Robot Entertainment is best known for its work on Age of Empires 3, and for the two DLC packs it released for Halo Wars. The dev is also behind the upcoming Age of Empires Online. But recently, the team unveiled their action/strategy title Orcs Must Die!, which combines the strategy of tower defense with the excitement of a third-person action adventure game. On paper, this game might not sound like it would blow your socks off, but it was one of the most fun game experiences I had at all of PAX, and that's saying something considering it shared floor space with games like RAGE, Duke Nukem Forever, and Mortal Kombat.
The premise of Orcs Must Die! is simple: kill orcs. You're trying to kill them because they are constantly trying to invade your fortress and gain access to your magical vortex. It's the source of power that keeps you healthy and allows you to fight, cast spells, and plant traps all over your medieval bachelor pad. Each wave gets successively harder, but you'll also gain access to new traps and abilities allowing you to keep up with the hordes.
At the start of the game, and between levels, you're presented with your "spellbook." This lays out the different attacks, traps, and spells that you can slot in. Initially, you're only allowed to choose four, but as you progress through the levels, you'll get more abilities, and more slots will open up. Soon enough, you'll be slinging fire, hanging ceiling traps, and diving into melee fights with your sword.
After you picked your loadout, you'll be in your fortress, with an enormous banging door warning you that an orc attack is imminent. You'll have time to place your traps and ready yourself, so you'll be somewhat prepared when you hit a key and the orcs come storming in. Placement of the traps is key, and you'll have to spend money to buy and place them, so keep an eye on your dough. Better traps = more money, and you'll quickly spend what you start out with.
As you select each trap, you'll see a radius on the ground indicating its area of effect, and certain traps have placement limitations, like a spike trap needs to be on the ground, an arrow trap needs to be on a wall, and so on. I would highly recommend scouting around as some levels have teleporting pathways to get you around quicker, or environmental items like chandeliers and pots of boling oil that you can use on enemies. Once you've scouted, set up, and dug your feet in, you hit the G key to start the level.
Immediately, your door will burst in, and orcs will start pouring through. If you've set your traps optimally, those will begin taking out the front lines. But, each trap has a "reload" time, and that will allow the beasties to scramble through. In the meantime, you're fully controlling your character, firing your crossbow at orcs and checking the invaders both via your line of sight, and through the minimap.
Each Orc that reaches your Vortex will take away one point, and any time you die on the map you'll lose five. But you will be resurrected until that count reaches zero. Simple enough, right? Just wait until the fast-moving orcs and the flying orcs start coming. That's where things get irritating. Thankfully, you'll be aided by fire spells, archers, blade traps, and more as you successfully clear levels.
You'll be able to sell traps back between levels to try and recoup on your investment, and there's just something extremely satisfying about laying down a spring trap in front of an oncoming orc, and watching him catapult into the air and land in a pit full of lava. Survive all the waves to achieve victory, or fail and try again. I played through three levels, and by the time our final level came up, things were extremely hairy.
Orcs Must Die! takes tower defense and adds the same level of fun to it that Toy Soldiers did: it puts you in the heart of the action. Most other games in this genre require you to plan carefully, and they hope you picked the right assortment of towers and defenses to hold everything off. With this game, you are right in the thick of it, and your actions can dramatically change the way things unfold. Plus, the cartoonish, humorous action is over the top enough to keep you smiling. The game is due out on PC and XBLA later this year, and is definitely worth checking out.