Quick Review - Orcs Must Die 2

Let’s admit it: orcs have it rough. When they’re not being forced to dig caverns the size of Disneyland beneath some crazy wizard’s tower or squabbling over logging rights with purple elves, some smug jock of a war mage with a surfeit of traps is trying to exterminate them and their band of brothers like ants at a picnic. It must have been brutal enough when they died by the thousands at his hands in Orcs Must Die! just under 10 months ago, yet the bad news is that he’s only gotten better in the meantime.

But of course that’s good news for us. Until last year’s Orcs Must Die!, the tower defense genre was barely wheezing by on a life support system largely powered by mobile devices like the iPhone and Android. The lifeline blipped on the PC and consoles for some prophetic titles like Sanctum, but it was Orcs Must Die! that truly shocked the genre back on its feet and rigged it with a legion of traps and weapons all designed for the sole purpose of wreaking ruin on the green skinned hordes. Most importantly, it yanked us out of our God’s eye view and placed us in the action behind the shoulders of a swaggering hero who was equal parts Bruce Campbell and Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. And for the most part, it was a winning combination.

He’s back now in Orcs Must Die! 2, endearingly dorky quips and all, and he’s got a fetching sorceress for company. You may recognize her as the mind-controlling villainess from the first game, but that’s no matter; moments after she slips through a weak rift and runs into our goofy war mage, everything’s cool, and they buddy up to slaughter her formerly devoted minions with the chumminess of Mario and Luigi.  True, she may make the occasional cheeky comment about how the war mage has fallen to toiling in a dwarven mine (being an orc slayer isn’t all that profitable without orcs, it seems), but the resulting banter during each match gives the air of a continuous but unobtrusive narrative that was largely missing in the first game.

Even more importantly, this means you can now play cooperatively. Orcs Must Die! was a one-man show; when allies did appear, they were usually nameless archers perched on ledges or silent knights hacking the limbs off orcs lucky enough to reach the portals at the end of each round. Not so here. Both the war mage and the sorceress have their own sets of traps and weapons (allowing for more than 50 gizmos over the last game’s 22), and the game reaches a whole new pitch of fun once you get the two working in tandem in multiplayer. You’ll likely need voice chat to coordinate attacks in the most frantic moments, but, when things go well, there are few things so satisfying as using the sorceress’ mind control spell to turn the biggest orc in the room against his buddies while the war mage pumps out death with his shotgun. This cooperative excitement reaches a fever pitch in a new Endless mode (styled after Gears of War's Horde mode), in which each wave of orcs grows more numerous and powerful than the last. Not only does this satisfying addition promise limitless opportunities for replay after completing the campaign, but it's an excellent way to earn the skull currency needed for upgrades to boot.

Indeed, this seems to be the way developer Robot Entertainment intends us to play the sequel--perhaps to a fault. It’s a bit too dangerous to go alone here after the first few missions (but not necessarily impossible): the maddening flip-flops in difficulty between levels that soured the first game still exist, but new threats such as airborne bile bats and hulking earth elementals that split into smaller enemies make the chaos a little too tough to manage alone even on the normal difficulty setting. In other words: the co-op mode often feels mandatory rather than optional on selected maps, which comes as a surprise after the strictly single-player design of the first game. Play with a friend, though, and the hopeless maps you once suffered through alone dissolve into challenging but enjoyable brain teasers. You’ll still probably fail occasionally, but the shared defeats feel more like learning experiences than the aftermaths of doomed last stands.

In both cases, though, the third-person perspective fosters a personal urgency to fighting back the horde that's muted or outright absent in top-down examples of the genre like Fieldrunners. You'll find tower defense staples such as turrets (represented here as arrow walls and acid walls) or surfaces that slow the enemy's advance in the Orcs Must Die! games, but they depart from the genre's convention by putting you in the thick of the action with ranged and melee weapons that let you finish off what the traps could not. The traps themselves are limited by the smallish stipend of cash you receive before each wave, and often the sheer masses of orcs that pour through will be able get past even the deadliest corridors you've designed because of the reset timers on each trap. It's an intensely satisfying design that mimics the best moments of action RPGs, and on the hardest difficulties you'll end up making your stand by the goal with whatever weapons you chose before the match began.

Much of the series' appeal thus rests on choosing the most effective weapons and traps for your playstyle, and there's enough variety here to make each playthrough feel different. If you prefer in-your-face tactics, you can focus on upgrading your weapons; if you're more of a tactician, you can spend all your efforts on creating deadly combinations of traps to amass bonus points for the skull currency needed for upgrades. Of course, if you're wise, you'll do a bit of both. The first game had a polished upgrade system, but the sequel’s positively shines. Take the war mage’s arrow walls, for instance. In the past, you could only upgrade them to apply a poison effect on passing orcs; now, you can burn them with a fire upgrade or chill their movements with ice. Go one step further, and you can start plastering them on the ceilings to create gateways of death. The extensive options (which include a chance to refund your skulls) also enhance cooperative play: with so many choices, you can discuss point allocation with friends to create builds that complement the strengths of both the war mage and the sorceress. Played alone, they allow for balanced builds that make the aforementioned difficulty spikes a bit easier to deal with.

It’s unfortunate, then, that it stumbles somewhat in the visual presentation--or, at least, if you were expecting something vastly different from the Fable-meets-World of Warcraft visual style that defined the first game. While the bright castle interiors of the first game have largely given way to darkened mine shafts (although you can use the 10 maps from the first game in a "Classic" mode with the sequel’s mechanics if you already have it installed), the same sense of excessively recycling environments lurks throughout. That’s even true of the sound; while the new voiceovers are welcome, the music sounds much the same and you’ll even hear the same jingle that marked the end of a level before. Indeed, were it not for the strengths of its cooperative gameplay and the rich variety offered by the new weapons, traps, and their associated upgrades, the abundance of reused concepts in Orcs Must Die! 2 would run the risk of feeling like a mere expansion instead of a full-blown sequel. Thankfully, you're usually having too much fun to notice.


Orcs Must Die! 2’s new cooperative mode allows its gameplay to outshine the formidable strengths of its predecessor, but at the cost of piling several punishing difficulty spikes on the single-player mode. Even so, few other tower defense games succeed so well in delivering pure fun, and the extensive upgrades and improvements to traps and weaponry makes slaughtering orcs more enjoyable than ever. It never loses sight of the singular imperative to kill as many orcs as possible, and while there’s a sense that too much has been recycled from the first outing, its unique combination of tower defense and action mechanics reach near perfection here. A qualified triumph for veterans of the first game and newcomers alike.