Whatever happened to the tower defence genre?
No, I’m serious. As somebody who loves tower defence games, nothing could have been more pleasing to me than the mini-boom in tower defence games from around 2009 through to 2012. In a relatively short space of time we got games like Plants vs Zombies, Sanctum, Defense Grid, reverse tower defence in the form of Anomaly: Warzone Earth (that one wasn’t very good) and Defender’s Quest’s spin on it, where your “towers” were actually a collection of RPG-style heroes complete with special abilities. Then, abruptly, people seemed to lose interest; the genre didn’t exactly die, but the zeitgeist definitely moved elsewhere. If, in 2011, making a tower defence game was the cool indie thing to be doing, then in 2021 it’s making a Slay The Spire ripoff, or a roguelike, or something combining the two. Tower defence games are old news, and while you can still find them if you know where to look — games like Dungeon Warfare are perfectly decent if you’re willing to accept the lower production values — and while tower defence elements might crop up in other games from time to time1, the dedicated tower defence genre has pretty much been driven underground.
This is why I’m very happy to see the return of the Orcs Must Die! series after it took an extremely ill-judged detour into the realms of free-to-play with Orcs Must Die! Unchained. OMD has never been particularly interested in complex systems the way that some tower defence games can be, preferring to focus instead on the comedy violence of a never-ending stream of orcs, ogres and other nasties being flung bodily into lava pits or smashed by big ceiling crushers. Some might call this shallow; however, I don’t think anyone who has played it would deny that it is fun — fun enough that it’s somewhat baffling to me that it’s been almost a decade since the last proper Orcs Must Die! title. I’ve played Robot Entertainment’s other games and they weren’t really up to much, but they were definitely good at this one particular thing, and I am pleased to report that Orcs Must Die! 3 handily demonstrates that they’ve still got it.
(Of course this is to be expected since Orcs Must Die! 3 is literally just Orcs Must Die! 2 again with a few extra bells and whistles attached. For once, though, I’m going to let that slide; it’s been nine years, after all, and I’d rather play an only-slightly-updated version of a thing that I enjoyed than not have anything to play at all.)
I’ve reviewed both prior OMD games on this blog, but that was some time ago so I’ll just briefly go over the basics. Orcs Must Die! sticks to the standard tower defence formula of having waves of baddies appear at one or more spawn points and slowly run down a predictable, predetermined route to a target zone, which in this case is a magical rift. Each enemy that makes it into the rift depletes the rift’s health, and if the rift hits zero HP you lose the level, so you need to stop them by deploying an array of traps that alternately slow, debilitate and inflict bloody, bloody violence on the ever-growing horde of orcs trying to reach the rift. Placing traps costs money, which you get back by killing orcs and clearing waves and then reinvest into making your gauntlet of traps even more vicious. The unique spin Orcs Must Die! puts on the tower defence concept — aside from the comedy physics of using flipper traps to fling orcs into bottomless pits — is that you’re also down in the thick of the action yourself, controlling an avatar who can blast the orcs via standard third-person shooter gameplay. Thinning out the horde with a grenade launcher or taking down a big tough ogre with a series of headshots can do a lot to relieve the pressure on your trap network, as most traps only fire periodically and have lengthy reload/reset times; on the other hand there’s far too many enemies for you to cope with on your own and so you need the traps to deal with the chaff while you focus your personal attention on the particularly juicy and/or annoying enemy types that might otherwise make it through to the rift.
