that would be interesting, and that would appeal both to your new audience and your older audience. But I digress…
Currently the game is in an Early Access state through the Orcs Must Die! website, which offers not only a paid entry into the beta, but the two original games. Higher price tiers offer more rewards, like exclusive skins or early access to new characters, but there is one thing you should bear in mind. I run the original two on maximum settings. I have to run Unchained on the lowest settings possible because this game has not been properly optimized yet because, this really is a beta — a warts and all one. Destiny “so polished we’re really just testing the backend and our server threshold” beta, this is not. The above screenshot of me playing as Ivy is what the game looks like without any fancy graphics, and while it still looks decent, graphics fiends may want to make sure they’re up to spec, or wait for optimization patches. Also, a stable internet is obviously necessary, although I still saw some people lagging their way through matches. There is one known issue where players also get disconnected after every match, and certain things like options can’t be changed in the launcher, so if you are walking in expecting a perfected experience, you’ll need to hold off and keep an eye on updates or roll with the punches. For a beta build this early on, it is, as I said, quite fun at times. This isn’t the worst game on the market, and for anyone who hasn’t played the franchise until now, you probably won’t even notice previous features missing. For those who want to get the full experience though, I wholeheartedly recommend you go grab the original two, whether on their own or the early access bundle, and play those until this reaches open beta. Hopefully by then, we’ll get a more polished look at the game, and maybe there are some nuances we just haven’t gotten to see yet. Only the most truly diehard fans need to get in now though, and even then, they may just be disappointed.
I wish Robot Entertainment the best of luck, but by golly do they need to figure out who their audience is, and what they want to offer said audience. Do you feel the same? Do you have any questions that I didn’t answer above? Let me know in the comments below!