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Wot I Think: Of Orcs & Men

Of Awkward Men

Cyanide's role-reversing RPG, Of Orcs & Men, appeared late last week, and I've been having a good old orc session. On my journey I have slaughtered a small nation's worth of treacherous humans, snuck upon and stabbed many more, and sharpened my chat axe on the whetstone of their dialogue options. I can now, I feel, adopt an orcy accent and tell you wot I think.

There's sometimes more to fully-fledged RPGs than simply combat and dialogue – loot, character creation, character evolution, party management, and exploration of interesting environments, for example – but without combat and dialogue they would not be the games we recognise and love today. Cyanide have been making serious in-roads into mastering both of these central pillars, as the promising, if flawed, A Game Of Thrones RPG aptly demonstrated. They're taking it so seriously, in fact, that they're launching a property of their own: Of Orcs & Men is a new RPG made in much the same mould as AGOT – and certainly in the same engine – replete with promises of doing things a little differently.

And it does do things differently. You are, for instance, playing the critters that usually make up the cast of villains in fantasy RPGs – an orc and a goblin – and for your enemies, the ranks of Men are cast in the role of malign, perfidious oppressor. The starring orc, Arkail, and the lead goblin, Styx, are beautifully designed characters, and well-acted. Arkail in particularly is a fantastic model, and one of the best non-human characters I have seen in an RPG. The pair dominate a game in which everyone else is a stiff and unimaginative mannequin. Getting the leads right was essential, of course, but it's a shame that the greenskins have so, so much more character than their human foe. The disparity is immediately obvious, and it never improves.

The other thing that Of Orcs & Men does differently is combat, which is to say that it uses the same real-time-but-paused system that A Game Of Thrones employed. It's an odd sort of thing. It works like this: when combat kicks off you pause (or at least slow time to a crawl) to enter a menu which allows you to pick from your repertoire of combat skills. You then queue these up in a suitable manner – you probably want to stun and debuff enemies before you do a big, slow skull-thumping move – and then let them play out. They play out very quickly, so you have to hit time-pause for each assailant you engage. You can pick your targets, too, so that you get the most out of your attacks.

Oh, and I should mention that for most of the game you control a pair of protagonists – the aforementioned Styx and Arkail – and that has ramifications for how you approach any of the levels. Most of the fights cannot be won toe-to-toe, which means you need to send Styx in first, under cover of an invisibility mode, and kill off a few extra baddies. This means creeping about, finding dudes who are not in close line-of-sight to other bad dudes, and thinning the herd before Styx and Arkail aggro the mob and duke it out.

This means that the game is essentially a series of stealth-then-fight setpieces. This would be fine, except it's a terrible stealth game. The patrolling guards walk blindly past their fallen comrades, and it's possible to assassinate an armoured man carrying a halberd within ten paces of half a dozen baddies, without alerting anyone. Nice idea, shame about the execution.

And that's sort of how I feel about the combat in general. It's tactically unusual, and does result in some nail-biting moments, but it's just not good enough. Arkail grabbing Styx and throwing him up onto a ledge to kill of crossbowmen, as the pair of them cling to the last shreds of their health, makes for some real drama, but most of the time the system feels messy and disconnected. I never found myself really wanting to get to grips with it, and quickly saw the fights as a chore, not a pleasure. The system is certainly an interesting attempt to make something that is neither ARPG direct control, nor turn-based, but the result isn't particularly palatable, controllable, or pleasing to work with. It's just sort of a clunky half-way hybrid, ultimately unsatisfactory.

All that might have been passable if, ARPG style, the game had thrown in radically different powers and equipment. Most of the abilities, however, are simply different weapon blows, with added percentages for this or that. There are a few cute moves – the goblin lob, as mentioned, is a good example – but it's never done with enough spectacle or imagination to challenge other RPGs' imaginative benchmarks. Nor is the sparse sprinkling of new weapons and armour ever going to satisfy anyone's shopping/kitting needs. That area of the game is worryingly unfurnished.

And so to story. The idea is a good one: orcs and goblins are a defeated people, and humans – allied with elves and dwarf counterparts – operate a widespread tyranny. So a noble orc hero and a goblin guide - a pragmatic chap who is the only goblin who can talk for some reason - are sent to assassinate the human emperor. That means infiltrating the human world, which means talking to people, and killing about ten times as many people as you talk to. The plot does manage to thicken a couple of hours in, and the acts of terrorism you perform on your journey do make for a tangled morality, but beyond the odd decent quip between the lead characters, there is almost nothing of interest here. Of Orcs & Men wants to be a perverse buddy movie take on traditional fantasy tropes, but actually it ends up being just the same kind of bore as any number of other failed fantasy quests. It's perfunctory, and burdened with under-developed story-telling of the kind you'd hope would have been eradicated from big-budget RPGs by now.

Worse, perhaps, the world you explore is largely a series of lifeless, detail-free corridors – with no real capacity to explore, although there are a few sidequests – and hub areas which you are returned to quite magically. Although the entire game is artfully put together, there's no sense of place, no furnishing beyond what is utterly obligatory, and the drab environments have little drama to them.

So anyway, Cyanide have managed to deliver a story, and lots of combat. The full focus of this game is on those two pillars of the genre, but the consequence of that is that this is a game without any thing else going on. It feels reductive, and the elements it has been distilled to are lacking the proper potency to give them that RPG kick that we're all looking for. It feels, in some ways, like an "on-rails" RPG. Echoing linear shooters with its lack of anything beyond strict modes of interaction.

It perhaps goes without me concluding, then, that Of Orcs & Men is disappointing. Cyanide could one day be capable of great things, and their tech and art is never in doubt. It is, again and again, design and production quality that troubles me: this game, like so much else from their door, never feels quite right, and overall the game simply lacks the kind of breadth of ideas and things to do that make RPGs worth engaging with. That lack of oversight and ambition leaves us with a fairly hollow game, and one I am not sure many people will feel satisfied with. One day, perhaps, Cyanide will deliver an RPG that we can unreservedly recommend, but now is not that time.

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