You play as a War Mage who is a member of an order tasked with defending the Rifts between two worlds: the world of Orcs and the world of Humans. Your master finds his illustrious career cut short by a workplace accident and the old man laments that, with his duties left to your clumsy hands, your world is doomed. It's a shame the Order of War Mages didn't require slip-proof footwear. As his apprentice you’ve got charisma in spades, but not much else - just a stubborn refusal to die or let the old man be right about how bad you supposedly are.
What you in lack talent, training and elegance, you compensate for with brute force, respawns and the omnipotent restart button. Your War Mage comes equipped with a magical crossbow, a blade-staff, his master's spell-book and an ego that eclipses his master's three hundred year career defending Rifts.
Each mission has the same objective - stop the Orcs and their uglier brothers from getting into the Rifts. You start each mission with a fixed number of both coins and Rift points (any enemy that reaches the Rift will cost you Rift points, as will any respawns). Each kill you net rewards you with coins, which you can spend on temporary upgrades and acquiring your various traps (by that I mean giant wall-mounted meat grinders that suck monsters into their loving embrace).
For the early part of your first playthrough you'll be defending the Rifts with the use of traps, your own weapons, and spells. As the campaign progresses you unlock further goodies in the form of elemental spells, minions you can summon, and deliciously dangerous traps. There is a kill combo system which will reward you with bonus coins - more coins, more traps, more mayhem! It's pretty straightforward, as is the upgrade system, where you can earn up to five skulls based on two criteria. The first criteria is how many Rift points you lost and if you beat the par time or not. The skulls you claim from your enemies are used to upgrade your traps once each. This upgrade can reduce the cost, improve its effectiveness, or add a new utility, such as a slow or stun effect to your murder mechanism.
The challenge lies in the maps themselves. Each one is unique, with its own challenging layout and a specific set of enemies that will attack in mixed waves. You will always have your crossbow equipped, leaving up to a maximum of nine other items in your arsenal. You will have to choose wisely and, if you're like me, experiment with the assistance of the almighty restart button. These levels can pose serious challenges - many maps can be reduced to one avenue of attack through the use of the unlockable barricade trap. However, several of the 24 campaign missions will require you to change tack and re-deploy.
Early on you'll unlock the game's Weavers - buxom women, one of whom you will pick at the start of each mission. There are three Weavers in total. The first two are simple: one enhances the effectiveness of your traps and minions through specific upgrades, the other increases how awesome of a War Mage you are. The third is a combination system, bolstering your traps, minions and your own capabilities. As a set of 'talent trees' they are both robust and quite simple, only three tiers deep and laid out in three unique ways. By the time you reach the second half of the game it is only a matter of time before you have enough coins available to purchase every last bonus booster your busty battle maiden has to offer.
The campaign's story is simple, well executed and sparse. There are a total of four still-motion cut scenes in the game with just enough dialogue to convey everything you need to know. The remainder of the story is told through dialogue (mostly monologues to yourself and, later on, brief exchanges with the game's villain). What I found equally impressive were the soundbites, both from your War Mage and the Orcs, oftentimes parodies of pop culture like 'Don't crossbow me bro' and bastardized catchphrases. Orcs Must Die! has a healthy sense of parody, poking fun at itself and other games alike.
For everything Orcs Must Die! has done well it does fail in two simple areas. The pathing system is like any other defense game - you can control where mobs go, but the indicators of these paths are not a solid bright line you can toggle. They are intermittent tiny pulses of light that are both too small to follow and too far between repetitions to be of much use. There is also no checkpoint system, which means that if a single mob gets through when you're going for a perfect Rift point score you'll have to start the entire level all over again. Making people replay an entire level is just cruel when the inter-dimensional portal you are protecting can respawn you moments after several suicidal Kobolds detonate their backpacks in your handsome face.
The game’s central focus is on the mayhem of keeping the bad guys out of your base. It's supported with a moody, suitable soundtrack that is strong and fast paced. All of the missions take place in the same stony castle setting with a little variation (open roofed courtyard here, acid filled basement there). It's well polished but unspectacular The sound effects of your traps are delightful and well thought out; you can almost feel the blades shooting out of the floor or the crack of your ceiling mounted auto-ballistas perforating some unfortunate greenskin.
In spite of a couple of frustration-inducing rough spots, the game delivers plenty of content for a great price tag. There are three difficulties and online leaderboards, so you can compete with friends. There's plenty of room for DLC as well, with Robot Entertainment already offering the ‘Artifacts of Power’ pack (only available on Steam at the moment for $2.49), sporting two new weapons and two new traps. I for one enjoyed my time with the game, and I feel it delivers a strong, well paced strategy experience.