Orcs Must Die! Unchained Review: Defending Fun and F2P
Ben Sheene / Apr 19th, 2017 No Comments
The free-to-play model never ceases to baffle me. For so many years, games were purchased for a set price and then enjoyed indefinitely. Then microtransactions and DLC got involved and proved there was a market for paid content both substantial and insignificant. Yet, F2P games manage to sustain themselves by offering an enticing base experience at an easy entry point while coaxing players to spend a bit of cash to help themselves progress faster or look a bit fancier.
As a F2P game, I worry that Orcs Must Die! Unchained will have a negative stigma attached to it. Players may assume the free entry point is so developer Robot Entertainment can squeeze money out of them by heavily gating content. Much worse, most will simply pass it by on preconceived notions that it is only enjoyable at the onset, soon giving way to tedium and repetition. Despite being stripped of premium pricing, Unchained is an engrossing game that immediately latches onto you with intoxicating charm and an addicting, fun gameplay loop.
Desktop Dungeon Defense
The original Orcs Must Die! games had inspiration rooted in old flash games like Desktop Tower Defense that could be found across the internet. The concept was so simple: strategically build towers along a map that shoot down whatever objects or enemies are trying to reach the goal. Tower Defense transformed into a genre that spanned consoles and PC. Countless developers stretched the idea of strategic defense, turning basic shapes into aliens, villagers, castles and, eventually, orcs.
Considering it’s been five years since the release of Orcs Must Die! 2, Unchained doesn’t ask the player to be well-versed in any lore or previous mechanics. Rather than immediately let players off the leash, Robot eases players into a prologue that educates on the basics. As Maximilian, you are placed in a short, straight dungeon hallway and asked to set up traps because orcs are about to break through and invade everything.
Who are these orcs? Who is this old man getting sassy with Maximilian and facepalming at the fact that he’s likely never been to a library before? I have no idea. My past experience with the Orcs Must Die! universe is a few brief hours of dipping my toes into the original game and little else. However, I didn’t feel alienated from the banter and don’t expect that many players actually will. A light overarching story is nudged to the side by a game brimming with confidence in its own aesthetic and voice.
In that short but necessary tutorial, I learned how to place spike traps on the ground that would impale orcs and kobolds and turn them into hilariously oversized gibs (game’s word, not mine) of green meat and bone. I laughed at dumb jokes and got used to how barricades can intentionally funnel ogres around a designated path. It’s a charm that carries on even when players find themselves in intense online matches.
Holding Out for a Hero
Gameplay in Unchained is a hybridization of tower defense games, MOBAs and hero shooters, all rolled up into a medieval fantasy ball. Each map has at least one entrance where orcs and their ilk will break through and one rift that must be defended from the ugly baddies breaching. On top of that foundation are levels with multiple entry points, twisting hallways, environmental hazards and lots of surfaces primed for trap placement.
The similarities to MOBAs and hero shooters like Overwatch lie in selecting a hero with a unique skillset and equipping them with skills and other useful items. Everyone starts out with three heroes: Blackpaw, Gabriella and Maximilian. I enjoy Blackpaw the most out of these starters because of his ability to take damage at close range and bite down on enemies to steal their life. Gabriella is a ranged magic user that is weak but can use an AoE stun. Maximilian used his electric crossbow to help with crowd control but also deal high damage.
Throughout the course of battle, killing enemies and setting up traps grows a hero’s experience pool and levels them up. At level 2, 4, 7 and 10, players are given the option to select one of three traits to improve. These trait improvements range from increasing the rate of fire for primary attacks and providing a buff to a skill to reducing a cooldown. I’m sure the community has already figured out the exact meta for each hero, but it’s fun to experiment and see what works best in each situation. That being said, trying to make that split-second decision mid-battle can result in some confusion if you’re sitting there reading the description of each trait and trying to process it.
Thankfully, Robot has included a section where players can look at each hero, their multiple skins and their upgrade path. After a few games it’s wise to dive into this bestiary of heroes to study up and be better prepared for the next fight. A roster of 16 heroes can feel daunting, but it’s important to remember that the basic roles are covered here. Hard-hitting orc matriarch Bionka and angry minotaur Temper fill melee roles. Cygnus and Smolder are glass cannon wizards, while Ivy is a fantastic healer.
There are situations that call for crowd control and others that call for brute force. Recognizing the strengths of each hero and deciding upon a good team composition ensures the orc hordes will be put at bay. To keep things balanced, teams cannot double-up on heroes, so try not to get violent if someone steals your favorite.
Unfortunately, a hero is only as strong as their traps, and this is where the real meat of Unchained clings to. Players only have 25 rift points and, to keep orcs from entering and that number from melting down to zero, every possible surface needs to be cleverly fitted with traps that deal high damage or otherwise impede progress.
Sitting at over 50 traps, it would take a hefty amount of time to dive into the purpose and use of each one. It’s best to keep in mind that they all fall into a few general categories. Floor spikes, arrow walls and concussive pounders all do damage, but each is placed on a different surface. Got some space on the floor? Place some wall spikes. Got some space on the wall? Place some arrow walls. Through clever environmental design, levels do an admirable job of translating when a surface can and cannot have a trap. If a section of a floor is covered in grates, you can’t put down a trap. If the wall isn’t long enough, then you need to find another surface.
Just placing traps in the path of bad guys isn’t enough. Robot thinks of Unchained and the Orcs Must Die! franchise as a kind of puzzle game. Each trap acts as a piece of this larger moving puzzle. You might want to put a spring trap next to a pool of acid to toss smaller enemies in, but massive ogres aren’t susceptible to gravity-based traps. Kobolds can rush the rift at insane speeds, so throw down some tar traps to slow down their movements.
