Orcs Must Die! 2 Review
Things don't usually go very well for game studios when they close. Usually a new studio forms, but it involves years of uncertainty and proving themselves to publishers again. Things went a bit better for the remnants of now-defunct Ensemble Studios, creators of Age of Empires. The biggest group that splintered off of this long-time PC developer formed up again as Robot Entertainment a few years ago, and their first independent game, Orcs Must Die!, went on to do pretty well on both PC and Xbox Live Arcade. The biggest complaint with this action/RPG/tower defense hybrid game was its lack of multiplayer modes, which just seemed like it'd be an exceptionally good fit (although I also lamented the release state of the PC version, which lacked control customization, among a few other little things - all of which were eventually fixed). It's been just under a year, and Robot Entertainment's sequel, Orcs Must Die! 2, is about to be released on PC exclusively this week. After spending many hours going through the game and additional modes, I'm happy to report that all the intense, yet slightly wacky, fun of the original is back - along with new monsters, gear, levels, and persistent bonuses to buy. And now it can be enjoyed with a friend!
The new campaign re-introduces the Sorceress, the first game's villain, now set up as an ally for the returning hero, the first game's rather silly War Mage. Each character is a little bit different, as the Sorceress' starting weapon is a scepter that has a charge-up main attack and a mana-using Charm spell on the alternate attack. This is a very powerful combination, as Charm can stall a whole pack of monsters if you charm the strongest monster in it, and while the damage from the primary attack isn't amazing, Charm is still a very efficient use of mana. Plus, all those skulls you've earned and put towards smartly-placed traps throughout the level can do plenty of damage for you.
I played throughout the whole game with a co-op buddy, and the game proved to be maddeningly chaotic at times, with both of us screaming nearly at the top of our lungs about incoming flyers, gnolls and Flame Ogres. Sure, we got that same chaotic feeling in the first game, but this sequel will pour in enemies from up to four incoming spots at once - and yes, the game's difficulty is cranked up in co-op play as well - plus the Nightmare difficulty and Endless modes will make things even more hectic, too.
You'll have new traps to place along with some exciting new gear to equip, but I did find that any weapon that used mana on both primary and secondary attacks just chews through the mana bar so quickly that it's really difficult to make it work. Maybe it was just the way we played the game, with one player each taking one "side" of the map, but I found it very difficult to rely solely on a mana-eating weapon without a mana-free weapon like the scepter or crossbow as a backup. Even with the new mana-bestowing trinket and a half-dozen mana wells placed in strategic spots, keeping up with these weapons' hungry attacks was very difficult.
With this in mind, there's just no substitute for good trap placement, one where enemies are slowed before walking into a continuous-damage trap or where one trap pushes an enemy into another for huge damage (or just straight-up instant kills). Simply put, you need to have both traps and your own weapons doing damage to contribute to a big success, and every death or enemy escape means you're getting closer to failure - or at the very least, fewer skulls as your reward at the end of the level.
Orcs Must Die! was not the first franchise to fuse together action gaming with tower defense, but this sequel is by far my favorite implementation of it. There's something very entertaining about watching cartoony orcs, goblins, ogres and trolls get thrown around and taken to pieces in the devious arrangement of traps you've set up, and having the ability to customize your loadout with special power-ups (and respec, er, "refund skulls") means you'll get to do lots of experimentation, too. While you might not need to experiment too much to get through the game's several-hours-long campaign on normal difficulty, you'll definitely need them for Nightmare difficulty - or the Endless mode that uses these same maps, as the forty waves that come at you get pretty brutal. On top of this, those who also own the first game will get to play ten maps pulled from the original in a Classic mode, but you'll still have all the cooperative play and access to new gear and traps, too.
From a technical perspective, OMD2 isn't exactly a graphical powerhouse, but few games at the $15 price point really are. The game does include fully configurable controls this time, along with a few basic detail options (antialiasing, three master detail settings, VSync, window/fullscreen and resolution control) and a few other settings like the ability to move the third-person camera to the right or left of your character or to disable the game's cartoon violence. Cooperative online play runs through Steam's invite-based service, and we found that it works well, but for those looking for offline LAN-based play, that's not included here.
Orcs Must Die! came seemingly out of nowhere last year and wound up being a nice surprise for many gamers, but this time, there are at least a few expectations that have to be met. Luckily, the diversity of new traps, items, weapons, maps, and monsters makes this game just as worthy of a purchase as the first one, and then the online play takes that over the top to make this a clearly better game than its predecessor. If you have someone else to play it with, then picking up two copies is a great way to spend your summer gaming cash. Some will be disappointed that this sequel is not coming to Xbox like the first did, but over on the PC gaming side of things, it's actually nice to see a developer happily returning to its roots (in its past life, at least, under the Ensemble Studios name) as a PC-exclusive developer. Orcs Must Die! 2 is a wonderful combination of action and strategy, all wrapped up nicely with a whimsical art style and slightly silly attitude. And now you can enjoy it together with a friend!
Disclaimer: This review is based on a PC download code provided by the publisher.