Dieorcblog: Orcs Must Die 2.

Yeah, I’m basically reviewing Orcs Must Die 2 just so that I can do that pun. I have dragooned my regular co-op partner Kenti into helping me out with this one. Say hello, Kenti.

Kenti: Hello there. I play games with other humans.

Hentzau: But only humans. Because you hate computers. You’re a computer…cist.

Kenti: It’s true. Sometimes when my voice synthesizer doesn’t work I refuse to talk to the humans. They must intimate my intent purely from the actions of my on-screen characters. This occasionally makes Hentzau swear and complain about being lonely. (So the plan is working perfectly).

Hentzau: Yes, for my part I don’t hate computers. I just hate you. However, I also hate orcs. Oh, how I hate them.

Kenti: They must die. It is the only way.

Hentzau: Indeed they must. In quite prodigious — one might even say extravagant — quantities. The original Orcs Must Die provided for this particular vice quite admirably, but it nevertheless fell short in several ancillary areas, consisting as it did of a simple linear campaign with no challenge levels or multiplayer or anything. Once you were done with the campaign then bam, that was it. No real reason to go back. It was functional, it was enjoyable, but it definitely felt like it could do with a bit of fattening up to provide a more comprehensive orc-slaying experience.

Kenti: I think it is fair to say that after playing the first iteration, both of us agreed emphatically on the fact that the cherry on top of this murder cake had to be some form of multiplayer. It did clearly feel like an iteration, the development team’s first shot across the bow to stretch their game development muscles.

Hentzau: For me it wasn’t so much the lack of multiplayer as the complete absence of any sort of survival/high score mode. That both are present in the sequel is a sure sign that Robot Entertainment were aware that the first iteration of OMD was very much the Lite version of the game. The sequel feels like the full release.

Kenti:*protracted silence*

Hentzau: Let’s talk about the co-op first, shall we?

Kenti: Yes. Because for me that was definitely the most attractive and exciting of the new features. I was satisfied enough by the first OMD’s proof of concept, but this, I was sure, would make the fun pop out in glorious 3D. I think it did – there is always a certain amount of extra fun that co-operative play always adds, but unlike some of the games we have played together, it didn’t actively work to subtract that fun. Although I have enjoyed playing the other modes alone, I think co-op stands as the more complete experience. Not to say that there wasn’t something missing in the tactics department. When alone, you get a large number of slots to equip gadgets in, when playing co-operatively, you get just over half the slots each.

Hentzau: In theory this should promote intelligent trap selection with each player taking traps, trinkets and weapons that’ll complement the other player’s traps and abilities. However, I at least found it didn’t quite work out that way thanks to both an incredibly irritating UI decision that I’ll go into more depth on later (you have no idea how I am going to go into depth on this) and the difficulty of coordinating some good synergies when your voice communication is only going one way. EH KENTI.

Kenti: Your turmoil pleases my circuits greatly. I think on the first two thirds of the levels we maybe communicated on trap choices once. The last few levels did require us to think a little more about how we were individually and collectively going to tackle the challenge – I wanted to feel that from map 3 or 4. Perhaps that is necessary for the hardest difficulty level (Nightmare), but one would expect it to feature more in the co-op play of the standard difficulty level.

Hentzau: Most of my objections to OMD 2 arise not from the gameplay itself, but from the way the metagame elements are set up. Here, you have the problem that — with the sole exception of two levels near the end — all the campaign levels are pathetically easy for two players to complete. Having an extra pair of hands available to help stem the green tide flooding towards your rift makes a huge difference. The thing here is that while Nightmare mode is genuinely harder, with far more enemies and enemy types, it doesn’t unlock until you’ve completed the game on normal. This is puzzling to me; rather than give you the option to get murdered on a higher difficulty level from the outset if you really want to, OMD 2 instead forces you to splash around in the kiddie pool for six hours no matter how good you actually are at the game.

