About 8 months ago I analyzed the debut of the Orcs Must Die! series, produced by Robot Entertainment. A tower defense sporting action/RPG elements, dressed up as a semi-realistic cartoon while tickling your need for speed and variation through its open tactical approach and clever animations. The only two flaws I had found for it were – one, in contrast to Dungeon Defenders, the closest game on the market – the lack of co-op play and two, the lack of a level editor (something I really wished for).
Well, Orcs Must Die! is back with a stuffier, lengthier and denser chapter, aside from a Co-Op mode and a slightly different approach on the objectives you can have in one map. The scale of, well, everything went up, both when it comes to the literal size of the maps, as well as the number of solutions you can use against the incoming horde. Furthermore, the maps have quite a few chokepoints and you have more freedom when it comes to setting traps, partly because some of them include upgrades that will let you use them on different surfaces (ceiling or walls) than the default form.
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The storyline picks up where it left off, which is the protagonist’s (the nameless War Mage) decision to close the rifts to the orc homeworld and thus, cut off all magic from his own. Now out of a job, he takes to mining. To his delight however (and the horror of the world he’s supposed to protect), the orcs are back en masse (with a few additions in their ranks), and everything that separates them from us helpless whelps are a few half-opened doors. Furthermore, the protagonist – the same Prince Charming who fell off the stupid tree, hyperbolized for comic relief – is no longer the only playable character, because the Sorceress, the Big Bad of the first game, joins him.
Their differences are more than just aesthetics, as the War Mage’s bigger health pool is compensated by the Sorceress’ richer mana reserve. Furthermore, her default attack differs depending on the non-exclusive weapons (she shoots a sort of chargeable magic missiles), while her secondary attack charms invaders, who start fighting amongst themselves once they get hit by it. The control, general mechanics and interface haven’t changed at all since the first game. Still, you’d best pick up the character you want to play with from the very beginning, because every upgrade, purchase and customizable element is tied to the character whose profile you’re on.
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Due to the bigger number and the deeper customization, the traps, weapons, guardians and gear you can distribute in the up to nine (six in co-op) free slots are divided in categories.
Thus, the traps give us all the elements in the previous game (Grinder, Brimstone, Tar Trap, Spike Trap, Swinging Mace, Ballist), to which we add extra functions once they get upgraded, aside from numerous new traps for every surface – mixers that come down from the ceiling, zapper turrets specialized in frying flying enemies, flamethrowers coming out of the ground or walls spitting acid.
The old arsenal makes a comeback, sporting identical abilities (the crossbow can be used for headshots, the fire and ice amulets and the Windbelt that works more or less like a Force Push, the Bladestaff), while a new weapon joins the fray: the Boomstick (a shotgun I admit I didn’t use a lot past the initial contact). Furthermore, there’s a new class of gear, a bunch of artifacts with a passive and an active effect, each specialized on one type of bonus.
We’ve got trap resetting amulets, amulets that increase the monetary value of every enemy we kill, amulets that regenerate mana or hit points and various other beneficial effects, aside from more modest, passive advantages that are guaranteed just by having the amulet in your action bar.
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The classic guardians (paladins and archers) are joined by dwarves, armed with makeshift grenades and terribly efficient as a supplement to whatever kill box you have built in tighter spots on the map. Naturally, every element can be upgraded, and there’s always a perk which you can buy, sacrificing its alternative (archers can shoot fire arrows, spike traps can apply a bleed effect and so forth…).
The currency for upgrades is the skull, which you will get for the rating on every map and various bonuses (perfection in every level, a skull for every thousand orcs killed, random drops etc.). In order to buy everything there is, you’ll need around one thousand skulls in total, not really a small sum even for the craftiest, most ambitious of players.
Here’s where the three different game modes come in handy: Story Mode (campaign missions), Classic (maps from the original game, adapted for the use of new traps and gear) or Endless (Story Mode maps – and exclusives, too, with a different rule set: the orc waves don’t end, and the purpose isn’t to beat them all, but rather to survive long enough for a 5-star rating (which translates into surviving the 40th wave). Furthermore, the difficulty adaptation for co-op mode leaves certain holes in the single-player evolution, in the sense that the money you get when playing alone might sometimes be insufficient to beat back waves that increase in numbers exponentially, but there’s always a way out.