Just like heroes, traps can provide debuffs for enemies and buffs for a team. The possible amount of configurations is quite daunting, but speaks to the depth of the game. Clever players will be able to construct elaborate kill rooms that constantly dole out damage, and they can just make ridiculous Rube Goldberg machines that bounce orcs around until they end up trapped between a square of barricades. Additionally, traps can be upgraded to increase their damage and effectiveness, or further buffed with consumable parts that give them secondary effects.
These core mechanics all apply to Unchained’s four modes: Battlegrounds, Sabotage, Endless and Weekly Challenge. Battlegrounds is the primary PvE outlet, allowing three players to take on increasingly difficult and complex levels that are packed with bosses and rewards. Collect stars by maintaining rift points and finishing fast to unlock harder difficulties. Endless is just like Battlegrounds, but the enemies never stop.
Weekly Challenges are brilliantly inventive ways to pivot the game mechanics in a specific direction. Players are given one week to complete a map where Robot determines which heroes can be used and what loadout is given. Not only is this a great way to try out a hero you may not have used, it’s also a competitive way to learn how to play the game in a different style.
Sabotage is almost identical to Battlegrounds expect another team of three is responsible for sending hordes of enemies toward your rift. Levels play out exactly the same as nothing cosmetic or mechanical has been changed about their layout. From your point of view, the players on the opposite team don’t even appear. The only way to see their movements is by looking at a tactical map available by pressing the tab key.
Each wave of Sabotage starts out with players selecting two “consumable” cards. One is a group of enemies and the other is a spell that has a positive or negative effect for the other team. You and your team decide when to trigger a rush of enemies and when to cast a spell. Sending out a wave of shield bears and then stunning a member of the opposite team will likely lead to pain. Why not cast a speed buff on a group of runners to put the pressure on a rift? Like traps, there is a ton of variety and options with consumables. Only a handful of these consumables have infinite uses and the better ones have limited use.
As a competitive mode, Sabotage takes some of the vitriol and anger out by rarely making you aware of the other team. It’s business as usual when setting traps and defending a rift. There can be a bit of an imbalance in place, however. When public servers went live, I was able to hop into most matches in under two minutes. Some of those matches felt like they lasted a little over two minutes.
Players have a choice between three of each consumable at the start of the wave and can reroll the deck for a cost. While it may be nearly impossible for a player to have their choice between multiple powerful cards, it doesn’t mean that many easily trump others. Over half of my Sabotage matches ended in brutal failure as the opposing team sent out powerful waves of enemies that my team could not contend with. These matches are meant to be fast paced but shouldn’t be so heartbreaking and devastating.
Ultimately there are times where strategy won’t mean anything and a loss is inevitable. To Unchained’s credit, players must go through five matches of Sabotage before they are ranked. After playing enough, matchmaking will set players up with those of similar skill and level. During the rounds of Sabotage where everything felt more equal, I had a lot more fun and was inspired to stick around rather than hobble back to Battlegrounds with my tail tucked in.
At Any Cost
Robot expressed that some players didn’t want the tutorial prologue and thirsted for immediate online action. Though the prologue feels slow, I think it shows Robot’s inclination to ease players into the vast platform that will be Unchained. As a developer it’s important to never treat your players like idiots and, with how deep this game can go, I find it admirable how the F2P element is handled.
In total, there are 16 heroes available at launch. At the time of this review, you can purchase all heroes for $19.49 or slowly unlock them over time with skulls, the in-game currency. A starter bundle is available for $9.99 that includes a number of skulls, gold and a battle pass, which serves as an XP booster. After 20 hours with Unchained, I was never talked down to and given heavy tutorials or labored explanations of how currency works.
Skulls can be earned in game and for logging in daily. These skulls can be used to buy heroes, upgrade traps and buy consumables. The only thing skulls can’t buy are vanity items like special skins for each hero. This is a F2P model that has been tested time and again, and it seems to work. Overwatch’s loot boxes funnel money to Blizzard and allow players to fast track their way to an epic skin. It works the same way here. If you really want something, you can buy it.
Otherwise, the paywall in Unchained is practically nonexistent. One of the only noticeable blemishes is that money can be used to rack up Sabotage consumables, which could result in some lopsided matches. However, it is sharply countered with the sheer amount of content available. Robot has gated a good deal of content because it’s important for players to grasp how the game’s fundamentals work.
At a review event for Unchained, I was given access to a high-level character while everything was briefly unlocked by Robot. I stared at the list of traps, consumables and gear and was immediately baffled by how much there was to look at and understand. Yes, it will take hundreds of hours to legitimately unlock everything in the game. Yes, money will put that process on the fast track. But instant access to everything is the best way to stumble over that embarrassment of riches.
We see games today released in a form that is often feature incomplete. Sizeable day one patches often aren’t enough to fix problems or issues that should have already been ironed out. Despite that, players are still expected to drop $60 to play the game or just wait until this missing pieces are stuck back in.
Orcs Must Die! Unchained has been in beta for for a few years now and it shows. Through that time, Robot Entertainment has constructed a title that, while free-to-play, is wealthy with content. More than anything, though, it’s fun as hell. The gameplay loop has hooked me, and it’s an intense yet casual nature is something I want to share with friends.
Don’t be intimated by the price tag. Unchained is not after your wallet. It’s only after your time and wants you to enjoy it as much as possible.
Orcs Must Die! Unchained was reviewed via a review build at an event hosted by Robot Entertainment.
tags: Orcs Must Die! , Orcs Must Die! Unchained , Orcs Must Die! Unchained review , review , Robot Entertainment