Orcs Must Die! Unchained Closed Beta Impressions

Welcome!

I’m glaring at the Orcs Must Die! Unchained deck-building screen trying to work out which combination of minions, equipment and traps will be the most lethal. It’s the latest outing in the Orcs Must Die! series and has dropped the campaign mode in favour of expanding the co-operative element introduced in Orcs Must Die 2. You’re now playing competitive aggressive tower defence with four teammates against an enemy team. Yes okay fine it is a free-to-play MOBA.

The objective of these games is to prevent waves of enemy minions from reaching a Rift deep within your base. To do so you lay traps, equip weapons, use your hero abilities and so forth. The game’s in closed beta at the moment but I’ve been playing matches and chatting with GameForge’s Dominik Nagel – a game designer on the project – to get a feel for how it works.

The objective in each match is to get twenty of your minions through the enemy’s Rift which is situated deep within their base. To help you do this you open and upgrade warcamps – big wooden doors which open at intervals to release waves of minions. You can also lay traps in friendly buildings which slow or damage the enemy heroes and minions. Essentially you’re playing the tower defence bit of original Orcs Must Die! to protect your own team while at the same time playing the role of the AI for the other team.

When you’re heading into a game you can either queue with a party of friends or go solo. In the games I played for this session GameForge set up a custom lobby to join but in previous and subsequent games I queued solo. It took a while to find games with the latter approach as you might expect given it’s a closed beta with a limited number of people. When it can’t find enough human players it will populate the empty spots with bots so you can still get a match. I ended up with one entirely bot game, an entirely human game and one in-between. The bot games were decent for practicing tactics but there was far more enjoyment in defeating human opponents.

“We’re tweaking the matchmaking system a lot,” says Nagel when I ask about having so many bot experiences. “It’s been tweaked in order to start the game quicker due to the fact we don’t have so many players. This way we’re sure people can play with bots.”

Decisions, decisions

Getting into a game you need to pick your hero. There are five starter heroes – familiar faces like the War Mage and the Sorceress as well as elven archer Ivy, axe-wielding Hogarth and the gnoll Blackpaw – and one other on weekly rotation. Right clicking a hero tells you more about them but generally you use left mouse button for your basic attack, right for a slightly stronger attack and Q and E for special powers. Aesthetically speaking, it was disappointing to see far more variety in the types of male character than the female, although Ball and Chain adds a morning star-wielding female orc into the mix.

On the character selection screen you’ll also need to select a card deck to play with. The decks are like hero builds in other games. As you play you’ll earn card drops. Some of these unlock new heroes, while some give you gear or traps or minions. Once you’ve picked up a handful of those you can start creating your own custom decks for particular heroes or situations. You have a certain number of slots for each type of item and can unlock more so you can build bigger decks. Gear and traps give you items you can then use in the game, while changing the minion cards in your selection alters what homes out of the warcamp door when a wave spawns.

For example, the hero Blackpaw has an ability where he can give a temporary armour boost to gnolls nearby. That’s useful because he can summon spirit gnolls to fight alongside him and then immediately buff them. You can make it even more useful when there’s a Blackpaw on your team by using a deck where a lot of the minion cards are gnolls. That way the armour boost will have an even greater effect as more of your minion wave will benefit from Blackpaw’s presence.

At the moment the only map available is a two-lane affair, but the team is working on a more complex three-lane map. I picked Ivy (a ranged supporty type character) and dropped into the map. You’ll start at your Rift room which is deepest within your base. It’s also the place to which you can return in order to heal quickly when you’re on low health. (Dominik’s pro tip: If you have a teleportation ring gear card in your deck you can instantly get back to the Rift).

The first thing we did was rush to the warcamp door on our right. You start off with 1000 leadership points and 1000 coins. The warcamp on the right is already capable of producing minions, you just have to add cards to tell it which ones to generate so don’t forget to do that. The warcamp on the left isn’t open yet and you’ll need to spend a hefty amount of leadership to do so. Further leadership points are spent upgrading the warcamp. Throughout the game you’ll be coming back to these doors, spending more leadership and swapping in more advanced minion cards.

A fine body of minions

In terms of the actual layout of the map you’ve got lanes which pass from your base to the enemy’s. It says it’s a two lane map but the twists and tangles make it look more like four. The minions run along these and towards the enemy Rift. There are also Guardians – beefy lane protectors with a lot of HP – who help you defend against enemy heroes and minions and spots where you can place glyphs which apply different effects to the units which walk over them. You can also lay traps in buildings you own to help keep your foes at bay.

