At this point, it's easy to be skeptical when a studio announces a free to play game or anything resembling a MOBA. For PAX East, Robot Entertainment announced that its siege-based tower defense franchise, Orcs Must Die! was going the way of free to play online PvP with Orcs Must Die! Unchained. Yet as a fan of the series, I was curious to see exactly it how would play out. I had the chance to try the game alongside journalists and fans on the show floor. I can't wait to get my hands on it again.
Orcs Must Die! Unchained will have any familiar elements to those who loved the series, with the traps and upgrades, as well as the invading creatures looking for their way into your Rift. But now, instead of just setting up your traps and keeping everything all safely defended, you'll have to go on the offense too. The biggest difference here is the 5v5 PvP, but it works. Players that have played both Orcs Must Die! and MOBAs will probably have the easiest time slipping into the gameplay, but having tried it alongside people who hadn't played the series before, it's not designed to require that knowledge.
The game also mixes in collectible cards for good measure. If you've played the series, these will take several forms, including the tools by which you upgrade your traps and other options for minions. Robot hasn't laid out all the specifics yet, but expect card packs to be one of the things up for sale in the game's shop.
Everyone has to pick a hero to play for the entire match. War Mage and Sorceress are here, as well as new heroes. A handful were playable at PAX and at the machine I chose was Ivy, a ranged support who can lend a hand on either offense or defense, depending how you wish to play her. She's equipped with an AOE heal attached to her and a root to accompany her arrows.
So how about that gameplay? Lanes are divided into offensive and defensive types, and each map is divided symmetrically. The maps are much bigger than anything the Orcs Must Die! series has seen before. On either side is the Rift and each team as a series of gates to upgrade along the way. Every team member must go to a Warcamp gate and choose a minion type card to release once it's open. In order to open it, everyone goes and attacks it. Once open, everyone upgrades it by contributing to a mutual earned points system until the meter is full. Minions based on everyone's card choices will spill out when it's time to spawn. Minion spawns are based on time and on how many of your own camps you've opened, so the better you do, the more NPC support you have as well. Afterward, you'll be able to go back to gates you've previously opened and continuously upgrade the minion types you chose. Starting out with the cheap orc soldiers, I upgraded them to crossbowmen later.
Traps are also key, especially as a support character like Ivy, who is capable but also a little squishier and does well playing it close to home on defense early on. You can attack enemy traps in this game, so that adds another little layer of defense for each team. Enemies who feel daring can also bring abilities and traps into your defense lanes. I had to destroy a couple of traps brought over while also trying to take down the enemies that placed them. A few basic traps were pre-loaded at the demo stations, but these will be flexible too. You still use earned gold in a similar way to put down traps, except it's all active and earned in real time while defending from other players.
Each hero has a weapon and these may be changed through cards or upgraded later. We didn't get to see or try this out, but there are also going to be hero upgrades to choose from in matches. Sounds like there will be some default builds out there, but that the customization from the series (especially following Orcs Must Die! 2's sea of choices) should be along for the ride. How much will be open to players and how much of it will be paid extras is yet to be seen, but expect customization options along the way. The game will be free to play and should be out sometime in the fall, though there early access Founders’ packs available for those that want to jump in sooner.
Ultimately, your goal is to push into offensive lanes and get your minions into the opposite team’s rift. Taking down members of the enemy team is one way to make that easier. All of the preparation on your end with the traps and opening and upgrading camps doesn’t feel like ye olde traditional MOBA style game, and that’s a good thing. Orcs Must Die! Unchained blends genres and coming from the progression from the first game to the second (for which co-op gameplay and the massive amount of traps and character upgrades were highlights), it all comes together well. For those who enjoy the strategic tower defense side of siege gameplay, that is well preserved, especially in the early part of the matches. The game definitely does something different, and to me, that’s why it works.
There’s always the potential for an established series or studio trying to take on a new blend of gameplay to feel disjointed, but Robot has been careful to not just make it feel right, but it’s a blast to play since it preserves most of the elements that make the series such fun to play and adds the competitive experience on top of those things.
Christina Gonzalez / Christina is a freelancer and contributor to MMORPG.com, where she writes the community-focused Social Hub column. You will also find her contributions at RTSGuru. Follow her on Twitter: @c_gonzalez