Review: Orcs Must Die 2

Recent years have seen the tower defense genre branch off in new and exciting directions. While more traditional entries in the genre, like Defense Grid, hold a warm place in my heart the trend towards splicing hands-on action into the traditional TD has created a chimera of wonderful possibilities, and some might even argue that this hybridization is necessary to avoid stagnation. While it might have been rough around the edges, Defenders of Ardania demonstrated that there are other interesting ways to avoid the set-it-and-forget-it tedium which has long been associated with the genre without fully hybridizing, but I digress.

Orcs Must Die remains one of the most radiant examples of how well injecting action into a tower defense can work, and I’m happy to say that it was no flash in the pan because its sequel holds up just as well.

Developer: Robot Entertainment
Publisher: Robot Entertainment
ESRB Rating: T
Released: July 30, 2012
Platforms: PC

Due to its pleasant stylized aesthetic, its focus on delivering ludicrous entertainment, its compelling reward system, and a mix of hands-on action and towers coupled with excellent map design, Orcs Must Die set the bar for action tower defense. Robot Entertainment’s follow-up to last year’s surprise hit doesn’t disappoint in any of these categories. It still sports a simple art style full of gore rendered with splendid vibrance and the focus is still on over-the-top fun that lies buried in the mayhem.

The syringe through which Orcs Must Die 2 dispenses its addictive pleasure is no doubt the cartoonish, yet savage, trap combinations and player agency. It is a game that perfectly rewards both preparation and immediate response. Most tower defense games nail proactivity, but few can say the same for reactivity, even ones billed similarly as action TDs. Ceiling-bound haymakers catch enemies in a dervish and whirl them about like lumps of juicy flesh in a washing machine. Burning coals immolate approaching foes in a conflagration of cartoon violence. Each trap satisfies on a cathartic level, and the violence is graphic, but the light-hearted tone of the game is somehow never lost amidst the bones and blood of slain orcs.

Players are tasked with using an enormous arsenal of traps, weapons, and newly introduced trinkets, which provide a passive benefit and another boon when used actively, to stop the approaching waves of enemies which spawn on increasingly complex maps. Defense centers around a glowing portal called a ‘rift.’ After a certain number of enemies breach the player’s defenses and enter the rift, the player loses. Success is measured by a segmented ruler. Doing the bare minimum to squeak by – killing all the orcs with at least 1 point left on the rift – nets you a paltry reward in the form of one skull. Skulls are used to buy new traps, weapons, and trinkets, and to upgrade these things. In order to acquire more skulls, the player can play on normal difficulty or higher which nets you 5 skulls for a perfect performance. Additionally, enemies will rarely drop bonus skulls. By meeting extra criteria, such as career-total kills and finishing the map below a specific threshold of time, the player can earn even more macabre currency. This compulsion loop pays off not just in the normal devious psychologically exploitive way, but also provides a real payoff in the form of upgrades and new traps that are genuinely fun to incorporate into your current strategies.

If there is any downside to having such a myriad repository of gruesome death-dealers, it’s that many of them function in much the same way. This redundancy leaves me wishing that my creativity could further come into play, but it also means that the payoff is tailored to my tastes. If my preference is to see enemies ground up into meat pulp and red mist, I can stick with the grinder and be satisfied despite the functional similarity between it and the wall blades

Of course, even similar towers aren’t entirely redundant. The sprawling upgrade system that introduces multiple levels of enhancements to the player’s suite of murderous instruments allows for the more similar towers to really diverge. Take the two previously mentioned towers for instance. They differ slightly at a base level in that the grinder runs constantly, but may occasionally jam on an enemy body as opposed to the wall blades which deal damage and then spend a short period of time resetting. For the most part, though, they’re both just direct damage dealers with short range that can be placed on the wall. However, some upgrades allow for the grinder to clear jams at a quicker rate, whereas one for the wall blades takes away its direct damage property and gives it a damage over time effect instead.

And then there are the towers which fulfill entirely unique purposes. Spring traps can be used to jettison enemies into environmental hazards, or coupled with the grinder to launch hellbound orcs into a gruesome demise between two rotating cylinders of metal bramble. It’s in these combinations that the true brilliance of the game really begins to show itself, for those combinations are the foundation upon which strategies are laid. For example, one of my preferred strategies was to find hallways with low-ceilings so that I could place long-range traps on the walls that sprayed a mist of corrosive acid at passing enemies. On the ceilings I would place haymakers, short-range traps that trigger when enemies pass underneath and then spring a wooden whirlwind. Finally, on the floor I would place a coin forge, a large device that increased my income (a necessity for the building of towers) whenever enemies died on top of it. While my maximum-damage maximum-income hallways devastated hordes of enemies, I would fire stunning bolts from my crossbow into the crowds to ensure that they had no chance of passing my defensive choke-point.

