There are two key differences between the Orcs Must Die you know (and we love) and this new upstart. It’s still a game where you fill corridors with traps that slice, dice, crush, incinerate, and impale wave after wave of orcs that are trying to reach your rift gate. But Unchained is now a multiplayer versus game, where two teams of five defend their rifts against the marauding green menace. Think of it as two games of Orcs Must Die lain end to end.
The second key difference: there are now giant, armoured bears.
When Microsoft closed down Ensemble Studios, the makers of Age of Empires, in 2009 many of the team went on to found a new studio, Robot Entertainment. Rather than make another world renowned RTS franchise that would sell 20 million copies, they released a tower defense game.
Orcs Must Die had you play as an apprentice wizard who was the last thing standing between thousands of orcs and rifts into the human world. Orcs would spawn in waves at one end of the map and walk down a set corridor to the rift. It was your job to stop any getting through. You’d fill those corridors with traps – arrow walls, floor spikes, swinging maces – all sorts and watch as they cut the green wave into shribbons.
It was brilliant.
Each map would start slow, giving you time to get your bearings and place a couple of traps, but with each wave you became overwhelmed by the orcs’ numbers. Every level beaten would leave you fraught, sweating, and smiling.
The sequel came quickly, only taking a year to release, and as well as new levels it added what was sorely lacking for the original: co-op. But Robot kept getting asked by the fans to do a full multiplayer release.
“Multiplayer’s not a new idea for Orcs Must Die,” Justin Korthof, the studio’s community manager, tells me. “One of our big community streamers, she organised a versus tournament between six of the best players where they each would play the same level for the highest score and she would stream the two competitors playing side by side. This idea of competition has been in there since the first one. But now we can do it properly.”
Two years since Orcs Must Die 2 we get Unchained, which adds full on multiplayer and more than a dash of MOBA to our favourite green-washed tower defense series.
Rather than have your waves go head to head with the enemies’, Robot have split the action into separate lanes, taking some inspiration from the community stream. At the head of one lane is your warcamp. Here you and your team can add a bunch of minions that periodically spawn and march up the lane towards your opponents’ rift. On a second lane the enemy team have their own warcamp. From there, the enemies minions march towards your base,
This design took considerable work. In early prototypes Robot tried having both teams’ waves assault down the same lane. Justin says that “it was just chaos. Everyone would meet in the middle and you couldn’t tell whose minions were whose, and it was just a mass battle.”
This two lane approach has two effects. Firstly, the action is clearer. You can tell who is ahead, the tactics they’re using, and anticipate how to defeat them. But it also makes the game more frantic. Delightfully so.
Here’s an example. In one round I was playing as one of the new characters, a pyromancer called Smolder. She’s perfect for the killbox I’d set up. As the opposition’s wave came round the corner I had a naptha sprayer that doused them in fuel, right before they stepped on a brimstone floor tile, setting them aflame. If that didn’t kill them outright then they’d walk onto a tar trap that slowed them right as they came into range of an arrow wall. Anything that made it past the traps was still on fire. That was an easy clean up using Smolder’s Ignite ability, which increases fire damage.
While I was having a ball on the central lane, clearing up waves of the other team’s minions, the enemy had opened and upgraded a new warcamp on a lane to my left. I had to start running from the central lane the moment I’d cleared it of minions to the left-hand lane to fight off the advances there.
When the other team opened a third warcamp my team of five were ducking between the lanes laying traps, and killing minions, stretching us thin. We barely had time to help our own minions get deep into enemy territory.
This intensity curve is what will keep you coming back to Unchained. By the end of a match, both teams are sprinting between lanes, defending, attacking, between screaming at each other that a bear’s about to reach the rift. It’s left me giggling like a maniac more than once.
Old made new
With Unchained making Orcs Must Die into a versus game lots of the old mechanics have new meaning, Jerome K. Jones, the game’s designer, explains. “The defensive combo system is still there and it works with other players’ traps. If you’re a defensive player who’s doing things to collect more combo you could be the reason that all five of you have more coin.” You don’t share a purse with your teammates but whenever an enemy minion is killed you all get some cash. It means that to get an advantage over your opponents you have to play tactically, Jerome says. “A lot of times online you’ll see players kill minions before they get to the traps, it’s not smart.”
Well practiced teams leave the minions till the last moment, letting the traps do maximum damage before scooping up the kill.
On the offensive side is a new resource, leadership. It’s used to upgrade warcamps and open new ones. You get more leadership the further your minions get into the enemy base. A particularly good push can net all your team enough leadership to upgrade your camp very early in the game.
There’s more between you and the rift than traps and players. Each lane has three gates that the defenders can raise and lower with levers. These are essential for blocking a wave that’s got past your traps, giving you valuable time to kill the minions yourself. However, once a gate’s destroyed it’s gone. We quickly learned that the gates were also great for locking a fleeing enemy hero in, letting you get a kill and the chest of bonus gold they drop.
