Orcs Must Die! Review (Xbox360)

Into the valley of death stomped the six hundred, blade walls to the left of them, tar pits to the right of them bubbled and thundered. Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to die and die and die. The titular antagonists of Orcs Must Die are the Charge of the Dark Brigade, funnelled down gauntlets of arrow traps and exploding barrels, dying in vain.

Although their march is an exercise in futility, these orcs do serve a purpose: violent catharsis for the hero. As the last in a line of war mages, your new job is to stop the nefarious Orcs from flooding through trans-dimensional 'rifts' into the world of humans and presumably murdering everyone. Like all good career moves, it's a role he relishes: "Can you ever have too many traps? I don't think so," he quips, placing another explosive barrel. It's important to enjoy your job, lest it become a chore. Unfortunately for us mere players controlling the war mage, that's often what Orcs Must Die feels like.

How does that feel? Orc-ward?

It seems contradictory to call it a 'tower defence' game since there isn't a tower in sight, but Orcs Must Die shares a lot in common with games like Plants vs Zombies. You're given as much time as you like to survey the scene, plus a wad of cash to purchase some traps that are placed on walls and floors, before the barbarian horde burst through and race for the rifts. Unfortunately you can't just buy some bricks and cement to wall up the rifts, which would have solved this problem in the first place, but wouldn't have made for a good game. Once you've planned the orcs' likely path of attack, you can unleash the horde and wait for that plan to swiftly fall apart.

What seems like a straightforward planning exercise quickly descends into chaos as those inhuman dummies plough through en masse. Here the similarities to Plants vs Zombies end, as you're in direct control of the magely one and his arsenal of anti-orc countermeasures. Even with the dungeon walls covered in sharp pointed objects, their sheer numbers guarantee that you'll need to get your hands dirty with sword and crossbow. The former is as much use as a soggy cardboard tube against the green fiends, while the crossbow requires some figuring out: fire it too quickly and the magic arrows blast out erratically like plasma ejaculate. You'll need to pace your shots with the gradual narrowing of the crosshairs: using the music as your guide, each dart is timed with the beat in a cacophony of death.

There's a lot of emphasis placed on headshots, so you'll need to be accurate. The orcs' chest cavities seem particularly resilient and you simply will not be able to kill them fast enough without aiming for the noggin. You can use a secondary blast of either sword or crossbow to stun orcs temporary and get a breather: even armed with this knowledge, their procession is overwhelming and you'll often be completely swarmed. It reminds me of building sand castles when I was young: no matter how many moats you dug or how high you built the ramparts, it was no match for the relentless tide.

On second thoughts, I'll go set myself on fire rather than make another pun

Part of the frustration comes from the randomness: it's hard to know what you're doing wrong since, if you play the same stage again, things might turn out differently through sheer luck. Luck, being the opposite of skill, is pretty much the last thing you want determining the outcome of a computer game. The sense of challenge is all over the place, with some levels being cleared first time around and others requiring multiple trial and error attempts. At the very least, new players deserve to have their hands held for a while and learn best orc hunting practice.

Yet, without this element of unpredictability it would be utterly boring. There's something vaguely enticing about the manic nature of the battles: using your wind belt to knock orcs into a vat of acid or just to buy yourself a few seconds by bunching enemies together; frantically placing explosives and detonating them to thin out the ranks; rebuilding your barricades in the fleeting seconds between waves. It's tactical and fluid, rewarding fast thinking. Yet it very quickly begins to grate, not just from one level to the next, but even during the various waves of one stage. You'll face orcs with crossbows and orcs with swords and axes, with occasional appearances by scampering kobolds, armoured ogres and flame-breathing hellbats. But mostly orcs. There's never a shortage of orcs. I've written this word so many times it has lost all sense of meaning. Endless hordes of orculous orcs from Orkney orcily orcing around. Orcs orcs orcs orcs orcs.

There are new traps to unlock after each stage, but once you unlock the almighty Barricade and can direct the or… verdant villains into a wall of blades, most new unlocked traps just push enemies off a bridge or into something sharp. Eventually you’ll unlock an Ice Amulet that freezes enemies and can jump into giant trebuchets to fling boulders at the Orcs, but these come appear too late in the game after a slow trickle of supplies has dampened your enthusiasm. Upgrades are equally uninspiring, often reducing the cost of traps but not drastically increasing their functionality- at least, not in an appreciably different way. Since every stage plays the same as the last, there's not much incentive to replay the earlier levels given the rubbish rewards on offer.

This game is crying out for co-operative action. I haven't played something with a more dire need for multiplayer since that time I played Cluedoon my own. Even the main menu looks bare without it. Without its inclusion, we are left only to dream of the fun two players could have: combining your resources and co-operating to lay traps, setting up ambushes and two-pronged attacks, or just doing something slightly different from fighting bloody orcs all the time.

I'm sorry mate, but the werewolf convention is next door

Orcs Must Die is fun but in a limited, begrudgingly acknowledged sense. It's lacking a spark: something compelling to make you play beyond the first five minutes, or even through the first five minutes. It's an all you can eat buffet of murderous mayhem, but the only thing on the menu is orc. And I don't really like the taste of orc.

Favourite Gaming Moment: Fighting ogres and hellbats were a nice change, because they weren't orcs.

Amendment: This review was revised to reflect factual inaccuracies in the original article regarding the selection of weaponry and traps. I stand by the tone and conclusion of the review, but apologise for any confusion or misleading impressions.