Like Trenched before it, Orcs Must Die does a good job with the moment-to-moment tower defense gameplay. It looks great, it’s got charm, and there are plenty of toys to help you bring about the eponymous imperative. But also like Trenched, it fumbles the crucial bigger picture.

After the jump, theirs but to do and die

Moment-to-moment gameplay can only get you so far. To stand out, a tower defense game needs to tie it up in a package, like Plants vs. Zombies, or Toy Soldiers: Cold War, or Defender Chronicles, or this week’s deliciously grindy Dungeon Defenders (which mostly renders Orcs Must Die redundant). The best games of this sort give you a reason to play, and a reason to replay, and different ways to play. A battle is all good and well. But the best battles have long-term context or variables you can fiddle with. Or at least multiplayer. None of that is in Orcs Must Die.

Orcs Must Die unlocks a new trap or gadget every level, but it does a terrible job of explaining them to me, and the result is that I suspect many of them are useless. There are some obvious combos early on, but as the game draws out and new tricks are introduced, I go from looking forward to them to wondering what the point is. What does it matter whether a trap shoots arrows at an orc or hits him with blades? What’s the difference between crushing him from above or spiking him from below? What good does a steam grate do if the orc isn’t wearing a skirt?

It mostly comes down to crowd management tools, which include blowing orcs back with wind, a springboard that flings them in the direction of your choice, and impassable palettes that let you define their path. Once you wrap your head around this, the challenge level pretty much falls apart, which didn’t need to happen. Consider how Atom Zombie Smashers limited which tools you could use. Consider the challenges in Toy Soldiers: Cold War. Consider the limitations of day, night, pools, and fog in Plants vs. Zombies. It’s not enough to just throw tools into an empty sandbox. Those tools have to be all useful, or at least the sandbox has to be tailored for them.

But Orcs Must Die fails at this higher design level. I’m usually reluctant to make observations about game balance and tuning, but after playing most of the levels, I’m at the point where I’m doing the same thing every time I play. I get a new doo-dad and I couldn’t care less. It all comes down to building a choke point and spamming archers to shoot the orcs who pass through that point.

What’s more, every level is graded only by how many orcs get through. If no orcs get through, I get four skulls for upgrades. I can earn a fifth skull if I finish within a certain amount of time, but this is a minor part of the game that mostly comes down to how far forward I build my defenses. And while I love the idea of spending these skulls to improve my traps, the improvements are so limited that I’ve lost interest in earning skulls. Now that my barricades and archers are as cheap as they’re going to get, I don’t really care about getting more skulls.

Orcs Must Die includes only a handful of scenarios, no survival mode, no RPG trappings, and no challenges to encourage replay. Also missing is any sort of multiplayer. The community support comes down to how many orcs you’ve killed in total. And since I don’t have any reason to care how many I’ve killed, I couldn’t tell you my number. I think it’s around 6000 or something.

The problem with Orcs Must Die isn’t necessarily Orcs Must Die. The problem is Toy Solders: Cold War, Plants vs. Zombies, Defender Chronicles, and Dungeon Defenders. Because a good tower defense game is just the first step to a good full-featured tower defense game.

2 stars
Xbox 360