Kenti: Orcs Must Die, but at a measured and manageable pace. There must be some sort of Orc Murder Control Agency.

Hentzau: In order to qualify for your grown-up orc-killing licence you first have to pass the game’s version of a cycling proficiency test. Quite frankly if you hadn’t been around to poke me through co-op I think I might just have stayed in Endless mode. Except of course I couldn’t, because a lot of the trap unlocks are also linked to progression in the campaign. You basically have to play it in order to get the most out of the other modes. It’s more than a little bit obnoxious.

Kenti: That’s not to say that co-op wasn’t fun, at least in my case. I found it an incredibly enjoyable process and it certainly rates high in the Championship of Co-operative Games.

Hentzau: For the host, anyway.

Kenti: It is not my fault that my pristine broadband tubes are far superior to those a fleshling can install in themselves. Put some optics in your toes: then you can host.

Hentzau: My connection woes had sod-all to do with my internet, which runs literally every other co-op experience under the sun with a minimum of fuss. I am therefore forced to point the finger of blame for the game’s second-plus lag times, teleporting ogres, ice-skating orcs and regular disconnects squarely at OMD 2’s netcode. Maybe it was just me and everyone else is having a wonderful time with it, but as the non-host half of this partnership it put a significant damper on my co-op experience since it pretty much ensured I couldn’t rely on weapons. Like, at all. Couldn’t hit a thing with them; the crossbow headshot system is amazingly crap anyway but this basically reduced things to “fire randomly at horde at roughly head height, hope for the best”. There were even a couple of times where I had to query you as to whether or not my traps were working because I simply couldn’t tell.  It wasn’t impressive.

Kenti: So what has OMD2 added to the actual gameplay itself? Apparently more environmental traps, including the largely autonomous minecarts whizzing around the earlier levels and the player-activated spike-rollers, mine-carts full or hot coals and so forth. These are placed strategically across levels to give you just that little bit of an advantage against the relentless tide. Great! But they aren’t really useful for your typical destructive needs – they are not as reliable and conveniently located as traps you can place yourself, nor are they as precise as your personal attention to orc death – you can’t be sure it will take care of the problem. I ended up relying on traps I could place and spells I could shoot, the environmental traps were a curiosity and little more.

Hentzau: I think part of the problem here is that the pressure the orc hordes were exerting on us never got to the point where we needed the extra edge the environmental traps provided. They’re simply not necessary, and so while the automated minecarts are a nice little bonus the rest of the environment features went unused

Kenti: Even when the situation does get high pressured — such as on Endless — either I had the autonomous carts help thin out the hordes, or I had no time to set up the shots at the right time for a questionable amount of orc damage.

Hentzau: I’ve made good use of certain well-placed boulder traps and rolling logs on Endless, but on the whole I agree with you. Even the minecarts hinder more than they help, with the tracks taking up valuable floorspace and the carts themselves exploding your painstakingly-positioned boom barrels if they so much as graze them.

Kenti: They have also given us more placeable traps and weapons. There are some new traps that only the new character, the Sorceress, can use such as the Acid Trap or Ice Vent. I certainly found these more interesting than some of the more basic traps of the original (the War Mage still gets the original Arrow Trap and Tar Pit) and they formed the core of my arsenal against the orcs. The new Scepter of Domination was also great fun as it allowed me to briefly convert an orc to my control and cause them to explode in a deadly manner if killed. Entertaining AND a lifesaver. There were also general new traps such as the Haymaker (placed on the ceiling and invited to thrash orcs about in a circular manner) and…

Hentzau: Does this mean I can talk about SKULL REFUND ARMAGEDDON now?

Kenti: Er… go ahead. I’ll go grab a drink of oil. Is that what they put inside machines?

