Perhaps the pack-leader of the recent 'do x to fantasy/sci-fi staple y' game name trend, Robot Entertainment's Orcs Must Die was a giddy, gory carnival of greenskin slaughter in a tower defence meets Diablo kind of way. A mere nine months later, we get the sequel. Can such cheekiness be justified? You have two ways of potentially finding out before you buy it. A) play this here free demo. B) Read the collection of typed symbols below.
For a certain period when I was young, you'd be hard pushed to come up with four words more exciting than 'Oh No More Lemmings.' The first sequel to Lemmings - and confusingly also available as an expansion for the original - seemed to promise untold pleasures for myself and legions of similarly school-age Lemmings fans. It would be greatest cultural event of our lifetimes, surely.
It was just some more levels for Lemmings. Most of them were too bloody hard, to boot. Even its title seemed to be mocking me/us when we finally laid hands on that precious floppy disc. Yet those four words remain lodged in my head, a constant reminder of briefly being so terribly excited by the prospect as more. Orcs Must Die 2 isn't quite as guilty of milking the tried and tested as ONML, but I do have a bit of a problem with that number 2 (stop laughing at the back) it so proudly sports.
It looks the same. It plays primarily the same. Most infuriatingly, it sounds the same - I quickly had to turn off music I'd already heard a hundred times over just a few months ago. OMD2 is OMD, but with knobs on. I don't entirely object to sequels doing that, but as with Left 4 Dead 2 a while back it simply feels a little too soon to do it all over again. In terms of writing down my thoughts about the game... well, I already did that nine months ago. It feels like I'm wasting my time and yours to describe how it works all over again. So I'm going to try and do it 10 words or less, then we can move on to what's new and different. Agreed? Tough luck, I'm going to do it anyway.
Extremely sadistic orc-based tower defence meets action-RPG.
Nine words! That'll do, pig.
So, that hasn't changed. You're doing very much the same things as you did in OMD1, with the key difference being a) a second playable character, a semi-evil female warmage with a few traps distinct to her and b) that there's much more flexibility of play-style and upgrade path. You'll quickly end up with a more specialised build than in OMD1, and by and large the maps are slightly more flexible in terms of how you beat them. There's more emphasis on earning 'skulls' to spend on unlocking new traps, weapons and trinkets, and in turn upgrading them. Each trap/weapon/trinket has its own mini tech-tree, so you'll upgrade them in order to better complement your other preferred tools rather than just given them generic improvements.
For instance, you might want your floor-mounted spike trap to have a slow effect so that there's more chance of Orcs getting caught in the acid sprayers on the walls, or perhaps you'd rather than caused bleeding damage over time so that the orcs are weakened by the time they reach you and your amped-up weapon. Or, in my case, an amulet that temporarily turns me into a hulking Frost Troll who can biff the faces right off anything that comes near with my mighty club.
Everything in OMD2 happens at over-caffeinated speed, so it didn't take long at all to identify which traps/powers and the associated strategy most suited my playstyle. My playstyle is probably best described as 'quite lazy', so I tended to shun the more elaborate, thoughtful Mousetrap setups (such as spring-loaded floorboards or what looks like a rotating hatstand that can hurl unfortunate orcs into a wall-mounted dark void to nowhere) in favour of quick'n'dirty alternatives. Specifically, legions of static Elven archers picking off greenskins at range while they simultaneously got sprayed with acid, pulped by metal plates from above and gouged/slowed by spikes underneath. Whatever made it through all that found me with my Frost Troll hat on waiting for them.
Good times. Thousands died. My strategy mostly worked out, apart from when it really, really didn't, which in turn led to my being far more thoughtful about trap efficiency and carefully watching the orcs' various routes around the map in order to identify choke points and weak spots. After two games, I feel I'm pretty good at this lark by now. I'm probably not of course, but the question is whether I truly do want to keep on having a new extremely familiar experience in the hope of becoming truly expert.
Because, like its predecessor, OMD2 is really about the game beyond the game. Once the too-short, anti-climactic campaign is completed, the idea is you go back in and play the levels at a higher difficulty, as well as playing the survival 'Endless' mode and the maps from the first game, included as 'Classic' Mode. There are always more Skulls to earn, and more Skulls mean more traps, weapons trinkets and their associated upgrades. It's that compulsion loop we know so well, where you seek more and better stuff so that you can beat more of the game so you can get more and better stuff so you can beat more of the game so, yeah, we all know that story inside-out, right?
All this sounds a bit down on the game, which isn't a fair reflection of my feelings about it. It is superior to its predecessor, primarily by dint of having more stuff and far more flexibility of character build. If you've played neither game, go straight to this one - I do recommend Orcs Must Die games, it's just that I consider 1 & 2 as two sides of the same coin rather than distinct entities. While there has been welcome and enthusiastic tinkering under the hood, it looks, sounds and feels so very similar.
The other major exception to this quasi-lamentation is the new co-op mode. It's two-player and there's no auto-matchmaking or sever-finding, so if you don't have a Steam chum with OMD2 you're out of luck. It's a shot in the arm for this action-tower defence game for sure though, with each player able to use a reasonably generous amount of their unlocked traps rather than being cruelly restricted in the name of balance, and it adds a gleeful power-trip aspect when you're each able to mark different sides of the map rather than it being about one person sprinting from end to end like some kind of gruesome tennis.
Unfortunately not much has been done to the UI to cater for this mode, so for instance there are no warnings when the other player is in trouble and no way to compare intended trap rosters outside of tediously listing them in voice comms. What you get is the single player game and UI but with another orc-killer dashing about the place. Co-op's a good time and a strong, natural addition, but it does seem a little perfunctory.
That said, a companion is all but vital to beating the bigger maps on the highest difficulty, but I didn't have much problem soloing my way through the campaign on Medium, aka Warmage. It asked a more tactical approach of me, rather than overwhelmed me, and I'd urge you to play the game that way rather than the far too easy Apprentice.
I am acutely conscious this is all said from the perspective of someone who played OMD1 extensively. If you didn't, I'd recommend this to you with little hesitation. It does share its predecessor's sins as well as it's successes, which means repetitive and somewhat annoying speech and music, a puddle-deep plot and an expanded but still small pool of enemy types. There are forgiveable in the face of the game's excitable, over-the-top tone and high-speed play. By being that much more flexible in its range of traps and powers OMD2 just about justifies its rapid arrival, but if Robot try the same trick a third time I'll be Frost Trolling up and having stern words with them.
Orcs Must Die 2 is out now.