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Sequel the popular XBLA and PC title, Orcs Must Die! 2 returns us to the Dead World. The rifts that were closed in the first title are opening once more, and it's the War Mage's (and new addition Sorceress') job to protect the rebuilt Order from The Mob and its horde of monsters. Lay down traps, power up your weapons and accessories, and do your best to prevent the waves of goblins, orcs, ogres, gnolls and flying baddies from reaching the rifts. It's non-stop, hectic, third-person action, compounded with the added feature of two-player cooperative gaming.
Our last defenses shattered, the orcs forge on. Attracted to the rift like moths to a flame the endless horde tramples their fallen, they don't even stop to scavenge the dead -- but I will. Their coins and trinkets are added to my war chest, their potions will help me endure, the defenses can be rebuilt, but a dead orc won't rise again -- unless there's one of those damned hobgolin shaman with their powers of resurrection. That's beside the point though, the point is that the orcs must die... and there're plenty of orcs to go around.
No question, Orcs Must Die! 2 is a good game, but is it great? What does it sacrifice to maintain its simplistic and accessible nature? And for all that is holy why are there so many orcs and where do they come from?
How to Tell an Orc From a Goblin
As alluded to in the introduction, Orcs Must Die! 2's story is front-loaded and not particularly complex. In the original game, the War Mage battled against the Sorceress, inevitably defeating her orc army and closing the rifts they attacked through. Orcs Must Die! 2 begins with the Sorceress facing down her own orc army turned against her. A small rift appears for her to make her escape, leading her directly to her nemesis, the War Mage. Without much pomp and circumstance the two find themselves allying and reopening the rifts in order to return magic to the world -- while learning about themselves and their history together. Like I said it's not too complex, but charming, right?
How the story is delivered, however, is is more grating than charming. In between levels during the story mode, the game's narrative will play strictly through audio. Beyond the rare few non-animated cinematics, the majority of the story is delivered through these non-interactive audio bits while you're setting up your early defenses. It works as a transition point from level to level, but is otherwise poorly told.
Story is no priority, however. Orcs Must Die! 2 makes not apologies about being gameplay-centric. The story and characters, while charming in their own right, are simply foiled against the gameplay and don't prove independently strong. What they are is good enough to not be distracting and charming/silly enough to make the idea of thousand of orcs funneling through a sewer grate-sized opening to their deaths seem like an everyday occurrence.
Visually, Orcs Must Die! 2 can be a bit inconsistent. In order to create a proper third-person action/tower defense game the different maps and enemies have to share certain visual similarities in order for the player to react appropriately to it. As in, your basic orc looks the same on the first level as it does on the first level; if the basic orc changed appearance throughout the game the player might assume it's a different type of orc with different gameplay properties. Similarly, walls, ceilings and scenery in general throughout the game have to look extremely similar, otherwise the player might not recognize where they can place different sorts of traps. Of course, the developers could assume the player will figure that out through other means and vary the environments for the sake of keeping things interesting, but Orcs Must Die! 2 does not. Thus, the common thread in Orcs Must Die! 2's continues with respect to visual style -- the visuals are intentionally clean, nondescript so that gameplay doesn't suffer.
That doesn't mean the aesthetic is poor, quite the opposite actually. Orcs Must Die! 2's cartoonish style and crisp animations are excellent, and fit the game's tone and atmosphere very well. Each member of the orc army, from gnolls to trolls, is very well crafted and easily recognizable amongst the crowd. I won't lie, I still much prefer the colorful and exaggerated style of Dungeon Defenders as its much more eye-drawing and spectacular. After all, what's the point of developing a fantasy setting if you don't take advantage and create some unbelievable effects. But as much as I'd like to call out Orcs Must Die! 2 for not taking advantage, not doing more, I can't argue that it works with what the game is doing -- if anything it amplifies the quality of the gameplay.
One last caveat, the traps and their resulting damage and kill animations are all great, acid in particular is great fun, but there's one system in particularly that just looks out of place and awkward. It's the ragdoll system that is employed when enemies are knocked over. When compared to the clean animations in the rest of the game, the flailing, awkwardly bent orcs just look terrible. It's a limitation of the engine technology, I suppose, but I wanted to mention it because of how noticeable it is.
How to Trap and Kill an Orc
Finally, we get to the meat of the review. After spending the time so far establishing that Orcs Must Die! 2 makes sacrifices in order to accentuate its gameplay, I finally get to give my thoughts on the game itself. Orcs Must Die! 2 is just... good. It's just okay, nothing more and nothing less. Underwhelming, right? That's sort of how I felt after my time with the game, too.
