A handful of my Steam games have exceeded the 100 hours played mark. For me, that’s the point where a game has figured out a formula that is inherently fun. By that point, any gimmicks or novelties have worn off, I’ve (usually) beaten whatever single-player story line the game had to offer, and I’m coasting on a really solid multiplayer or a single player arcade mode that doesn’t get boring.
Orcs Must Die! 2 (2012) is one of those games. It currently sits at 119 well-earned hours for me. Built on the same engine as its predecessor, it’s (IMO) the best entry in a series that most recently made an earnest yet clumsy foray into the free-to-play market.
The Orcs Must Die series isn’t just a collection of great tower defense games. They’re some of my favorites in the genre, and with the recent server shuttering of the most recent free to play entry Orcs Must Die! Unchained, it’s high time for developer Robot Entertainment to create a true third entry in the series.
Let’s back up. The Orcs Must Die! games are probably better thought of as ‘tower offense’ games: You’re set inside a fantasy set piece like an ancient castle or tower. At one or more ends are portals where orcs, trolls, and other beasties break free. They run towards big glowing gates through which they presumably escape into the open to wreak havoc on the world.
In between is a lot of empty space and a player or two with an arsenal of high-fantasy tools, like a magic grenade-launching blunderbuss, fireballs and crossbows, swinging ceiling maces, dart sprayers and exploding barrels/
The twist is that game is played as an over-the-shoulder FPS where you build defenses and traps in between rounds of blasting away enemies yourself. The money you earn from killing enemies — whether by your own weapons or your traps — funds more traps. So while the passive tower defense gameplay goes on, the player is rewarded for also playing a concurrent, fast-paced shoot-em-up with whatever orcs get through your defenses.
This approach makes the player an immediate and vulnerable part of the action. Unlike most TD games, the monsters have varied attack patterns and won’t hesitate to kill you if you get in the way. Some enemies, like kobolds, will head straight toward blowing up your fortifications. Others, like gnolls, don’t even try to escape the level. They just hunt down the player.
The marriage of genres could have been ugly, but it works so well that it almost makes it hard to enjoy other tower defense games. It makes me feel like I’m the first person who ever ate a strawberry dipped in chocolate. Why didn’t anyone think of this before?
The game’s cartoon-y and playful design also lends a huge aesthetic strength. The traps — like giant spikes and floor springs — feel like something straight out of Scooby-Doo. Even the hordes of orcs, who are haplessly thrown around and ground up as they rush past, yell “Weeeee!” when a push trap sends them pirouetting off of a mountain cliff.
That cartoonish stylization also helps the games hold up visually. OMD!2 is now seven years old, and while it looks its age, the levels are designed so well and enemies animated so smoothly that it remains visually impressive.
There’s a sort of occasional, meta level commentary from the protagonists over whether the orcs have souls, which is far outweighed by how much fun it is to develop ever more elaborate ways to make the orcs die. The game’s combo system rewards you for killing orcs with as many traps as possible, so a reasonable strategy for beating a level might involve throwing an orc into the air, lighting it on fire, letting archers pepper it with arrows, shocking it with man-sized fly zappers, and using telekinesis to throw it into a literal cosmic void all before it hits the ground.
Look, this series is just plain dumb fun. The mechanics are pretty intuitive but there are a lot of fun exploit-y strategies that take several hours of game time to really master. It’s the kind of game that is as much to fun to try to break as it is to play. And after a somewhat disappointing third entry in the series — Unchained made the gameplay much faster and ‘lighter,’ I think to its detriment — we deserve a true successor to a great duo of tower defense / third person shooter / RPG / strategy games.