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The enemies, as was to be expected, also get backup. The horde has the same basic soldiers (medium and heavy orcs, sometimes geared with a shield that will prevent the instant farming of a group by repeating headshots), crossbow orcs, kobolds, ogres – classic, armored, ice or fire, chunky and small dragons or gnolls, plus twilight dragons – who can devastate entire groups of archers if you’re not careful because of their obnoxious damage. Furthermore, some gnolls throw grenades now, and the Earth Elemental newcomers break into two smaller pieces that carry on.
The traps you lay have to be varied in their effect, because for instance whatever will kill fast-running kobolds (Brimstones, for instance), will be nearly useless against heavyweight enemies such as Earthlords or Earth Elementals. There are certain combos that are effective all around the table, but not every map has efficient chokepoints.
In fact, the maps in OMD! 2 are more twisted in their architecture: the platforms you can put guardians on are often far off from the places in which mobs gather (both vertically as well as horizontally), there are a lot of windows or holes in the architecture through which you can hit swarms of faraway invaders without actually moving to where they are, and the portals make a spectacular comeback.
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The maps aren’t necessarily bigger (with a few exceptions), but in most cases are way more dense and hard to defend until you test out a few fatal trap combinations. The toolset you need to use will differ a lot more than in the first game and the talent trees we used to call Weavers are gone. Still, some effects have been taken in the upgrade shop (such as giving you a modest mana volume in exchange for landed headshots or resetting traps faster).
Overall, there’s no „ultimate” strategy, and the approach is pretty versatile – you can confuse monsters with the Sorceress or throw as many Lightning Storms as your mana will allow, while quickly swapping back and forth the crossbow in order to get back said mana via headshots. The Tar Traps are extremely useful to the nameless hero, while the Sorceress can build kill boxes in which the barricades, acid and fire traps and stacking bleed effects work much like the Word of God in the Old Testament.
Coinforges, the surface platform that increases your income, also have consistent upgrades in this sense, including an optional bonus that makes the effect persist long after the orcs have left the surface. For maximum profit, you can use the moneymaking artifact, while more serious enemies will always drop a golden coin. In the Endless mode, you’ll reach a point where money becomes obsolete, especially since the basic upgrade for many traps and guardians (Tar Traps, Archers, Barricades) deducts from the default price.
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After your first playthrough (be it alone or with a partner), the fact that the game was specifically designed for co-op becomes a lot more obvious: symmetrical maps are much more commonplace, with anywhere between two and four gates that simultaneously spawn groups of mobs.
Anyway, the gameplay is incomparably more fun with a partner and maybe even voice chat (though it’s not mandatory, as the keyboard chat is more than enough to communicate, despite the fact that more and more games avoid it, for God knows what reason), while limiting the action bar from 9 to 6 for every player encourages synergies and melded tactics, use of different traps and an understanding of mechanics that applies to both party members in order to obtain success (at least on Nightmare difficulty).
The party is limited to two (and they each have to play with a different character), but that’s more than enough. Who knows, maybe an upcoming Orcs Must Die! 3 will bring us bigger groups and more heroes, but even in its present stage, the level architecture is much more balanced than the sometimes chaotic pictures you get in Dungeon Defender’s four-man groups.
I would have really liked a level editor, but it just wasn’t meant to be. The maps are numerous (15 in Story Mode and 20 in Endless Mode, though to be fair, some of the Endless Maps are just adaptations) and we’ll probably get more of them once some DLCs come out (as was the case with Lost Adventures for the first Orcs Must Die!), but the possibility to build, test and improve dungeons by the community might ensure an infinite replay value trait in a series that, from my standpoint, constantly evolved in content and balance.
Sure, the near identical graphics and the pyramid-structure improvements could unfairly label OMD!2 as an „unwarranted sequel, more like expansion”, but it’s the kind of game in which the basic concept really works and the hinges are oiled – the kind of game where the core is perfect and there’s not much need for a facelift as we try to beat our scores on old maps and compete with our friends on global Leaderboards.
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The introduction of the co-op mode is, to OMD!, a very important element and for the only slightly bigger price than the first game had on launch day, I reinstated my addiction to orcocide for at least a few weeks. It also helps that the game sessions can be short and intense, making it work as a lunch break game, as well as the functional leaderboard, the simple multiplayer game or the rich, fervent debates on which tactics to apply, and where.
Sure, the most recent title in Robot Entertainment’s resume is not for everyone, but I tend to believe that’s because of the genre-specific features. In its own niche, Orcs Must Die! 2 is king. You may not be inclined towards tower defense games, but in this genre, the three-dimensional approach (your ability to use the walls and ceiling, to place down guardians, forming synergy between traps and character spells), the attractive graphics and the fast-paced gameplay are way above any other similar title.