One last mission: Finishing Orcs Must Die! Unchained before the game dies forever

(Image credit: Robot Entertainment)

This article was originally published in PC Gamer UK issue 331. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US.

Orcs Must Die! Unchained is dead. On 8 April, 2019, Robot Entertainment shut down the servers it once hoped could be a home to millions. This had been the studio’s intended opus, the action tower defence hit reimagined as a free-to-play hobby game. It had the backing of Chinese internet giants Tencent, just like League of Legends and Fortnite. But in the end, it didn’t even have enough players to cover its server fees. 

It’s a genuine tragedy, a cautionary tale about what happens when live games don’t get the air they need, but it’s not the one I’m telling today. Instead, this is the story of Orcs Must Die! Unchained’s last weekend, and a doomed mission to play the whole damn thing. 

As we begin, it’s Saturday afternoon. The lights won’t go out until 4pm on Monday. Robot announced the closure three months ago, and I’d resolved to play through the entire game in co-op with a friend before that happened. But, to misquote Dr Ian Malcolm, life, uh, gets in the way. Two job changes and one relocation later, here we are, with just a couple of days and 36 maps yet to master.

50 hours til shutdown

(Image credit: Robot Entertainment)

Every Orcs Must Die! level is bordered by entrance points, which the orcs pour through, and centred around a portal, which must be guarded at all costs. The routes from those gateways to that rift are your canvas—corridors in which to create elaborate killboxes made up of floor spikes, arrow walls, pounders, grinders, and swinging maces. Who said orcs couldn’t be tender? 

For Orcs Must Die! enthusiasts, it’s customary to ‘five star’ a map before moving onto the next— achieving the highest possible rating by not letting a single orc pass into that portal, no matter how fast or how big they are. 

We’re planning to hold ourselves to that standard—but since we’re about to face a rapid increase in difficulty, we’ll accept help to get us there. Thankfully, Robot abolished its currency system in January, making us de facto millionaires for the duration of the game’s life. An XP-boosting battle pass? Yes please. Chests filled with trap upgrades and stat-boosting traits? I’ll take 60. We’re troughing at the buffet table of the Titanic while the ship sinks. 

As we trigger the first wave of the weekend, a familiar, ragged roar goes up. The orcs are coming. We’ll be hearing that sound many more times in the coming days.

47 hours til shutdown

(Image credit: Robot Entertainment)

I take a break to walk the dogs. At the park, the right-angled pathways activate the killbox-planning centres of my brain. That narrow gate would be the perfect bottleneck at which to head off an incoming horde, and ripe for tar pits too. Council planning permission pending.

45 hours til shutdown

The five star standard isn’t going to work. Here’s the thing: beating an Orcs Must Die! map is a challenge, but it’s also an art, and there’s a degree to which it cannot be rushed. 

Every run is broken up into planning and horde phases, granting you moments of pause to plant your traps, before you dive in to plug the holes by hacking at the orcs yourself. You experiment, and then you test. Perhaps a flip trap proves too powerful, sending an enemy straight over a lava pool and into another, undefended lane. So you tweak the setup and run the test again. You can theory-craft all you like, but you can’t know what’ll work until green feet are pounding across the stone. 

That fifth, elusive star asks you to do all this and meet a par time, which often requires ripping up established trap routes to find a way of clearing the hordes quicker. At best, we’re managing to five star one map an hour and, accounting for sleep, that’s just not going to cut it. We have to lower our standards.

43 hours til shutdown

(Image credit: Robot Entertainment)

At this new pace of imperfection, one map blends into the next. There’s a great library, filled with winding staircases and stacks so tall you could only access the uppermost books with ladders. We fix flame launchers to the shelves and blast the orcs as they’re funnelled between the aisles. A little later we’re baffled by Shark Island, a harbour where the orcs wear cocked hats like pirates, and the usual corridors are eschewed for a lattice of walkways that we utterly fail to navigate. At one point I witness my friend, as the wolfman hero Blackpaw, pounce straight over a jetty and into the sea beyond, drowning instantly. A pool of blood spreads from the spot he hits the water. 

These levels are filled with ghosts. Occasionally we come across cul-de-sacs pulled from Siege, the abandoned MOBA-like mode Robot initially pinned its hopes on. Some levels copy and paste segments from others, while others are bespoke and built for one-off spectacle. In Orcatraz, our allied guardians are gaolers and the orcs break down doors under the gaze of Shawshank-style spotlights.

These are the collective results of a changing development philosophy over Unchained’s five years as a live game—the signs of a studio caught between trying to do something different and recreating a beloved formula.

37 hours til shutdown

Sleep, and dreams. At some stage a pool of blood spreads in my nightmares, just like Blackpaw’s.

29 hours til shutdown

(Image credit: Robot Entertainment)

It’s not just par times we’ve given up on now, but our zero tolerance policy for orcs in the portal. It doesn’t feel good. This arbitrary goal has stripped away the pride we’ve always taken in our orc-stopping architecture. 

Ordinarily in this game, you can confidently stride onto a bridge, declare “You shall not pass” and mean it—knowing that you’ve got infinite tries to get it right. But now, finally, we’re running out of goes.

24 hours til shutdown

It can’t be done. At least, not by us. In earlier Orcs Must Die! games, the strength of your heroes was fixed, and increased power came from new traps and their combos. But in Unchained, everything levels up. Heroes gain XP, which boosts their damage output and defence. 

When we were five-starring levels, the difficulty curve had felt gentle—but now we’re settling for less, it’s leaving us breathless and frustrated. It doesn’t matter that we’re coating orcs with fuel before they walk into the brimstone pits. Nor that I’m firing the blunderbuss of Brass, my dwarven engineer, right between the eyes of my enemies. Despite our best efforts, weakened orcs are still getting through, and it’s because we’re now five or six tiers below the recommended level. 

It’s a problem indicative of the change online games have undergone in the last five years. Unchained bears all the obvious hallmarks of a hobby game: coffee shop-style rewards for coming back, daily and weekly objectives for killing particular bosses, target quotas for orc-killing. It’s designed to occupy a consistent spot in our lives for months, if not years—certainly not to be rattled through in the space of a weekend. By attempting this mission, we’re working against the fundamental cadence of the game.

18 hours til shutdown

(Image credit: Robot Entertainment)

The best tribute we can pay to Orcs Must Die! Unchained in its final hours, we decide, is to play it the way we always have. On Sunday night we have more fun than we’ve had all weekend, cherry-picking the maps we’ve blazed past but think we can perfect. The library level turns out to be a fascinating challenge—to meet par time we have to unscrew the traps from the shelves and glue them to the floors instead, burning the orcs alive as they saunter onto the map. Then, barricades allow us to consolidate three lanes into one, where Brass’ turret and mines deal with the remaining stragglers. 

Orcs Must Die! at its best is a creative act—nobody else will have solved this problem in quite the same way, nor built exactly what we have. Then it’s all wiped away, like a chalk drawing on a pavement in the rain, and we start it all over again, determined to do it better.

15 minutes past shutdown

It’s Monday, and my friend has gone back to work, but I’ve decided this is my job now. The servers are officially closed, and only a handful of players remain in global chat. “Is this heaven now?”, one asks. “Are we dead?” 

Another tries opening the client on a second PC—no dice. We know that when we log out, we won’t be able to get back in. “I’m gonna stay on until they pull the plug,” someone says. “One last trip down gib lane?” I join him for a final run. It feels much the same as any other. Except this time, when the traps are wiped away, the game goes with them.