Traps include things like tar pits, floor spikes, swinging maces which dangle from the ceiling and arrow launchers you can hang on the wall. What you’re aiming to do is to be deadly to the enemy, but also to create trap combos so you can earn more coin. Say you were using fire-based traps, you’d want to try and get a naptha sprayer in the area as well because when that hits the enemies it ups the damage they’ll take from the fire and gives you more money you can spend in the game on traps and playing minions.

Once you’ve got the hang of all that it’s a matter of choosing which resources to concentrate where. You can only lay thirteen traps at a given time so if one isn’t seeing much action it’s worth selling it and laying another somewhere else. Similarly, you’ll need to pick which warcamp you want to focus on upgrading because it’s more useful to have one at level 2 and another at level 3 than to have both of them ALMOST at level 3. You’ll also start picking up on other ways of dealing with enemies. Lowering a fortress gate behind them so they can’t escape and their team can’t rush to their aid is a personal favourite. At level 8 you’ll also unlock weavers which are support character cards with abilities you can pay to use during the game. Like having a mercenary sidekick.

It's just a little incinerated - it's still good!

Orcs Must Die! Unchained is a free-to-play game. This means there’s a store where you can spend real life money. At the moment it doesn’t seem particularly intrusive. It’s a way to buy card packs and so on rather than wait for those cards to become available through simply levelling up. There are also skins to customise your characters. It’s hard to judge the shop side of things from a closed beta – developers are generally reluctant to push real spending too hard as updates can wipe inventories and so on.

As you’d expect, GameForge are unequivocal when I raise the question of whether the game could end up as pay-to-win. The money you spend will allow you to unlock cards faster, but the decks are of limited size so you’d need to pick and choose from that arsenal. It would be like buying all the Netrunner expansions – there are a lot more cards to pick from when deck-building but you can’t take them all into battle with you.

You can also save up other forms of in-game currency to buy cards without spending real life cash. As you play you’ll earn skulls. I’m level 6 and have 2,238 skulls. To give you an idea of costs, a hero is 3,500 gold. In real money that’s about £7. in skulls it’s 21,150 so I’d have a fair way to go. Card packs cost 750 gold which is about £1.50 or 1800 skulls. There’s no community trading element, nor are there any plans to add one. Instead, with unwanted cards you can use the card grinder which generates gibs. These can be used to buy cards from a special gib rotation in the shop.

In terms of closed beta teething problems there are a few snags I noticed. One is that initially I found it hard to discern between hero health bars and minion health bars in a split second so didn’t always focus fire on the right thing. The traps also have health bars which flash up – Nagel tells me that’s a leftover from an older version of the game.

There’s also no way of rejoining a game which has started if you lose the connection which happened a few times during the session. When playing solo I accidentally left the window open on a previous game’s ending screen. I then queued and joined a new match but when it tried to launch it wouldn’t because of the previous screen still being open. I then couldn’t join the new match even when I’d closed the window and had to start over while leaving the other match down a player. I also ended up on a team with two Ivys as I think the bots didn’t register my character selection.

Well that can't be good.

MOBAs are cropping up on the current gaming landscape like so many mushrooms after autumn rain. Many of them feel like iterations on currently popular titles designed to get developers and publishers a slice of MOBA cash and jam their fingers in the appetising eSports pie. Orcs Must Die! Unchained doesn’t actually feel like it’s piggybacking, though. It feels more like an evolution of ideas Robot has been developing for years.

“The key spirit of the game is still there,” says Nagel. “When you’re playing a defence character – placing traps fighting waves of opponents – it looks and plays the same as the first Orcs Must Die. We just added a layer of offence and team dynamics which makes people play as a team and communicate more and strategise.”

It’s empty at the moment but one of the play tabs is Tournament which promises a competitive ranked game mode. There’s also a tab where you can input your Twitch details and stream directly from inside the game. These touches show Gameforge and Robot are thinking about how to lend their game easily to an eSports scene. “Recently we had a S.K.I.L.L. Special Force 2 competition in the ESL. We used that opportunity to do Orcs Must Die: Unchained! as a showmatch to show the pro gamers how the game could be played at a high level when you have a team who know the game properly, the minions, the cards – what kind of tactics and layers of gameplay can emerge there. I think it was quite a success.”

According to GameForge, Orcs Must Die! Unchained will be in open beta “soon” but that’s looking like it might be early next year rather than in 2014. If you’re interested in joining before then you can become a founder and buy in from £12. The core mechanics are in place but, as I said above, there are necessary adjustments to be made before bringing in a flood of new people.