Thought the crossbow is inaccurate while spraying bolts, slow and steady acquisition of headshots rewards the player by dealing massive damage. Also at the disposal of the player are gauntlets which leech-life, a ring which produces an area-of-effect fireball, a sceptre which can charm enemies into temporarily fighting for the player, and many other creative tools of destruction. Rounding out the toolbelt is the newly introduced ‘trinket’ class of item. These items offer passive benefits so long as they are in your loadout, and more powerful effects can be triggered upon use. The default trinket simply grants you passive health regeneration, but others, which are bought with skulls, can be game changing. One gives you more rift points (a larger margin of error before failing a map) while another causes traps to reset much faster. There’s even one tailored towards the newly introduced co-op mode which allows you to free your partner from stun effects.

This aspiration towards proactive gameplay mixed with the keen strategic preparation of most tower defenses allows for battles to hectic, and the agency makes it all the more rewarding. It also allows for a different type of relationship between traps and enemies. Whereas most tower defenses focus on a dryer type of rock-paper-scissor gameplay, where only one tower type is effective against a corresponding enemy type (anti-air beats flying, detectors beat invisible enemies, anti-armor beats armored foes, anti-light beats light armor, etc) Orcs Must Die 2 is free to throw different types of enemies in more out-of-the-box combinations without completely disregarding the need for proper planning, and nor does it pigeonhole the player into relying only on a few types of towers for a few situations. Personal preference and the need for careful planning meld together in an unheard of way here, and the result of this melting pot is a thrilling extensity of viable strategies.

Thought the crossbow is inaccurate while spraying bolts, slow and steady acquisition of headshots rewards the player by dealing massive damage. Also at the disposal of the player are gauntlets which leech-life, a ring which produces an area-of-effect fireball, a sceptre which can charm enemies into temporarily fighting for the player, and many other creative tools of destruction. Rounding out the toolbelt is the newly introduced ‘trinket’ class of item. These items offer passive benefits so long as they are in your loadout, and more powerful effects can be triggered upon use. The default trinket simply grants you passive health regeneration, but others, which are bought with skulls, can be game changing. One gives you more rift points (a larger margin of error before failing a map) while another causes traps to reset much faster. There’s even one tailored towards the newly introduced co-op mode which allows you to free your partner from stun effects.

This aspiration towards proactive gameplay mixed with the keen strategic preparation of most tower defenses allows for battles to hectic, and the agency makes it all the more rewarding. It also allows for a different type of relationship between traps and enemies. Whereas most tower defenses focus on a dryer type of rock-paper-scissor gameplay, where only one tower type is effective against a corresponding enemy type (anti-air beats flying, detectors beat invisible enemies, anti-armor beats armored foes, anti-light beats light armor, etc) Orcs Must Die 2 is free to throw different types of enemies in more out-of-the-box combinations without completely disregarding the need for proper planning, and nor does it pigeonhole the player into relying only on a few types of towers for a few situations. Personal preference and the need for careful planning meld together in an unheard of way here, and the result of this melting pot is a thrilling extensity of viable strategies.

A strategy that I eagerly adopted on a Z-shaped map complete with winding hallways and a gap between the central platform and said hallways was to place archers on either side of the rift. These archers shot across the gap into the long hallways which orcs were parading down. This gave me time to whittle their numbers down to something easily manageable. Surrounding my archers were bear traps and freezing traps to further guarantee their safety from mobs with high health and high damage.

Of course, not all of the games maps are well enough designed to make these sorts of choices interesting. The first third of the game drags a bit before the maps become labyrinthine sieges on which you must hold attacks off from four sides. The final map provides too many winding corridors, unobstructed walls and floors on which to mass-up on traps, and too many vantage points to pick off enemies as they make their lengthy ascent. Still, there are far more great maps than there are uninspired ones, and even those that aren’t inspired proved to be entertaining, and they will give new players a chance to learn and experiment before the difficulty spikes.

Not much has changed between this game and its predecessor. Most of the towers remain the same. The arrow wall from the first game has been substituted out for the acid sprayer in this game, but they are mostly the same for practical purposes. The same can be said for the weapons. The in-game upgrade system from the first game, the ‘weavers,’ have been benched and replaced with the aforementioned expansive unlock and upgrade system which is full of far more intricate and interesting perks despite being more bloated. One might say that little has changed, but a great deal has been polished for this entry in the series.

Endless mode and the game-changing trinkets are the biggest new additions. Endless is, essentially, the Orcs Must Die equivalent to horde mode and not much more needs to be said about that aside from the fact that it, like the rest of the game, can be enjoyed cooperatively. Perhaps there’s one little additional detail I could stress about it: it is where the real difficulty lies within the game, but it is also the most rewarding way to play despite having fewer maps to enjoy it on.

My biggest gripe with the game, and one key point that sets it apart from its predecessor, is that its controller support has been downgraded significantly. While an Xbox controller still works, it can no longer be used to navigate the main menu, victory or defeat screens, and it can no longer be used to navigate and close the spellbook.

Orcs Must Die 2 does an excellent job of polishing its bells and whistles. While the controller support frustrates me, it is only partly flawed. It doesn’t do much that the first game didn’t do, but the untold number of strategies and inspired map design is enough to prove that even though the skeleton isn’t so new, the fresh meat is what’s most important.

9.0 / 10

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