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Orcs Must Die! Preview

By Jeff Buckland, 2/25/2011

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In talking with the former developers of Ensemble Studios, creators of Age of Empires and Halo Wars, I found out that the closing of the company by Microsoft was not quite the bummer of a story that I had thought it was. Both Microsoft and the majority of Ensemble endorsed the move, and the ex-Ensemble team of 100+ people apparently had an amicable split. Now, Robot Entertainment’s 40-plus members, almost all from Ensemble, carry the torch of the original studio’s reputation for quality, and the rest of the guys that didn’t go to Robot have created two other studios and now work under the banner of casual game company Zynga.

Robot Entertainment has been working with Microsoft on Age of Empires Online, but they’ve had another game in development for the last six months as well: a downloadable game with elements of third-person action and tower defense-style strategy. It’s called Orcs Must Die!, and last week at Robot’s studio in Plano, TX, several journalists and key members of Ensemble’s community fanbase got the chance to jump in and play.

Orcs Must Die! is billed as a downloadable game that, for now, is only on PC, but the intention is to put it on at least one console. They’ve got a challenge ahead of them, as they could self-publish the game, but that would likely mean not making it for the Xbox 360 (due to Microsoft’s requirement to force a 360-exclusive game for developers who publish their own games). Sony imposes no such restrictions, nor does Valve’s Steam or any other download service. The other option is to sign on with a major publisher that has the clout to do a fully multi-platform release, but then they get their take of the profits. We’ll see how that goes in the coming months before the release.

Orcs Must Die! puts you in the supple boots of a “war mage”, a character that can set traps as well as use a sword, crossbow, or spells to destroy an oncoming horde of orcs, ogres, and other beasties who are trying to get to a vitally important rift nestled at the end of each level. Your task is to spend cash to buy traps and then place them in the level where you want, hit the button to start the onslaught, and then use your weapons, wits, and environment in a third-person action scenario to both survive and kill every monster before they get through the rift. Much like we see with tower defense games, each one that gets through reduces the rift’s “health”, and if you die, the rift loses some health as well - so it’s important to balance your aggressiveness with a sense of self-preservation.

The traps you can use include big spikes coming out of the floor, arrow launchers attached to a wall, springboard pads that can fling orcs around (including into nearby lava, if the level you’re on has it nearby), and big maces that constantly swing from the ceiling. You can enhance the effectiveness of these traps with other placements, like tar pits that slow your enemies down. Most of the traps we got to see took a while to reset once they were triggered, so sometimes it’s up to you to carefully herd the horde to maximize their effectiveness. For example, if you happen to see one orc approaching a spike trap and a big pack of them is a few feet behind him, killing that lead orc before he gets to the trap will help since the spikes will be much more effective on the group.

We got to play through three levels of the game, starting with a very simple hallway with a single-line path for the orcs to trample down. Next was a much longer hallway with a 90-degree corner, and it played out much the same. The next one, though, had the orcs ascending stairs around the inside of a tower with lava in the middle. Placed above the tops of the stairs were big logs with spikes on them, and one shot from your crossbow could trigger them to fall and take out a huge swath of orcs. The caveat, though, is that you only get the one use out of these environmental traps, even over several increasingly powerful waves of enemies coming at you.

The action in the game is fairly light, but satisfying and fun. Unlike with tower defense games, you’re not peering down from an isometric or top-down view. You’re a dude in the world, running around and placing traps, both in the breather periods between waves as well as during the attack. As you gain money for each kill - including getting bonus cash for headshots with the crossbow or for comboing up kills - you can lay down new traps in mid-wave or even sell back traps that don’t work (for the full cost of purchase) in order to switch a strategy or just adjust the placement. We didn’t get the chance to see a level with multiple paths for the orcs to take, but we were told that in some levels they can branch off, and even give you two rifts to defend simultaneously. Oh, and there are different enemy types that either don’t trigger traps or are kind of designed by the developers to trigger them early, like the little fast-running scouts that arrow-shooters don’t hit or the huge ogres that body-flinging springboards can’t lift.

The art style for Orcs Must Die! is generally evocative of World of Warcraft but with a goofier, more humorous look and sound. We’re a long way off from getting system requirements posted, but I am relatively sure they’ll be fairly relaxed, as Robot Entertainment has put more effort into amusing art and animation than into advanced DirectX 11 shaders and super-high-res textures. The end effect is a game that looks casual and fun, but gets hardcore and frantic very quickly. The comments from the orcs as they charge in are fun to hear, and dicing them up with both traps and weapons turns them into nice, clean cuts of butcher-shop meat - a little reminiscent of ’Splosion Man, but this time in a fully fantasy-based world.

Just about the only thing I can say I’m disappointed in is Robot Entertainment’s insistence that the initial release is only going to be a single player affair. This game screams for a cooperative mode , and while the team fully understands this, they’re holding off of any kind of multiplayer at first. When I suggested to several guys on the team that they don’t have to wait for a sequel to do this and that there’s actually nothing stopping them from adding multiplayer in a post-release patch, DLC pack, or expansion (even though most games don’t get stuff like this), everyone got very quiet all of a sudden. I have nothing but my intuition to go on here, but my guess is that if Orcs Must Die! is a success, that’s going to be very high up on their list of features to add.

And at this point, I see no reason why Orcs Must Die! will do anything but succeed. It’s a damn fun game that starts off very easy and light, but quickly gets intense and quite difficult, and it's a blast to play throughout. Robot Entertainment is planning to release the game a little later this year, although no precise date has been set. You can check out the just-released Orcs Must Die! announcement trailer if you’re interested in seeing the game in action.



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