Hentzau: Okay, so, the Weavers from the first game have been defenestrated and replaced with the skull currency system. For the sequel you give your traps passive upgrades by spending skulls you earn through the simple process of playing the game. Skulls are earned through killing x number of orcs, surviving y number of waves, and finishing the level in z amount of time with Ω rift points remaining. In order to be fully effective as a War Mage/Sorceress you need enough skulls to fully upgrade ten traps/weapons/trinkets, which I think works out to about 250 in total. This takes a while, and makes the initial stages of OMD 2 a somewhat grindy system, but I don’t think it’s a bad change. It’s a change that I actually endorse, on the whole, since it means that even a failed Endless attempt will give you some skulls for your trouble.

Kenti: The upgrade system does add a little bit of extra faff that is usually a good break from the action. It’s the same reason that people like equipping things in RPGs or getting new guns or whatever else. You get to make your traps a little more effective, get slightly different effects from your weapons and generally do things a bit differently.

Hentzau: Well, that’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway. If that’s how it had actually turned out, I would have zero problem with the system whatsoever. Unfortunately the entire thing is undone by one of the biggest own goals I can remember seeing in a recent game. The skull system is supposed to promote experimentation and a lot of testing traps together to find out what fits and which trap/weapon combos will lead to high scores and big bucks. The developers have made some provision for a player who tries out a new trap, decides he doesn’t like it, and wants some way to get back the skulls he invested in upgrading it. At any time, and as many times as you like, you can refund the skulls you spent putting new bells and whistles on your orc grinding machine.

Except, in a truly baffling example of a developer making things difficult for the player for no other reason than because they can, you can’t refund the skulls spent on just one trap. Oh no. That would be too simple. If you want those skulls back then you have to block refund everything. All the skulls you ever spent on every single trap you spent them on; if you hit that refund button your entire setup ends up totally erased. If you decide to try out the new Void Wall trap only to find it wanting and now want to put those skulls back into the Boom Barrel Dispenser, you have to wipe your entire finely-tuned trap spec out of existence and then spend five minutes trying to remember exactly where you spent those 250-odd skulls all over again. It’s such a pain to do this every single time you want to try out a new trap that it actively discourages experimentation and tinkering with different trap combos. I can’t think of a good reason why Robot would decide to do this, except maybe that they secretly hate everyone who buys their games and did it out of sheer spite.

Kenti: Now, either someone up the design chain didn’t think this through, or (knowing how development works) there was some sort of technical issue that prevented it being done the sane and sensible way. Not excusable though, because the end product simply discourages you from experimenting too much and thus tentatively keeps you away from a higher orc-murder count. The Orc Murder Control Agency strikes again?

Hentzau: I mean the actual gameplay part of OMD 2 is outstanding, it’s just that whenever you’re outside that the game is hell-bent on making things as difficult for you as possible. As I said, it’s utterly baffling to me why they would do this.

Kenti: Monsters! It’s not just orcs. We’ve been lying to you this whole dieorcblog. As in the first OMD, you get to kill things that are not orcs and they are not as optional as the name might suggest. There are the old ogres, kobolds, gnolls and the like as well as the new Earth Elementals, Trolls, Gnoll Grenadiers and Shamans. All of which are really really annoying in a positive way, pushing you to work that extra bit harder to destroy all things that are not you. Earth Elementals shatter into progressively smaller versions of themselves, trolls have predictable but really really annoying regeneration and Shamans… what do shamans do? I remember killing them but they never once upset the acid cart.

Hentzau: Shamans periodically resurrect any recently killed baddie that you haven’t gibbed to full health. This includes super-baddies like Armoured Ogres and Mountain Trolls, so they can potentially be a massive pain if left to their own devices.

Kenti: Ah. I think most of my eradication methods involve the utter disintegration of the subject in question. Robot efficiency you see.

Hentzau: I like most of the new monster additions. They keep you on your toes; elemental mitosis has to be dealt with in a controlled fashion, trolls must be burned or frozen to halt their regenerative abilities and the shamans… well, you just shoot those first.