Each map in Orcs Must Die 2 requires you to prevent waves of assorted orcs and monsters from traveling from point A to point B. This is done by both: creating traps and placing them throughout the level, and through damage dealt directly by the playable character with spells and aimed weapon attacks. Due to map layout, the relative weakness of traps, and the player being limited to one place at a time, neither system by itself is capable of defending against the orc horde. Gameplay, as a result, relies heavily on players constantly moving so as to meet the orcs head on wherever they're making an incursion. In single-player, it can be frantic and high-stress, but with co-op it becomes much more relaxed. Until things go wrong, at least.
Where Orcs flounders is in the mechanical nature of combat. While there's a good variety in traps, accessories, spells and the like (I'll touch on this in a bit.) is that despite the assortment of tricks in your bag gameplay boils down to the same style of play, map after map. Traps are, by intention, never strong enough to deal entirely with a wave of enemies, so gameplay revolves around the player running back and forth between entrances until either the entire wave is either dead or the level ends in a loss. Traps are laid down as often as possible, and they'll do damage and kill a certain amount of enemies, but still there will be some that pass through defenses and the player will have to deal with them personally. It's still intrinsically fun (heheh, orcs melting in acid), but at no point in the campaign was I ever caught up with the idea of redoing a level just to try something a little bit different. Sure, I could use a different trap or use a different weapon, but essentially the gameplay and end result would likely be the same.
Orcs Must Die! 2 does provide multiple difficulties as well as an Endless mode to keep players aiming for greater challenges. I played through the main campaign at medium difficulty and only lost a map once -- and once I was finished I wasn't sure I wanted to go through it again (granted, my co-op partner and editor felt differently). Endless mode, however, has a more lasting appeal, but also has one grand fault. Endless mode provides the opportunity to really measure a player's worth. If a system of traps isn't up-to-par the orcs will plow through by wave 20 or 30. Fail, and the only option is to start all over again, often taking an irrational amount of time completing easy waves. Not so encouraging to work so hard only to fail and have to begin anew.
The other way Orcs Must Die! 2 keeps players coming back is through its customization and shop system. By completing maps in the campaign, or just through simple gameplay in general, players earn skulls. These skulls can be spent to unlock new traps, accessories with assorted spells and abilities on them, weapons for the Sorceress or War Mage, and 3-4 upgrades for all of the above items. Yes, every single item or trap's level can be upgraded a few times, and can also acquire a unique passive skill, though only one of these can be active at a time. The system is built to complement each player's preferences, for instance I fully upgraded my archers and barricades, forcing enemies to travel through maze-like paths while constantly being peppered with arrows. The problem here, as mentioned before, is that in terms of strength your upgrades aren't so significant. The enemies aren't designed with weaknesses, so it's just a matter of time until they die, wholly independent of how you're dealing the damage. Whatever upgrades the player chooses will undoubtedly get the job done.
I'll fully admit I enjoyed playing Orcs Must Die! 2 well enough, though a part of that is because it's hard not to have fun while playing cooperatively. The gameplay in Orcs Must Die! 2 is solidly built and well balanced, but if you were to ask me what the game's best feature was, it's selling point, why it was significant, I couldn't tell anything more than what I just said. It's fun to play with a friend, and if there's a high difficulty ceiling with enough time dedication. Otherwise, customizations don't feel so impactful as to be a selling point and wave-to-wave gameplay feels very formulaic and mechanical.
Orcs Must Die! 2 is a cooperative third-person action/tower defense game, and strictly measured by the expectations of that genre everything is very solid. Yet, where Dungeon Defenders capitalizes on four-player, class based mayhem with unique maps and a vivid, colorful visual style, where Sanctum capitalizes on classic tower defense principles and a first-person perspective, Orcs Must Die! 2 never distinguishes itself. Killing orcs is gratifying, by all means, but is more of a foundation than an achievement.
Still, almost despite itself, Orcs Must Die! 2 is good. The game takes very few risks, almost aspiring to be mediocre, but delivers something almost anyone can pick up and say, "Hey, this is pretty fun." If that's all that Robot Entertainment wanted to deliver with Orcs Must Die! 2 then they've performed masterfully. Personally, I found the experience lacking, but maybe going forward this is just the foundation from which Robot will achieve. Maybe next time we'll find out where those damn orcs come from.
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