Orcs Must Die!: Unchained feels promising. It’s lighter – more slapsticky – than some of the other games in the genre. If you’re after a comparison, it’s perhaps closest to Smite, both in terms of being a skillshotty third person lane pusher and in terms of its humour. There are some frustrating elements at the moment but I would hope most of those will be resolved as more people are granted access (that would solve the all bot match problem) or as elements are tested and tweaked.

30 Comments

  1. Disrespecting says:

    Another fantastic series degraded to Moba
    Woopie.

    • Heliocentric says:

      Yeah… I’ll be glad when this trend ends.

    • Kitsunin says:

      I’ve gotten into the beta and played it a little, and, while it’s difficult to tell whether I like it because wowzers, that lag, the only ways it really seems more like a MOBA than the original is in that:

      You are also escorting minions to the opponents’ base.
      You play one of a variety of characters with around 4 abilities and a regular attack, instead of having multiple weapon choices.
      There are two teams of 5, rather than 2-player co-op vs. AI.
      There is slightly more to decide on before entering a game, with minions and one or two things other than traps.
      Monetization. It seems that you earn things pretty fast for a MOBA! But still slow compared to a single player experience.

    • RegisteredUser says:

      I, too, disapprove of the MOBA-ization.

  2. Phenomen says:

    Kinda high prices. I hope it will be tweaked prior release.

  3. Premium User Badge

    ErraticGamer says:

    For me, almost the entire appeal of Orcs Must Die (which was already cheap, it really didn’t need to become free) was that the barrier to entry was basically nothing. “Here are orcs. You must kill those orcs. Here are tools. Get to it.” You could be playing in 2 minutes, and while the game had depth, you didn’t need to confront that depth right away, you could figure stuff out slowly as you went.

    This wall of text and numbers and card comparisons seems like the antithesis of what I loved about the first game.

    • Hex says:

      Perfectly stated.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Yeah. And the co-op VS ENVIRONMENT made (makes!) it wonderful fare to kick back and natter with a buddy to the duclet orcish tones of “OWIE!” and “EVERY MOMENT I LIVE IS AGONY!”.

      I do not want to fight vs other random Internet people. Other random Internet people are jerks. Online games have been proving this for decades.

    • Banjo-Tuesday says:

      Having tried the beta a couple of times I found this developer comment way off the mark.

      “The key spirit of the game is still there,” says Nagel. “When you’re playing a defence character – placing traps fighting waves of opponents – it looks and plays the same as the first Orcs Must Die.

      And yet you are only allowed to place 13 traps as a single player? What a joke.

      I love OMD 1 and 2, but I just can’t seem to get into Unchained.

      • Hmm-Hmm. says:

        Heh, your comment makes it seem like ‘Orcs must die: Chained’ rather than Unchained.

        At any rate, we’ll see whether this game’ll be any good.

  4. Artiforg says:

    I’m rather disappointed in this. I really enjoyed OMD1 and 2 (plus DLC) and was looking forward to another iteration. Then this came along. I tried to keep an open mind about it – as I enjoy Dota quite a bit but after watching a dev stream where they played a few rounds I just found that I disliked it more and more with every passing minute.

    If Gameforge are developing this then that suggests that Robot are working on something else – hopefully a proper OMD3. I can only hope.

  5. LegendaryTeeth says:

    This sounds like it might be close to Preschool Wars, which was my favourite Warcraft 3 custom map. So I’m all for this. link to epicwar.com

  6. Beren says:

    Is this 2d shillshotty like Smite? or is it actual FPS style shooting? ie with ballistics and/or having to compensate for the vertical/headshots?

    I’m pretty interested if its fps but nosomuch if its like Smite (which only pretends to be a 3d game :\).

    • Kitsunin says:

      It feels just like Orcs Must Die! 1 and 2. If you haven’t played those, this means there is vertical aiming, hitscan, melee or projectile depends on your character…unfortunately I think Unchained has removed headshots, but don’t quote me on that. The mechanics are relatively light and wouldn’t stand up as their own game, but they work well with all the other stuff going on, and it is not like Smite where it’s basically just Dota gameplay with the control scheme and auto-attacks changed up a bit.

  7. ecbremner says:

    I loved OMD1 and 2. I played this at pax east and really enjoyed it. Then i went home and saw that they were going with the free-to-play model and i threw the beta invite away. What a waste of a good idea.

  8. Lizergamid says:

    I checked beta few weeks ago and that was huge dissapointment. Crappy ganeplay & waist of time.

  9. Hex says:

    Ugh. This is exhausting just to think about.

  10. phanatic62 says:

    I played and enjoyed OMD 1 and 2, but this has absolutely no appeal for me. But I don’t play any MOBAs, and considering the absurd user numbers those games put up, I’m guessing that I was never in the target audience for this game in the first place.

