Orcs Must Die Review

I have mixed feelings on the tower defense genre. Traditionally they take place from a perspective set way up in the sky with a path for mobs to travel, and the player can ring that path with towers of various types to stop those enemies from reaching the end. As new baddies are introduced, and new towers to counter them, the game becomes a balance of resource spending and tower placement to best deal with the invaders.

These games often just don’t have enough variety and last too long, leaving me bored pretty fast from my godlike view in the clouds; the typical lack of any story or narration doesn’t help matters either, leaving me even more disconnected from the action. Then a game like Defense Grid: The Awakening comes along and shows me how good these games can. Or Sanctum strolls in and offers a fresh perspective on the style, with co-op no less.

Look how excited he is to be in this game!

Orcs Must Die is my new addition to that list of notable exceptions in the world of tower defense, as it has the obligatory addictive nature of the genre, a wide variety of “tower” types, a unique perspective, humor, a good difficulty curve, and even a bit of a plot. An impressive resume for a member of the tower defense family if you ask me.

That unique perspective I mentioned is 3rd person as opposed to the traditional satellite view, or Sanctum’s first person view. At times it even slides nicely into feeling like a straight up 3rd person shooter. You have a crossbow and a sword staff to start with, both with alternate fire modes, and can run about and jump like any other shooter. You eventually get magical equipment to use as weapons as well, the traditional four elemental spells, as well as the ability to upgrade your weapons.

Shootin' dudes already impaled on spikes. Not sporting.

With these qualities you already have a decent game of mowing down waves of enemies, hell it even has head shots for the more accurate player. If you manage to get overwhelmed and die, it will cost you five rift points for your swift resurrection. Rift points are the number of orcs you can allow to reach their destination, with some, like massive ogres, being worth more. The third person shooter aspect also brings with it my biggest complaint for the game, something a dedicated shooter never makes the mistake of doing: it makes you click for every shot. Imagine if you had to manually click for every bullet that game out of your gun in a game with wave after wave of enemies. It’s a nightmare to even think about. By the time I had finished this game my mouse hand was a useless claw thing on the end of a cramped wrist. Thankfully you don’t play this game to just shoot stuff. You play this game for the traps.

Instead of placing towers along the sides of a path, you place traps on the walls, floors, and ceilings of the various magical fortresses you were tasked to defend by your dead teacher. These are a bit too numerous to mention in full, but they range from spikes erupting from floors, knives shooting out of walls, massive swinging maces on the ceiling, and my personal favorite, spring loading floor tiles to fling orcs around and into pits. You can also summon elven archers and massive paladins to help guard the place, not exactly traps, but useful.

Glorious! Love flinging ragdolls!

Each of these can be permanently upgraded as well, either to lower prices, increase speed, or add additional effects. The currency to buy these upgrades is based entirely on your performance, as at the end of a level you earn skulls based on how well you did. Its a crafty way to make you want to replay levels you didn’t get a perfect five skull rating on, just to get a few more points to improve your wall mounted meat grinders reset speed. Not that you wouldn’t want to replay some of these levels already anyway, some levels involve some complicated paths and wide open spaces, making victory possible in a variety of ways.

Really taking in the layout of the level before starting the waves is a crucial habit early on, but as your traps increase in number and variety it borders on necessary. You need to select your load-out at the start of each level, often about eight traps/spells/and guardians out of the 25 of those available. Not scoping out the terrain first could lead to missed opportunities for areas perfect for a certain kind of trap, or a precious slot filled with ceiling traps in a building with vaulted ceilings. This limit on what you can bring with you really brings out some strategic thinking and your particular style. Sacrificing a trap for the ice spell bracers means one less trap, but the ability to freeze enemies and crowd control on a more intimate level. You also risk missing out of level hazards if you skip a quick sight seeing trip, like chandeliers to shoot down, spiked logs to roll down stairs, or pots of boiling acid to tip over.

A victory dance, yes, but also pointing out good wall dart placement.