Kenti: The flyers are still pointless though. They were just a nuisance that you either had to take care of personally or appoint lots of archer guardians to deal with in OMD and in OMD2… that’s pretty much the same. They don’t really add a good challenge, they have wings and you just make sure to kill them off and that’s that.

Hentzau: Eh, I found that while flyers were present they weren’t particularly overused, and all but the ice bats could be one-shotted by a blast of the ice amulet. Where monsters are concerned I reserve my ire for the cyclops mage, who I think must have been coded by the same guy responsible for skull refunds and the difficulty progression. Cyclops mages are very tough, fire homing missiles that will always hit you unless you get out of range (and they have a very long range), count as large monsters so they can’t be flipped or pushed into acid, and have tiny tiny heads making the freeze/headshot combo used to down most large enemies entirely useless. They are utterly unfun to fight and the only enemy I’d be entirely happy to never encounter again.

Kenti: Tell you what though – the story is absolutely roaring. There are trial, tribulations, problems that our brave protagonist and anti-hero must overc-

Hentzau: Oh be quiet. OMD 2 wisely doesn’t waste any time on a plot beyond “The Sorceress somehow survived and the War Mage is still a boorish dick, and together they kill orcs,” and the game is better for it.

Kenti: It is present but discreet. What little script they have written aims for levity and that’s just fine.

Hentzau: In the main, though, OMD 2 really is just a collection of well-designed orc killing boxes, something that’s particularly emphasised in Endless mode. Endless mode is, for me, the meat of any tower defence game, in which you set up the best system of traps you possibly can and have it gradually tested to destruction by ever-increasing hordes of baddies. It’s here that most of the trap experimentation really becomes necessary (although it’s still a massive pain) as each level requires a different set of traps to maximise your killing potential. My most recent discovery is that arrow traps will set off boom barrels from boom barrel dispensers, allowing you to instantly carpet bomb an area using the trap reset trinket power. Prior to that I was trying to perfect a spring trap/wall void combo to basically automatically toss the orcs into a black hole as they walked past it. This playing with different layouts and setups is, to me, the reason tower defence games exist, and the addition of Endless mode means it’s something that OMD finally caters for.

Kenti: Endless feels like a good challenge/puzzle and I can see myself working away at perfecting the orc-killing grids for some time. If that’s not quite enough to satisfy your orcs-be-gone needs, you can also play though the Classic levels from OMD if you also own OMD. I’ve been enjoying tackling them as the Sorceress as they present a slightly different challenge in this than they did in OMD – they are genuinely worth replaying.

Kenti: In the field of tower-defense hybrids it is certainly now the king sitting atop a mountainous throne of orc corpses. Sanctum was an excellent proof of the concept but it was dry and lifeless, sticking too rigidly to the conventions of the classic tower defense genre. Dungeon Defenders, although it went for the ‘cheery’ approach to its graphics and tone was all too obsessed with the loot rather than the levels and creative solutions to the orc problem. OMD’s aesthetic treatment is far more preferable too, being easier on the eye and softer on the ear, the only thing that OMD 2 doesn’t have that was great in Dungeon Defenders is bosses. Even there I am in two minds over just how much fun that actually added to the latter.

Hentzau: For my part II find OMD 2 to be a far more comprehensive experience compared to the first game. It still has some room for improvement/additional content via DLC or expansion packs (although if they don’t make patching out the absurd all-or-nothing skull refund system their first order of business those are very definitely going to remain unbought) but otherwise it feels pretty much done this time around.

Kenti: Would I disappoint and hurt you by saying that they have released the first patch already and they haven’t improved the skull refund issue?

Hentzau: That was a hotfixy patch. I expect it to be in the first proper patch they release, or there’s going to be trouble.

Kenti: I am sad this causes you no pain.

Hentzau: The skull refund system causes me pain, Kenti, and when I say “there’s going to be trouble” there what I actually mean is that I’m going to delete the game and then retire to my room to weep over a Diet Coke as I consider the intrinsic cruelty of the world and everything in it.

Kenti: Good enough for me.

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