  11. aliksy says:

    Yeah, I really liked OMD1 and 2, but I have no interest in playing with internet randoms.

  12. rusty5pork says:

    With the death of Super Monday Night Combat, my hopes of a successful Third-Person Tower Defense MOBA-Em-Up are riding on this game. Looks cool so far!

    • stblr says:

      Smite?

      • Kitsunin says:

        Smite doesn’t really qualify. It’s essentially a top-down ARTS where the camera happens to be over your shoulder, you use WASD and mouse-aim instead of clicks, and you have all forward-aiming skillshots or AoEs, no single-target abilities or attacks.

        Super Monday Night Combat is a true Third-Person Shooter with light-ish MOBA mechanics, it was quite good, and entirely different from Smite! If you didn’t focus on the minutia you couldn’t easily compare it to Dota (But you did, because that’s what made it unique as a TPS), unlike Smite where the comparison is obvious. OMDU is much closer to an OMD game than a MOBA. It really isn’t much of a (traditional! I mean OMD 1 and 2 are basically BAs) MOBA at all.

  13. Phinor says:

    I hope this is successful for them but as few others have said, as a huge fan of OMD1&2, I have no interest in this game. Hopefully OMD 3 is also underway (and that OMD games were also profitable, you never know..)

  14. Martel says:

    I’ll chime in as well. I loved OMD enough that I bought copies of OMD2 for me and a friend and we loved it. No chance in hell I’d play this game, not even for free.

  15. Quiffle says:

    I half-expected half of the commentators to curl up in a fetal position over the word “competitive” and boy I wasn’t disappointed. Anyway, this can go either way. The originals were brilliant stuff and so was Hero Academy (on mobile, anyway.)

  16. Premium User Badge

    Jdopus says:

    To be honest, I’m more likely to take an interest in this than another similar entry in the series. I enjoyed Orc Must Die! and completed the entire game. I picked up the sequel when it came out, but honestly, found that I couldn’t get very far into it before becoming bored as it was essentially just more of the same but with minor improvements.

    I think it would have been a mistake for them to try and iterate on Orc Must Die 2 again, there’s only so far they could push the core formula, for me it was a single game and I found the second game to be stretching it. Focusing on multiplayer seems like the right choice. I have sympathy for people sick of Mobas, but since Smite is their only big competitor as far as 3rd person play goes and they seem to have hit on quite a distinct formula, I think this was a good move.

    • Kitsunin says:

      I would say Super Monday Night Combat is their only big competitor, and it’s gone and died so there really isn’t one.

      Smite doesn’t compete with something doing its own third-person 5v5 arena thing because Smite is basically “Let’s take the LoL/Dota/HoN formula and totally copy it, but with behind-the-character cameras!” Mind you I think Smite is a good game, but it is what it is.

      • Premium User Badge

        Jdopus says:

        SMNC was a bit more of a shooter which put me off referencing it. I’d say it’s still in competition with smite though, it’s distinct enough that it will probably get its own audience with the trap mechanics etc, but they’re pretty clearly targetting the moba audience as a whole.

  17. Thrippy says:

    The tech tree is smaller than that in OMD2. The card system takes about five minutes to grok. Having something like the card system in this expanded multiplayer is an absolute necessity because players must “share” trap space and mob spawns. The downside is that you must share trap space under the constraint of a limited trap supply. You can’t design and refine your own elaborate trap maze throughout the level, funds permitting, not even as you can in OMD2 coop. This is price for having four heroes per team; limited build space per player. But the opportunity is there for above average teams to deploy equally elaborate trap mazes, they just gotta collaborate effectively. This is the true challenge of OMD as MOBA, and what plagues most MOBAs in general, playing well with others in pick up games.

    I agree that introducing opposing rifts and teams kind of fits in very with the existing formula. I don’t know in what direction an OMD3 could have gone except in this one; expanded multiplayer. The aspect of coop team versus coop team might be better in design. Towers in Heroes of the Storm are little more than a nuisance. In this games, traps not only matter, they are all important and must be managed cooperatively by the team.

    Grinding for shop funds is roughly on a par with Heroes of the Storm. Both are generous if you choose to play regularly. I remain unsympathetic towards complaints about hero cost, talent gating, et. al. The dark side of freemium is when a game allows you to just buy your way past the skill of a freeloader player in a shorter amount of time. These new MOBAs don’t really allow that.

    It’s my understanding that match making has been disabled due to the smallish population of active testers. Any warm body is matched with other warm bodies, or with bots if nobody else is in the queue.

    My biggest, only real concern is performance – both CPU and GPU – which is more demanding than OMD2 on high settings.