An army of orcs waits just beyond the final barricade, but you're ready. Sticky tar pits line the entrance accompanied by wall-mounted, spring-loaded axes. A field of spikes follows, leading to a massive springboard pointed straight at a pit of lava. And if all else fails, you've always got your trusty crossbow. Similar in concept to Sanctum, Orcs Must Die! puts a proactive spin on the tower defense genre. This single-player only adventure has some noticeable omissions, but what it does offer is easily accessible and immediately enjoyable.
As one of the last battle mages, you must defend the rifts from an onslaught of murderous, and dim-witted, orcs. If you let too many pass through, all the peaceful townsfolk living in their peaceful cottages will discover the violent end of a rusty axe. Of course, you're not alone in this fight. Air geysers, swinging maces, and more are your brothers in arms against the green tide. If you use them well, they'll do the bulk of the orc stomping for you.
A constant progression of new weapons and enemies drives you through the adventure, and they ensure the same strategy won't work for every stage. The simple-minded orcs may fall to a healthy application of spikes and arrows, but what happens when a hulking ogre or a pack of speedy kobolds charges in? You need to choose your tools wisely at the start of each stage since space is limited. And to help narrow your selection, you are presented with a list of enemy types you'll face. After that, it's all about planning.
Of course, sometimes your best-laid plans come toppling down. That's when you have to put on your big-boy battle mage pants and dive into the fray yourself. By default, your character comes equipped with a crossbow for dropping enemies at a distance. The mouse and keyboard setup makes it easy to rack up head-shots one after the other. You can also equip a sword and numerous spells to further enhance your one-man-army status. Each weapon also has two modes of fire, but the combat is still simple; it's definitely a complement to the traps, rather than the game's focus.
For your efforts, you are awarded copious funds with which to upgrade your character and buy new traps. Character upgrades are purchased, and repurchased, at the start of each stage from one of three skill sets. You can only select one set to purchase from for that stage, and each has its own specialization. Picking up the enchanted weapons in one set denies you the trap-specific upgrades in another. And these upgrades reset after each stage, so you can try different tactics with different skill complements.
Your traps can also be upgraded by spending the skulls you earn at the end of each stage. The better your performance, the more skulls you get. Unlike the skills, these upgrades are permanent and improve the trap in a specific way. The brimstone trap, for example, can be improved so that when enemies pass over it and catch fire, they burn longer. A constant string of new traps and enemy types keeps you interested to see what the next challenge will bring. However, it is disappointing that this variety doesn't carry over to the stage designs, which all look very similar.
Even at its most chaotic, Orcs Must Die! makes it easy to keep track of what's happening onscreen. There may be arrows flying and orcs being catapulted into the air, but the presentation lacks any unnecessary flair and keeps the visual noise to a minimum. Each enemy type looks distinct from the others, and the impact your traps has is immediately apparent.
The lack of any multiplayer modes is a disappointment. Having a friend to help cover some of the two, three, or four entrances would have been a welcome addition. The hero's constant use of snappy one-liners can also grate on the ears, especially when you get the same lines back-to-back. But if you endure the juvenile humor, a substantially harder difficulty level opens up after you finish the game. To help even the odds, all of your previous trap upgrades carry over so you can start saving for all of those traps you didn't tweak during your first playthrough.
Orcs Must Die! presents itself with confident simplicity. Every element in the game has a distinct purpose--from the different traps to the enemies--and you're never bogged down with unnecessary chores. It's a focused game, whose main fault is what it ships without. If single-player is your style and you have a deep-seated hatred for orcs, give this a try.