Making gaming magazines can be compared to a tower defence game: you train your big guns on the slow approach of the heavy-hitters and pray your preparations ensnare anything unforeseen. Some fleet-footed titles will always slip through, but in the case of nifty shooter-strategy mashup Orcs Must Die, which nimbly eluded our review pages last year, we seem to have been given a second chance. That’s both a commendation and a criticism: the game’s sequel, arriving less than ten months later, feels more like generous update than an entirely new game, bringing with it new levels, kit items, monsters and a twoplayer co-op mode to re-energise its otherwise barely-changed fundamentals. Nonetheless, those fundamentals remain a rich source of deliriously chaotic thirdperson carnage, each gruesome gauntlet of whirring blades and swinging maces wreaking cathartic devastation on the greenskins.
Just as before, a swarm of underdwellers rumbles through each level, heading by various routes to the glowing rifts which are their exit. If a significant number pass through, you lose. The solution, as suggested by the game’s title, is to funnel them into the chokepoints you’ve lined with spike traps, arrow walls, springboards and meat grinders – as many as your budget allows. Then as the massed, brutish ranks pile in, you can plug any gaps personally, blasting survivors with your blunderbuss and mana grenades.
Developer Robot Entertainment has the kinaesthetics of this butchery acutely tuned – from the kick of your wide-barreled blaster to the cartwheeling physics of limp-bodied goons as they’re tossed, mashed and diced in your handcrafted kill-box. The thrill of shutting down that terrifying mass of green has certainly not gone stale since the first game’s release, and remains a gruesomely comic spectacle, enlivened further by the presence of another player.
A problem shared is a problem halved – often quite literally when that problem is an orc – but this proves troublesome for a campaign meant to serve both singleplayer and co-op. It never quite finds the balance on any difficulty setting, and later levels prove frustrating without a companion to cover any of the six possible approaches. Even within the levels themselves, the challenge soars and plunges: the earliest waves are sometimes the deadliest, with a miserly starting budget hobbling your defences; and yet, just a few waves later, you may snaffle enough coinage from the corpses to create a truly impassable killing field, and need never lift a finger for as long as the horde’s numbers last.
Each level gives you unlimited time to prepare in advance of the horde, and then sprinkles a small number of similarly unrestricted rest periods between the crashing waves of troglodytes. Most of the time, however, you only get a breather of 15 seconds before another army ploughs into your defences – often emerging from another entrance with little warning, and sometimes from several all at once. Covering all the angles on your lonesome leaves you with some pretty tough questions: do you throw your trap budget at one entrance, and hope it takes care of itself while you face down another force with only your gun? Or do you split the traps between them, and hope that the attackers are slowed just enough that you can flit between each flashpoint and snuff the stragglers out?
The best answer seems to be not to play it by yourself. With two of you, the later levels become all they should be, the mechanisms of combat latching with the difficulty curve to create a taut tug-of war between emerging crises. As hardier creatures plunge through your defences and force you to take a more active role, you begin to recognise the additional depth the sequel brings, with a secondary playable character, the Sorceress, offering an arsenal of conjuration magic which neatly balances the original War Mage’s more bullheaded approach. That said, each role remains very flexible, with the right loadout turning the loutish lunk into a mana-loaded money-making machine, or transforming the Sorceress into a melee mistress.
Despite their fluid roles, cooperation between players is essential, not least because in co-op the number of item slots you have is capped at six. Since your hand-weapons, traps and buff-giving trinkets all need an equipment slot, you will quickly find yourself divvying up the essentials between you, and debating the merits of your respective upgrade choices.
The skulls earned from each level are now the universal currency, offering you gradual access to the game’s huge number of traps, trinkets and weapons, as well as the multiple upgrades applicable to each. Progress through this tree is a little slow, and it takes a long time to access hardware that’s more effective than a combination of fully upgraded spike traps and arrow walls. Nor does the game offer any way of comparing the damage traps deal or their effective range before purchase. It’s all to incentivise grinding in an alternative endless assault game-mode – which is also the best way to experience the full might of the game’s bestiary. Not that many of its creatures demand diverse tactics – some have specific vulnerabilities, but as you don’t know when or where they’ll turn up, the cheaper catch-all damage-dealing traps always seem the best bet.
This tamps down some of the variety implied by its item shop and, in the end, tactics largely take a back seat to grenade spam. Luckily, the process of dismembering enemies in large numbers offers sadistic delight however you accomplish it, and in spite of its balance wobbles, Orcs Must Die 2 is a frenetic blast of co-op joy – the ideal 30-minute post-pint pick-me-up, be it a step-change sequel or not.