More than that, though, is that Orcs Must Die! leverages the 3D-ness of its environment and the ground-level view that your character has to good effect when planning trap layouts. Most tower defence games revolve around using barricades to manipulate enemy paths and create chokepoints, and then focusing all of your firepower on those chokepoints to make sure nothing gets through. Orcs Must Die! is no different, but uses the additional dimension to allow you to place your traps on the floors, walls or ceilings. Since most types of trap can only be attached to one type of surface this adds an additional layer of experimentation as you try and figure out which combination of traps is most effective for maximising damage on a single tile — and the experimentation is very fun, as the traps are just as cartoonish as the violence they inflict and it’s quite satisfying to see them all go off at once and reduce an incoming group of orcs into a fine paste. The selection is almost entirely drawn from prior OMD favourites such as ceiling crushers, wall grinders and arrow traps, and there’s few actually new ones in here — I think it’s just the ceiling lasers and the bouncing buzzsaw traps that I haven’t seen before — but it’s been long enough since I last played that I’ve forgotten the optimal layouts for them, and I enjoyed figuring out the solutions all over again.
Yes, solutions plural. If you had it all your own way with the traps you’d be able to quickly come up with a one-size-fits-all killbox that effortlessly minced anything unwise enough to set foot inside it, but the level layouts and wave compositions do try and keep you on your toes here. Mostly you are constrained by funds, as Orcs Must Die! is very aware of just how incredibly powerful the ability to funnel orcs down a particular route with barricades is, and so makes barricades one of the most expensive items in the game. It’s not going to be possible to build enough of them to direct the orcs exactly where you want to go to start with, which is doubly awkward when most maps have two or more orc spawn points and thus two or more routes that they can take to your rift. So your tactics at the start of a level are very different from your tactics at the end of them, as you wage a sort of guerilla war against the orcs with a few scattered traps to soften them up while you backpedal furiously and shoot them in the face. Often you’ll be constrained by time, as enemy spawns from different spawn points will be staggered allowing you to clear them one at a time — if you can kill them fast enough, which usually requires intelligent trap placement to speed that process up a bit. Most maps — although not all — do eventually allow the construction of a nice killbox layout if you can survive the early stages. However, even after it’s operational you still have to be on your toes because there’s plenty of enemies that can destroy your barricades and some enemies that exclusively target them; the most panic-inducing event in Orcs Must Die! is hearing a group of kobold sappers spawn when you haven’t got any countermeasures set up, since that’s probably going to destroy whatever barricades you had blocking off an alternate route and give the orcs a clear run to your rift.
The thing is, except for the player character being down in the world watching the orcs get pulverised up close, none of this is particularly out of the ordinary for a tower defence game — and more to the point, none of it is any different from what previous Orcs Must Die! games have done, even to the point of recycling nearly all of the enemy types, weapons, and traps. Aside from it being the most modern game and thus having the nicest graphics, does Orcs Must Die! 3 actually do anything new to try and justify its existence? Well, yes, although as usual when you find a proven winning formula it’s the new stuff bolted onto the side that’s the weakest part of the game. Obviously there’s a new story, and new playable characters, and obviously these are all terrible because no tower defence game has ever had a good story and Orcs Must Die! is particularly obnoxious about it. But the headline new gameplay feature for Orcs Must Die! 3 is a little more interesting: a new type of level called a War Scenario.
The base levels of Orcs Must Die! are relatively small and contained affairs, since 1) the player has to be able to move around inside them easily and 2) the first game had to run on the Xbox 360, which by modern standards had about the same amount of processing power as a moderately-sized potato. Technology has come on a little way since then, though, and since even this upgraded version of the game isn’t that graphically demanding there’s now scope to push the level design rather further than was possible back in 2011. This is what the War Scenarios do: these are huge levels that take whole minutes to run across (which is why there’s handy teleporters scattered around for quick movement) and whose spawn points vomit forth hundreds upon hundreds of orcs in each wave. To counter this you have access to special War Scenario-only “traps”, which actually take the form of squads of archers and paladins who will move out to engage the enemy once they get within a certain distance, as well as turrets that you can hop into to bombard them as they make their approach. Once you’ve progressed far enough in a War Scenario to have a few of these set up it all gets appropriately apocalyptic with a frontline of knights dueling ogres while flaming arrows arc overhead from the archers you put up on the battlements. Credit where credit is due, when they’re firing on all cylinders the War Scenarios look absolutely phenomenal.
