What is it? A tower defense game where you slaughter orcs.
Expect to pay £23.79/$29.99
Release Out now
Developer Robot Entertainment
Publisher Robot Entertainment
Reviewed on Windows 10, Intel Core i5-6500, 8GB RAM, Nvidia GTX 1060
Link Official site (opens in new tab)
Occasionally, as a new wave of orcs washes in to crash against your fortifications, you'll catch a moan from a despondent greenskin on the breeze: "Feels like we're never gonna get there." It seems like a moment of realisation about their doomed role in tower defence, but invariably it's a thought they don't get to complete: they're dashed against the rocks, tarred and burned, or electrified so that their skeleton flashes through their skin.
Recently freed from the shackles of Stadia, Orcs Must Die! 3 isn't usually a thoughtful fantasy game. It makes little effort to contextualise its maligned title characters, to ponder where they come from or why they do what they do. Yet it is a thinking person's game—a strategic siege simulator that rewards careful arrangement, inspired solutions, and a willingness to toss away past assumptions and approach a problem from a new angle. It's a game that makes you feel smart, even as you swing your mouse desperately to slug an imp in the eye with a bolt of magic.
Imagine you're an interior designer, but in a universe where one of the tenets of feng shui is murder. Using a pre-allocated budget, you begin each level by buying, rotating and placing the traps of your choice in a small dungeon (or, less often, a large field), with the aim of causing as much damage as possible to any orcs who might pass through.
Then it's open house: the doors smash inward, and enemies run down the hall and up the stairs, displaying a remarkably low aptitude for hazard perception as they do so. The traps they trigger come from the Tom & Jerry school of slapstick comedy, flipping orcs through the air or stinging them with beehives; those awaiting the upcoming Jackass reunion will find themselves well served. Afterwards, with all the orcs dead or absconded through the portal you're supposed to be protecting, you go again—building out your designs until the final wave.
In a traditional tower defence game, the arrival of the action phase would be your prompt to sit back, take in the scene, and grit your teeth—hoping your walls will hold, and throwing down an extra turret or two when funds allow. In Orcs Must Die! 3, it's the moment to roll up the sleeves of your gown and jump in.
There's fun to be had firing into the horde, seeking out headshots among your variously-sized opponents as if playing vertical whack-a-mole. The best secondary fire options include both freeze-bombs and a sweeping knockback that triggers a nostalgic round of ragdolling. On the whole, though, combat is best described as mash and peas - in that it offers mainly button mashing melee and peashooter projectiles. There's less complexity or opportunity for skill than you'd find in a dedicated action game—no Souls-like parry or active reload to master.
That's for the best, and probably by design. Though it's possible to build a playstyle around empowered pugilistics, combat's really there so that you can dynamically plug the gaps left by your traps. Series veterans will know there's a panicked joy to personally sniping a kobold runner that somehow slipped between the blades of your pneumatic machines.
If the fighting were any more involved, it would pull too much focus, upsetting the balance of this classic genre hybrid. Robot Entertainment has been making Orcs Must Die! for a long time—it'll be ten years old in October—and knows not to mess with the fundamentals. Not least because the last time the studio tried that, with 2017's Orcs Must Die! Unchained (opens in new tab), the mixture exploded in its face.
Yep, Orcs Must Die! 3 is a cautious sequel—even its large-scale War Scenarios feel familiar, if magnified. But it's getting more experimental over time, as Robot pursues a tower defence strategy for development. The game effectively soft-launched on Stadia last year—and having survived that first wave, the studio has built out from the foundations with a second story campaign and new endgame mode, Scramble.
The latter is an ironman variant on the formula that puts me in mind of COD's Outbreak (opens in new tab). The goal is to best five levels of escalating difficulty using a single set of rift points—the pool that determines how many monsters you can afford to let through the portal before failure. Between every stage, you're lumbered with a new debuff—perhaps swarms of orc archers who go after you rather than the rift—but get to pick a buff to counter it, like extra oomph for your acid bombs. The effect of this mounting metagame is to push you towards tactics outside your comfort zone, making Scramble a rewarding way to revisit some of the best maps.
Frustratingly, both the second campaign and Scramble are locked until you've made significant progress in the story—a rake to the face of hardcore fans who already sunk those hours into the Stadia release.
They'll be appeased, though, by the new acid geyser trap, which melts orcs down to their squishier parts, ready to be hit by a follow-up volley of darts or arrows. Ultimately, as ever with Orcs Must Die!, it's the intricate ordering of traps for maximum score combos that will hold the attention of top players for hundreds of hours.
Newcomers are better off embracing the new saw blade launcher, the ricochets of which are not just entertaining but, when fired in an enclosed archway, capable of shredding a troll in seconds. With experience, you can predict and plan for the 45-degree wall bounces, filling entire corridors with bladed boomerangs. This is Orcs Must Die! at its best: a comedy scripted on graph paper.
We may not know much about the orcs, and they may not know themselves. But after years in the wilderness, Robot Entertainment has shown it still knows exactly how to make Orcs Must Die!. What a pleasure it is to have those pea-green boys back.