Long has the Orcs Must Die! community wished for the ability to play the game in a multiplayer mode. The series’ initial release introduced a unique mix of tower defense and third-person combat. Its sequel added two-person co-op, but never full scale player vs. player combat.
That wish has finally been granted, as Robot Entertainment has pulled back the veil at PAX East on Orcs Must Die! Unchained, its new competitive multiplayer platform.
Much like the the original game’s concept of defending against waves of minions that attempt to reach the central portion of your base, Unchained lets you go on the offensive by shoving your own wave of minions into your enemy’s base. Each team has 15 points on the nexus-like device that makes up the heart of your base, with each enemy minion that comes in contact with it reducing the total by one point. Reduce the other team’s base to zero, and victory is yours.
The concept on paper sounds very much like League of Legends, complete with teams of five characters that fill unique roles battling each other on maps with paved paths that resemble the lane structure of the MOBA genre. While definitely taking inspiration from the rise of popularity of the MOBA genre, Unchained plays much more like Team Fortress 2 in its balance of attack, defense and action orientation.
Teams are composed of three primary roles: attack, defense and a flux character that can fulfill both roles depending on the situation. Attackers are very aggressive frontline characters that tend to dive in deep, push waves down paths along the map and attempt to reduce the points of the other team’s base. Defenders generally upgrade minions, set up traps and actively counter enemy pushes. The balance doesn’t feel nearly the same as the way other MOBAs, where the player can idle around towers and farm minions for resources. The absence of this makes Unchained a much more active experience as you run around the map in a game of cat and mouse, constantly performing feint attacks and performing tactical retreats to find a way to push into enemy territory.
I got the privilege to be coached through two 5 vs. 5 sessions of the game by Robot Entertainment’s lead designers Ian Fischer and Jerome Jones. As the game loaded up, I was introduced to the character I would be playing as during my time with the game: Smolder, a fiery sorceress of destruction that fulfilled a defensive position. “Smolder is kind of our fire-based character,” said Ian Fischer. “If she gets killed, she can ‘phoenix’ herself back in [instantly spawning at her spot of death] and has the ability set herself on fire and the people around her on fire and make it burn harder to deal even more damage.”
Using the left and right mouse buttons, I could cast two primary skills, flinging fireballs or producing a flamethrower-like cone of flames to turn enemy foes into ash. With the Q and E keys, I could activate two additional skills: Fire Form and Ignite. Fire Form doused my character in flames and let me set ablaze anyone who touched me, while activating Ignite increases the flame damage in the area around Smolder.
The skills synergize nicely, and they can be rapidly deployed for lethal effectiveness. After settling in a few minutes into the match, I was already taking on enemy heroes and waves of minions by myself, activating Fireform as I charged head first into foes and frequently racking up kills as I amped up my damage with Ignite. It was an exhilarating moment and took its fair share of positioning, skill and strategy to pull off.
“A good thing to do is to learn one hero before moving on to the next,” said Jerome Jones. “They all have a template: Everyone has a primary weapon, a secondary weapon, a passive ability and a Q and E ability, which are your special abilities. So it takes a little while to get to know what a hero is good at.”
This rings especially true with the game’s second level of depth: traps. Gold is earned slowly each match, and whenever you score kills on minions and enemy heroes that can be spent on setting up traps. Tarpits, arrow walls and spiked pads are all back from the first two games in the series and can be set up in exactly the same way. The enemy team might be pushing hard from the left hand side of the map, but you can set up defenses to thin the ranks and counter up the right. It adds a level of strategy that could really make matches interesting and fresh every time you load the game, especially once the community creates new tactics as the game evolves.
Traps are available as cards, that can be earned through leveling up your character by playing the game or through microtransactions in the game’s free-to-play system. Those worried about certain players owning the best traps can find comfort in how Ian Fischer compared it to a trading card game. “The deck building element of our traps is sort of like Magic: The Gathering; you can own all the best cards but it is really about the pilot behind them.”
Orcs Must Die! Unchained is a promising new multiplayer platform. After only two matches I was already in the “one more match” mentality and hardly wanted to walk away from my station at Robot Entertainment’s booth. As the game continues to develop and get tweaked and balanced, the promise of a Twitch competitive community forming around it seems promising, and the developers even hinted at supporting it. For those who really want to get in on the action, you can even get into the game’s Founder program on their website, paying $150 for access — a steep price to keep a manageable test group in such early development.
For more Orcs Must Die! Unchained impressions and PAX East 2014 coverage, keep tuned to Indie Game Insider as we cover the event in Boston this weekend.