The problem here, though, is that while the knights and archers and turrets and the big comedy flipper trap that you also get will dispose of a lot of orcs, they won’t get all of them. To kill the stragglers you’ll need to deploy a backline of regular, bog-standard traps as well, and if you pay attention you’ll notice that these regular traps are actually much more effective at killing the orcs than the special War Scenario ones, for all that there’s now ten times as many of them charging at you. This is to be expected, when you think about it, since when you are playing a tower defence game you are essentially building a miniature factory to process incoming enemies into chunky giblets. Efficiency and throughput capacity is key — finding the trap combo that will kill the largest number of orcs for the smallest outlay in terms of money spent on traps. Most traps in Orcs Must Die aren’t single target and hit all orcs on a tile, and they’ll do the same damage to each orc whether there’s one of them or a hundred of them. Yes, most traps have lengthy reset times and yes, some traps have charges which big hordes of orcs can quickly deplete, so it’s not like having many monsters charge you all at once is an insignificant consideration, but the whole point of the regular levels is that you should be building trap layouts that can cope with a lot of orcs at once – and past a certain density of orcs the scaling ceases to really matter. If efficiency is all you care about, then it is much more effective to take the vast amount of money the War Scenarios throw at you (those knights are pretty expensive) and instead spend it on a bunch of barricades, tar traps and laser curtains, just as you would in a normal level. Then you just have to make sure the barricades don’t get blown up by the kobold sappers and that’s the level won.
So the War Scenarios end up being a bit of a gimmick rather than a genuinely new and interesting way to play. This is disappointing, especially since Orcs Must Die! 3 doesn’t have a huge amount of novelty to fall back on besides this; as mentioned there’s a few new weapons and traps, but these are sufficiently anonymous that I couldn’t actually tell you what they are off the top of my head. There are, as far as I can tell, no new enemy types (except maybe the armoured ogre). There is the Scramble game mode, which is Robot’s attempt to provide some long-term replayability beyond Endless mode; here you progress through a series of five randomly-chosen maps, choosing between a selection of helpful permanent buffs and rather severe debuffs as you complete each one. It feels a little bit lightweight, because it is, but it’s still a welcome addition because a single Endless mode game can last for upwards of ninety minutes and you can at least shut the game down between Scramble mode maps and come back to your run later. It’s not exactly what I’d call a major selling point, though.
No, if you’re looking for an answer to the question “Why play Orcs Must Die! 3 over Orcs Must Die! 2?” then it’s probably to be found in a couple of seemingly minor fixes to game systems that result in huge quality of life improvements. Firstly the absolutely infuriating skull currency system has been (somewhat) fixed up: the short version of this is that completing levels rewards you with skulls, which you then use to unlock new traps and upgrade existing ones. As you can only slot so many traps at once and upgrading a trap to max level is expensive, the choices you make when investing your skulls really do matter since they essentially count as your skill spec. Obviously you might want to experiment by changing that spec at any time, but Orcs Must Die! 2 made this incredibly awkward by only giving you a button that refunded all skulls spent across all traps — so if you tried out a new trap and decided it wasn’t for you, the only way to get those skulls back was to delete your entire trap spec and start again from scratch. Needless to say this sucked tremendously — enough so that a large portion of my OMD 2 review was spent bitching about it — and thankfully OMD 3 adds an intermediate level of granularity in the form of a button that lets you refund all skulls spent on a single trap instead of all skulls spent across all traps, which makes experimentation far easier and keeps my blood pressure at a pleasingly low level.