About midway through you also gain access to spell weavers, which is just a fancy way of saying you get some tech trees to upgrade on a per level basis. You can choose to either upgrade a tree for your characters abilities, for traps, or for a third one I never clicked on because I only ever used the trap tech tree because ogres need to be flung into acid pits, regardless of how heavy they are. This addition shows up just in time to add a new layer of strategy and planning to the mix, because these tech paths cost money. You can be awesome like me and blow all your money on tech upgrades and rely on a paltry number of traps for the first wave, or you can think ahead or something.

The variety of ways you can kill orcs is impressive, to say the least. Chaining traps together for combos or to boost efficiency is satisfying and is reflected through the colorful screen effects and your character’s boisterous hollering. Character is another thing this game has a great deal of. The protagonist is the world’s stupidest battlemage with the manic charm of Charlie Sheen, which judging by his ecstatic battle cry of, “WINNING!” is no coincidence. The narration is handled by your dead teacher who was tasked with somehow teaching what the academy felt was a lost cause. He derides your the entire game as being hopeless and that humanity is doomed. As you progress further in the game his tune slightly changes, saying you are too stupid to lose, and incapable of learning anything, including defeat. Even the orcs are fun to listen to, crying out about lost limbs, blood loss, and urging each other to go first through what is certainly a horrible trap lined path.

Walking through hot tar only to have a massive mace smash you to bits. Being an orc is hard.

Between the narration, which often comes with rather beautifully illustrated pictures, and the banter of the orcs and the player, a story even comes together. It’s not a heavy story by any means, and the plot twists can be seen miles away, but it’s still a nice addition to the game and helps tie it all together. It gives the loud mouthed death dealer you’re piloting about a history and an identity, and paints some picture as to why it is you are defending rifts and why the orcs are willing to walk through meat grinders to reach them. Unless they are flying units, then they are unwilling to walk through meat grinders to reach rifts; they prefer to safely fly over everything like assholes.

I may have a bit of a quibble with the flying units, as their are simply too few ways to deal with them outside of archers, your crossbow, an auto-ballista, and lucky placement of blade shooting walls. When you get a large wave of them it will always end with you gunning them down personally as you watch them burn your archers alive. I can shoot six million arrows a minute at the cost of ever using my right hand again, so why can’t the archers stand a burn to shoot every few seconds? Are they trying to aim or something? One trap specific to flying types, that ignores ground units, that’s all it would take.

Mind control mushrooms. I love mushrooms.

Orcs Must Die is an addictive and entertaining game with a pleasant level of humor and variety mixed into it to give it some real charm. The finger cramps are worth the sheer joy of watching orcs pinwheel through the air as a shower of their gibbed companions who missed the flip plate but found the grinder erupts below them. The enemy types are just varied enough for a game this length, and the types switch up between levels to keep it somewhat fresh. Its just long enough to feel meaty, but short enough that you can actually finish the game before you get sick of it. If you like tower defense games, then this is a fresh new way to enjoy the genre. If, like me, you need a bit more added to the formula for it to really grab you, then you could be in luck with this one. Either way, check out the demo and see what you think!


  1. Xbox 360 Controller. Buy one! Games like this are much easier to play that way.

    I’m about 75% of the way through on PC and it’s so much better with a gamepad.

    • Chris Sommer

      When I go through for Nightmare Mode (Name of website woo) I’ll try it with the pad.

  2. Pope Guilty

    You really don’t want autofire, though- outside of certain specific circumstances (i.e. that gnoll has just a sliver of health and you’re out of mana and it needs to die RIGHT NOW), you only want to fire when the reticle is green. When it’s green, the arrow goes right precisely where you aim it, and headshots kill orcs. You almost always want to be methodically going for headshots rather than spamming arrows into the crowd.

    • Chris Sommer

      I know being patient and methodical is the key, but with so many of them coming at me I just go into a berserker frenzy of clicking!

  3. Pingback: Steam Sales and Will Power | Nightmare Mode

  4. Alison

    With the flying guys, if you use your ice magic they are one shotted. And usually archers are busy hitting whatever is closest, even if its something on the ground. I love this game, but find its a big jump between apprentice and nightmare mode. Wish there was an ‘inbetween’ between them. Oh wells.

    • Chris Sommer

      Yeah, I popped into Nightmare and not much later I popped out and decided to save that for another time. Like when I develop super powers.