Orcs Must Die! Review
When Ensemble Studios dissolved, many veteran PC gamers felt that an era had ended. The creators of Age of Empires and Halo Wars had split up to form three separate Dallas-based development teams, and many people blamed Microsoft for the closure of the studio. But apparently, most of the people involved in this split actually agreed to it, and now Robot Entertainment has released the first game out of the ashes of Ensemble. This core team of developers, many of whom worked at Ensemble for many years, have put together a fun and exciting tower-defense-meets-action game that starts out pretty basic, but it quickly becomes very exciting and winds up being one of the best values you can get in games this fall.
You play as a "war mage", a young man with equal skills in strategy, combat, and magic. His mentor has just been killed, so you'll have to take up the slack in holding off the orcs from reaching vital portals. You'll have a setup phase where you study the game's levels (which start off very simplistic, but eventually become quite hectic) and set up traps on the walls, floors, and ceilings. Hit a button or key, and the orcs break in through the front door, and your job will be to hold them off with everything at your disposal. You've got a selection of crossbow, sword, spells, and your traps (which can be set up in mid-battle, too) to fight them off, and if you do enough damage, the orcs will come after you instead of heading for the portal!
You'll have a pretty wide range of enemies storming through the doors, too, as the standard garden-variety stupid orc is only the beginning. Ranged attackers will start plinking at you, huge ogres start slowly smashing their way through (and they're unaffected by some of your traps), speedy little kobolds start making a mess of your plans, and more.
This makes for some interesting strategy, and even gives old-school FPS players the opportunity to use plenty of tricks (and lots of headshots) to fight off the hordes. id Software's latest shooter, RAGE, doesn't really throw a lot of monsters at you like the classic Doom games did, and the upcoming Serious Sam 3 hasn't been released yet, but believe it or not, Orcs Must Die! kind of satisfies my need for a frantic, monster-filled shooter. Sure, the third-person viewpoint is a bit of a change and the traps and melee combat aren't really part of what you'd expect out of a game that channels these FPS classics, but it all works together very nicely. Once you get enough spells and tools at your disposal, you'll find yourself a tactician, warrior, and yes, a powerful mage all at the same time.
Orcs Must Die! is right at home on the Xbox 360, although it's a little disappointing on PC as it lacks some of the configuration options that even independent or budget-priced games really need. There's no key configuration options beyond just "invert mouse", and the detail settings leave a little to be desired. (Update: The latest patch allows players to build a new configuration by editing a file called user.cfg. Not the most elegant solution, but those who need this option probably know how to edit a file in Notepad.) Beyond this, probably the biggest disappointment for me is the total lack of multiplayer, which could have easily made this game twice as much fun - even if it only consisted of split-screen action on consoles (although LAN/online play would have been hilariously fun, too).
What I do like is the sense of humor that the game brings forward, especially after having played so many overly-serious fantasy games over the years. OMD gives you a wise-cracking hero, alternating symphonic, metal, and rap music all with a silly medieval flair, and the orcs themselves are lumbering, goofy, and amusing to listen to as you're dumping explosive barrels on their heads, flinging them into lava, or just cutting them into Orc Chops with a sword. It might not seem like much, but these little touches make a big difference once you've made it a few hours into the game.
While Orcs Must Die! doesn't really bring forth any entirely new ideas - Sanctum on PC does the FPS-meets-tower-defense thing, too - it does give us a really fresh combination of them, and along with the fantasy setting and legitimately funny jokes and fun ways to kill orcs, this is definitely one of the better XBLA/downloadable games you can buy this year. PC gamers with an eye for configuration or tinkering might be best off staying away until Robot Entertainment sees fit to add a few options to the PC version, and anyone who wants to play together with others are just going to have to wait for a sequel, but none of that stops this from being a blast to play. Grab Orcs Must Die! on Xbox Live or on Steam for $15.