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."
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.
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.
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.
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.