The other thing it does is makes respawns instant after player death. This is both a good and bad thing and is going to be an excuse for me to segue into the game’s curious lack of polish in just a moment, but for now let’s focus on the good part: all monsters in Orcs Must Die! will attempt to kill the player if they get close enough, but if you stay at a distance and pepper them with arrows or grenades then you only have to worry about a particular subset that possess ranged attacks. There’s a couple of variants of orc archer who can certainly be annoying, especially if they’re hidden behind (and are shooting through) a huge mass of regular orcs that prevent return fire, but most of my opprobrium is reserved for the Cyclops Mage, who fires homing magical projectiles that track you forever and are very difficult to avoid. I would say that nine out of ten of my deaths in Orcs Must Die! are down to Cyclops Mages sniping me, and in the second game this drove me up the wall because I never saw it coming and the respawn delay after these random deaths often meant doom for an Endless run. It didn’t feel like a thing that was really within my control to manage and so it was very frustrating, and I’m happy that Orcs Must Die! 3 removes the time penalty for dying beyond a short walk from the spawn back to wherever the frontline is.
What surprises me here, though, is how little flair it displays when it does this. There’s no respawn effect besides a voice line from whatever character you’re playing — your avatar just pops back into existence next to your rift like they’ve been placed there by a console command; in fact the whole experience feels very much like I have some sort of developer debug mode on to make testing easier. There’s several other areas where it feels like five minutes of polish would have gone a very long way, too. For example, your character does a stupid dance on clearing a level (don’t ask, I’m just grateful they’re not flossing) but if you’re playing co-op with somebody else you’ll notice they’re doing exactly the same dance, perfectly synchronised. If they’re so hell-bent on having six playable characters in this game, why not differentiate them a bit by having them do different dances? It doesn’t seem like a huge amount of overhead to add at least one more to make you and your co-op partner’s characters a bit less obviously generic clones of one another, but it hasn’t happened for some reason. Other animations are conspicuous by their absence too; when you get targeted by gnoll assassins, who don’t respect the normal rules of the map and come straight at you like a hairy homing missile, if they encounter a barricade along the way they’ll just slide right over it like this legendarily terrible effect from the Star Wars special edition. Would it have killed Robot to add a little jump animation, maybe? Even the music doesn’t escape from this vaguely slapdash feeling — the victory screen music is the same awful 10 second jingle on a loop, which remains relatively inoffensive right up until your co-op partner decides they want to spend five minutes deciding which new traps to unlock, which leaves you stuck on this screen unable to progress while your brain starts to slowly dribble out of your ears.
All this stuff perhaps wouldn’t be so eyebrow-raising if Orcs Must Die! 3 had only just come out — these are exactly the sort of corners I’d expect to be cut in order to get the game out of the door, and individually they’re really very minor issues. Unfortunately while OMD 3 has only just come out on Steam, it’s been out on Stadia for over a year now. This additional development time has at least ensured that stability-wise it’s as solid as a rock — no bugs that I could see, and zero connection or network issues throughout a full co-op campaign playthrough, which is quite remarkable given the new normal of publishers unhesitatingly pushing broken games out of the door because they know people will buy them regardless — but it’s still disappointing that it didn’t also manifest a little of this sorely-needed polish. I could also choose to be disappointed that Orcs Must Die! 3 does so little to move things forward from where Orcs Must Die! 2 previously left them, as it’s almost identical in spite of the graphical upgrade and the new characters and the War Scenarios. But, as I said in the opener, I’m going to choose instead to be happy that Orcs Must Die! 3 got made at all; after Unchained flopped and the tower genre defence in general got subsumed into other games I figured I wouldn’t see another one. Given that, I think it’s acceptable for OMD 3 to be an unambitious yet solid return to the series; if Robot do the same thing again for the fourth one I’m going to be significantly less forgiving, but for now my verdict is that it’s a perfectly fine game.
- It’s the factory genre of all things that’s done the most to scratch the itch for me recently; Factorio correctly recognised that it’s far more interesting if the resources produced by your giant planet-spanning factory are actively being used to fuel a war machine of some kind and gave you all sorts of fun toys to cause absolute mayhem, including a vast array of defence turrets and artillery installations. I really enjoyed Factorio, which makes it even more of a shame that the developers recently outed themselves as enormous chuds and irrevocably tainted the experience. ↩