Orcs Must Die! is the latest game from Robot Entertainment - the people that started Age of Empires Online before handing the reigns over to Gas Powered Games. It’s a mix of Tower Defense and third-person action, which effectively means it’s either bringing some strategy to your action or some action to your strategy - depending on your perspective.
Not familiar with tower defense? A simplified form of real-time strategy (RTS), the idea is that a bunch of enemies are trying to attack your base and you must place "towers" in their path, which each have various capabilities that you must strategically combine in order to defeat the baddies before they reach their goal.
Orcs Must Die! (which I’m going to abbreviate to OMD to avoid the obvious grammatical confusion that comes from using an exclamation mark like that) takes that concept, projects it from your character’s point of view (in third person), and wraps it all up in a lush presentation layer that’s so nice it will pleasantly surprise all gamers who traditionally play this kind of game.
You run around in the toon-shaded world, alternately laying traps (OMD's name for the ostensible towers, and something you’ll almost always do between waves of enemies - despite the fact that you can actually do it whenever you want) and laying waste to the approaching waves of charmingly dull (generally) Orcish hordes with your weapons.
Still not really sure how it works? This interactive trailer / video / thing is a great introduction to the mechanics, and it shows you how some of the traps work - check it out:
Your basic attacks come from your trusty crossbow and polearm, each of which is impressively good for a certain purpose and never feels superfluous - you’ll find yourself switching between them as the context dictates, even if you initially favour one method over another.
The polearm’s devastating melee damage and crowd control ability is offset by the great personal risk you take by being so close to the enemies while the crossbow’s outstanding ranged ability and single-target damage is of limited use when up close and personal with a pile of enemies.
They’re very well balanced.
You also get a bunch of new items and traps as you proceed through the game, each of which you must decide between when equipping yourself at the beginning of each level. It’s a smart move, in a way, as it ensures you don’t have too much to think about during the waves. But on the other hand, you don’t know what you’re going to face until you’re deep into the waves, so you’ll occasionally find yourself thinking “this other thing might have been useful, oh well”. It’s hardly a disaster but it’s sometimes annoying.
More frustrating is that your traps and weapons are all on the same selection rotation, which you switch around by using the left and right bumpers. Why is that frustrating? I found myself with no desire whatsoever to place traps in the chaotic action during the middle of a wave, so having to rotate past the traps to switch weapons consumed valuable time; worse, occasionally I'd place a trap by accident, thinking I'd switched to a particular weapon but having chosen a trap instead. Again, it's not a major problem but it is annoying and takes a while to get used to.
Another quirk is the way the upgrade system works. Each level you complete, your success is judged and you’re awarded a certain number of skulls; the better you do, the more you get. You can then use these skulls to upgrade your gear. Why is this weird? Well, if you’re good, your weapons get better - which makes the game easier. Finding it hard? You’ll be doing worse, getting less skulls and, therefore, having less ways in which to make the game easier. It’s an odd design decision that seems to reinforce failure.
Otherwise, the title is supremely successful. It looks amazing, is a lot of fun to play, and provides so many options as to how your approach a level you’ll find yourself trying all sorts of completely different scenarios as you play. Fail a level? Try a new combination of traps! It never stumbles into the “need to figure out the combination of turrets intended by the designer” trap that so many other tower defense games fall afoul of.
It’s a pretty niche game, for sure, but if you like the sound of something action-y and strategy-y, you should definitely check it out - even if you’ve never heard of tower defense. Thanks to Xbox Live’s all games must have a demo requirement, there’s no excuse for not trying it. It's an impressive package and it deserves your attention - about the only thing missing is multiplayer.