Each lane also has two guardians, big hulking paladin types that have a stack of health and huge sword. Again, once they’re dead they’re gone but in the early game they can be a lifesaver against a tough wave, particularly as they also provide a health regen to nearby defenders. Jerome told me that later updates will add guardians with “different types of abilities and defences that make you want to approach a lane differently.”
The gates and guardians add depth to each lane. “We want the teams to change the state of the lane they’re assaulting,” Jerome explains. “Over time a lane gets weaker and weaker. You start focusing on why you’re pushing a particular lane – ‘Let’s put three heroes on this lane, all the guardians are dead so we can push through. Or, ‘Let’s put heroes on that lane because we need to kill the guardians.’”
“If an enemy player is near death but the guardian’s close, take out the guardian,” Unchained’s programmer, Eric Best, insists. “It’s an even trade because next time a wave comes through here the lane is different. When I push there the other team’s backup to get a heal is gone.”
It can lead to some risky tactics. In one game, our team didn’t place traps or add minions to the warcamp for the first wave. Instead we sprinted up the assault lane and destroyed the other team’s first gate before they realised what was happening. It had them on the backfoot immediately.
Another system that’s been repurposed is the old card-based inventory. In previous games you’d select a handful of traps and items before each level. Robot’s fleshed that out so, now, when you level up you receive booster packs filled with cards, items, and minions. Booster packs can also be bought in the game’s store. And, when it comes to adding new content to Unchained, Robot will simply add new card types to the booster packs – letting new goodies trickle into the game.
The level of your warcamp determines what level of minion card you can slot into the next wave. Level one cards are pretty weak, unarmoured orcs, kobolds, that sort of thing but when you get it up to level four in the late game you can spawn massive armoured bears, squads of crossbowmen, and mountain trolls. It’s not just about size, either. There are special troops that can make a wave extremely tricky, like dwarf mages that walk behind troops casting a shield over them which only dissipates when the mage dies.
You can get gear cards that can completely change a way a hero plays. Jerome used the Prospector as an example. The dwarf hero can dig tunnels around the map that let you and your team instantly travel between two locations. He also has a passive ability that means big creatures can’t see him. “The Prospector’s passive and his tunnel ability suggest defensive,” Jerome says. “Most of the time what you see is the Prospector supporting defense with its tunnels, allowing a single defensive player to move between two lanes quickly, or on offense allowing an instant retreat back to the rift to heal but we’ve been hearing about some aggressive things with the tunnel, too. One team had tunnels on the two offensive sides, and The Master would just jump between them clear us out and then jump back.”
“We had a guy on the team who would hide a tunnel in the back of the other team’s rift room,” Justin adds. “He and his whole team had free reign to jump into the back and help defend any of your minions that got there.”
Then, if you gave the Prospector a lightning ring, which lets you fry enemies with bolts of chain lightning, and an ice amulet, which lets you shoot shards of ice, then you’ve turned a defensive hero into a highly mobile attacker.
Another hero, the Master, is an ancient wizard who, marketing director, Adam Fletcher, describes as a “total glass cannon.” But he can also be one of the toughest heroes to kill. “He’s got a passive where the more mana he has the more armour he has but even his basic attack takes mana. That guy can be the best defensive player on your team by far, he can take out waves like *that*.”
With a canny use of your inventory his mana problem can be overcome. “There’s an item called the Mage’s Picnic Table which you can lay down and creates this little blue orb and it regenerates your mana. If a master’s defending and he’s got a big push coming then he’ll usually run back a little drop the picnic and stand in front of it and still pelt at people because his mana stays constant.”
There are currently 12 heroes in the game and they can all be altered in this way.
It’s not just about how the heroes play with each other. Hero selection impacts on the minions, too. Take War Mage, for instance, the hero from the original game. One of his abilities adds trap armour to human minions. So to get the most out of him you want your team to build a wave of human troops that he can buff before they push down the enemy lane, they’ll get further and score you more leadership.
A similar level of depth is available on the defensive side, with minions proving vulnerable to different elemental attacks. If the enemy favours orcs, you should pick fire traps. Armoured bears are vulnerable to lightning. Apparently, the armour conducts.
There’s more: glyphs allow players to buff troops, improving health, damage and speed. And weavers, magical shops, allow you to purchase upgrades as you play, anything from reducing respawn time to making your minions move faster.
The idea behind Orcs Must Die: Unchained is relatively simple. get your minions into your opponents’ rift before they do the same to you. Yet, Robot have added so much flavour to that simple goal that players will spend weeks working in teams to come up with tactics to counter particular waves, designing killboxes that complement their heroes best, and coming up with devious schemes to surprise their opponents.
It’s a glorious, ridiculous melee: best played with friends.
Editor’s note: travel and accommodation to San Francisco were paid for by Gameforge, Orcs Must Die Unchained’s European publisher.