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Orcs Must Die review: Building a better Orc trap

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There truly are few things more satisfying in a video game than watching a plan of your own invention be executed with immaculate success. For all its bells, whistles and promised hordes of greenskinned invaders, the real meat of Orcs Must Die happens in the moments before your fortresses doors are kicked down. You're given as much time as you need to survey the area, choose your traps and weapons, and begin crafting piecemeal your survival strategy for the waves ahead.

There are far more layers than the game's straightforward, titular directive would suggest. Over the next few minutes, you don't just have to make all of the Orcs dead. You have to tend to that very first seed of strategy, growing it into an engine of impenetrable destruction.

Gallery: Orcs Must Die (5/4/11) | 8 Photos

Though it certainly possesses some of the prerequisite elements, Orcs Must Die does not fit squarely into the tower defense genre. Large swaths of monsters move from an entry point, and you have to stop them from reaching an exit point, but very few towers ever enter the mix. Instead, you must impede the marching attackers more directly with traps, sentries (none of which are tower-shaped) and your own weapon-wielding prowess.

Those traps range from the straightforward floor spikes, arrow slits and exploding barrels to traps which demand more consideration about your environment, such as the tar pit, enemy-lifting steam vent and spring trap, which can hoist enemies into an awaiting lava pool. Sentries, such as the Archer and Paladin, can also be used sparingly to defend your goals, but can also be killed by the oncoming Orcs. You have to use them in tandem with your stationary traps, ensuring nothing can reach them without taking a significant amount of damage in the process.

Seldom and few are the levels which can be beaten by simply lining a hallway with enough deadly traps to kill the enemies moving through it. It's what makes those pre-fight pauses (which repeat every three waves) so important -- what environmental oddities can you exploit? What shortcuts can you block off? How should the enemies be slowed to ensure your traps have enough time to recharge? And, most importantly, since all your murder machines cost a set amount of gold -- can you really afford all this?

When choosing your loadout before a level, you can also fill slots in your limited inventory with weapons, which range from Plain Jane fare like the sword and crossbow, to more exotic options, like the enemy-launching Wind Belt. You're not even remotely powerful enough to take on the horde by yourself -- instead, you're a frantic maintenance worker, darting between groups of foes as you desperately try to plug the holes in your otherwise foolproof plan.

You can invest in talent trees before each match to further cement your adherence to your favorite playstyle. You can earn between one and five skulls (depending on your performance) for each match, which can be spent to permanently augment one of your traps or weapons. These upgrades last forever, but unfortunately, there's only one unlockable bonus for each item. Considering how much of Orcs Must Die is built on the thorough discovery of your own strategic strengths and weaknesses, this system practically begs for more depth.

It is far, far less shallow, however, than Orcs Must Die's nameless leading man. From the game's opening cutscene, the hero's recently deceased pedagogue reveals that his protege is, in fact, an incompetent asshole, a message he relates in literally every other cutscene that follows. Its repetition would be abrasive, if it weren't so darn true.

His horribleness is more pervasive than you could possibly conceive. Every time he lays down a trap, he spouts off a random one-liner drawn from an anemic reserve. With few exceptions, the half-jokes he vomits merely glance the outer rim of humor, and miss completely with each of the reprises that follows. And oh, will they follow. It's almost as if Robot Entertainment took the catchphrase dial firmly in hand, and cranked it up to Gex.

If the writing were as clever as the gameplay it supports, Orcs Must Die would be a comedy masterpiece. It oscillates perfectly between states of calm, cool and collected design and panicked damage control, and rewards your diligence with a gorgeous sight: A finely-tuned whirling chamber of death, which gnaws up enemies with tactical brutality reminiscent of Tecmo's Deception series, and a gory kind of whimsy reminiscent of Grape Escape.

This review is based on final code of Orcs Must Die sent to Joystiq by Microsoft.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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