Orcs must be violently bereft of their lives

So by Steam’s calculations I’ve spent nearly 40 hours in Orcs Must Die 2 now. I didn’t spend nearly that much time in the original, though I liked it. So as a recommendation I suppose this post could be really short: play this game. If you don’t know what it is, it’s a strange tower defense game where your defenses are traditional traps, like arrow walls and spike floors. You lay them down to stop a horde of orcs and other monsters from getting from one end of the map to the other. You can also fight for yourself, shooting, burning, and freezing them.

The story of both games (the second follows the first with days, at most, between) is simple. The War Mage (unnamed male protagonist) defends Rifts – sources of the world’s magic and portals into his world – from hordes of orcs that want to come through and ravage things. In the first game the antagonist is the Sorceress, a former Order member who thinks the Order was being run poorly. In the second game both of these are playable characters, given that the magic went away and neither really had much to do – except the rifts appear to be coming back.

OK, that’s the plot summary. The mechanics are what most people pay attention to. It’s just fun to watch orcs blunder into your carefully placed acid sprayers and freeze vents, freeze into ice blocks, then get doused with acid and melt into skeletons. It’s good times. If every part of that description didn’t sound amazing to you, then I can’t do anything to help you, just go play jacks or something.

The second game makes it a bit of a grind in a way the first game really wasn’t – you could always upgrade traps, but in this one there are more upgrades, and many weapons you have to buy outright. That’s ok. It doesn’t really become tedious, because there is a lot of replay value in the levels.

There’s co-op now, a welcome addition that changes the game from something really good that I put down frequently to something I want to play most evenings.

But I don’t want to dwell on “reviewing,” that odd beast. Orcs Must Die (1 & 2) are fantasies. At first glance – and probably at second – they’re fairly generic. It might be hard to imagine the setting and the characters as mattering much. For many people they probably don’t.

I can say, first, that that’s the stuff that got me into the game in the first place. A friend recommended it based on my asserted love of aesthetics – the reasoning was that I would love the War Mage, and oh how I do. He’s a douche, a violent surfer boy, who loves his job because he gets to watch orcs be mangled. We learn in the second game he left his possibly dying – but not dead – master after nicking his weapons, giggling as he went. The Sorceress, in her turn, approves his actions. So what we have are much more relatable iterations of the Duke Nukem / Serious Sam character – someone glorying in the violence of the game while seeming not to care about the ramifications of losing – because he’d never lose, right?

Over the course of the first game the War Mage learns to care, as the enemy becomes more organized and the rifts are in more danger. He is the last of the Order, apparently. It’s entirely on his shoulders, the defense of his world. He does care, but that’s usually lost behind his enthusiasm.

But what is that enthusiasm for? This is a fantasy game, where the world is threatened by hordes of stupid but dangerous enemies, ravenous for new worlds to plunder. It’s a fairly stock situation, but the War Mage is the wrong stock character. The typical points of the narrative have been shuffled. The War Mage isn’t the typical hero of this story. He’s not self-sacrificing because he likes this job too much. His glee appears to be what kept him going the whole time, in fact.

If the game can be said to bear much character analysis, I want to point to one moment in the first game: the Sorceress, as yet unseen, begins to communicate with the War Mage. She’s trying to convince him to give up, because he’s proving too good at his job. She’s confident she will win, but it’s taking too long. She threatens him with her hordes. His response is to make fun of her – what would he like better than more orcs to kill? Indeed, the end, when he shuts off the rifts, is an act of self-denial. There’s nothing else to kill or defend, with no rifts. He does it anyway, because he’s a good guy in the end. But wave after wave of enemy is no deterrent to the War Mage, because that’s what he wants. He wants the fight. In that sense he is like TF2’s Soldier more than a typical fantasy character. He’s looking for trouble, not trying to stop it. It just so happens he can be exploited by the Order.

The game reflects his mindset with its style and gameplay. It’s fast, and orcs explode, melt, and scream as they die. The game itself is as frenetic and obsessive as the War Mage who navigates it all. This contrasts the game sharply with its most obvious competitor, Dungeon Defenders. Those characters are all earnest young versions of typical heroes, out to defend their country from a mistake they made. I don’t want you to get me wrong, I like that game a lot too. But the design of each game is different in part to reflect the differing stories and settings. DD’s game is slower and more careful, with bigger levels and more orchestrated waves. It lends a sense of grandeur and valor to the fights. OMD, on the other hand, is fast, dirty, and the levels are carefully designed to offer fewer possibilities while taking more effort to defend. The traps aren’t as amazing – there’s a damn Magic Missile turret in DD, after all. It just shoots at anything that gets close. I’ll write about DD in detail in the future, I think, but suffice to say for now that OMD is a different animal worrying the same bone. It’s the Duke of turret games. That’s a fair achievement, I think.

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