Orcs Must Die 3, like all previous Orcs Must Die games, centers on killing orcs and other sundry fantasy creatures. They spill out from entry points and the player has to place traps along their route in order to kill them before they enter the mystical Rift that connects the human world with the rotted one that’s full of orcs. It’s simple tower defense. It is one of the best video games I have ever played.
I have a strange relationship with the Orcs Must Die franchise. I think they are beautiful and exquisite operation machines, the thing of pulse-pounding action that every blockbuster action game wants me to think it is. They reward planning and, at the same time, quick thinking and skill. To me, they induce an absolutely ideal biochemical cocktail. But I also do not linger on them. I play them once, and do some co-op play, and then I am out. I don’t linger, and if I had to dig, I would assume that is because some part of me doesn’t want to run the magic out.
I’ve put about 20 hours into Orcs Must Die 3, and that’s enough time to play through both the base and expansion campaigns and dip into some of the bonus modes like Scramble and Endless. I am still hankering to play more, meaning that I might double my time here before losing interest, and that’s praise. Forty hours of pure enjoyment in a video game is rare for me, especially ones that boast about lengths longer than that to finish the plot or main content.
The real meat-and-potatoes of these games is their traps and how they fit into their levels. As you progress through the game, you have to constantly figure out new ways to impede orcs from getting into your Rift, and the design of specific levels will often throw a wrench into the gears of your tried-and-true strategy. Dependency on ceiling traps, like a swinging mace, will stop working when you’re having to route enemies through the open air. Enemies like gnolls will ignore routing barricades to destroy placed archers, foiling the best laid plans. Heavy enemies like trolls and ogres cannot be flipped off the edge of the map using a spring trap. Each level, and each part of that level’s architecture, puts bounds on how you have to prepare for wave after wave of orcs.
As for other modes, the classic Endless mode makes another appearance here, giving you wave after wave of enemies until they overwhelm your paltry defenses. This mode can be dangerous—my co-op partner and I played one level for nearly three hours, constantly seeing if we could get through yet another wave of ever-more-tough creatures, to the point where our hands were cramping and our pretty powerful gaming PCs were dropping down to 20 frames per second due to how many enemies were on the screen. We did, briefly, become the 4th best players of that level worldwide. It was not worth it.
A new mode, Scramble, is the roguelikeification of Orcs Must Die. Players have a single stockpile of Rift points that they must protect across five levels, and at each step they must choose new buffs (like more damage from their weapons) against debuffs (like making trap costs go up). It is a very good way to spend an hour, and making hard choices about how debuffs is a good way to figure out your own strengths and weaknesses in the game.
This game also adds a new level type to the Orcs Must Die world, called War Scenarios, and I am sorry to report that they are serious misses. The idea here is to give you massive levels with much larger traps that will allow you to deal with an entire army coming at you, but all of these levels are more easily managed using the old and best ways: cramming many enemies into a corridor and doing a lot of damage to them. For the most part, they don’t have any kind of “epic feel,” and instead just feel like really long levels.
Overall, though, the gameplay that Orcs Must Die 3 is something I find extremely fulfilling. I am not really a tower defense person, and I find games about problem solving and execution, like the Zachtronics catalog, to be in an entirely different universe from what I enjoy. But there is something about creating a world of tar that these nearly-AI-less creatures have to pathfind through en masse that really gives me a sense of delight. After all, this game is functionally just about exploiting AI pathfinding, and the extreme ways that you can accomplish this with freezing traps, springloaded barriers, or the dozens of other traps, weapons, and trinkets has a constant novelty to it. “I wonder if we could…” is the beginning of a lot of sentences while playing any Orcs Must Die game.
The “we” here is critical, too, because I played 85 percent of Orcs Must Die 3 in co-op mode. I wanted to do this, of course, and the previous games were always better with a pal, but Orcs Must Die 3 actually makes it feel like a second player is necessary for some levels. I had an extremely difficult time playing some of the mid-game levels solo from a purely numerical point of view. There was less money to go around to cover more ground, and it was stressful and required pinpoint cleanup shooting in a way that co-op simply did not.
Like many people, the pandemic has given me a lot of time to think, and one thing I realized is that many online multiplayer games that are centered on competition just don’t feel like a good use of my time. I cannot see myself ever booting up Warzone ever again, and what I want out of the next few years of games are cooperative games, specifically cooperative games that push on parts of my brain that is not just pointing and clicking on a specific pixel. Orcs Must Die 3 really delivers that, and it’s impossible for this palette cleanse to not impact the way I think about it.
I think some people might say that Orcs Must Die 3 is more of the same, and those people are right. But it is more of the same with a fine level of articulation and polish. It’s a well-oiled machine where every part of it works, ready to operate in perpetual motion seemingly infinitely. More of the same is not a negative here. It’s a blessing.