MOBAs are kind of a big deal now, if you hadn’t noticed. In fact, I think the massive success of Dota 2 as an esport, along with the continued success of League of Legends as the most popular video game ever conceived, players aren’t the only ones cluing into the hot new craze; developers are also looking to siphon some of that popularity. But while some of these forays into gaming’s hot new genre range from lukewarm to downright uninspired, Orcs Must Die! Unchained’s extension into MOBAs feels so natural you’ll find it hard to believe it hasn’t been there the whole time.
Like the first two games, Unchained centers around a group of heroes battling a relentless horde of minions who swarm your castle attempting to take whacks at a rift that the players must protect. Like both earlier games, you stave off the overwhelming odds you’re constantly stacked against by employing the use of a wide variety of traps and abilities that your character has. For the most part, Orcs Must Die has always adhered to a pretty standard formula for tower defense games, instead relying on its third-person camera and direct control of a hero to inject a fresh dose of innovation into the genre.
At Pax Prime, I was herded in with a group of random players to make our bid for survival against the tides of orcs and other beasties. We each chose a character, I choosing to go with the miner Dobbin, and, akin to the first two games, we had some time and an initial influx of gold to spend on laying traps and preparing our fort for assault. I won’t waste too much time intimately exploring this section of the game because, while I’m not terribly familiar with the Orcs Must Die series, much of what I did seemed like it would be very familiar to most people. Waves of enemies arrived, we used our abilities in concert with our carefully laid traps to kill them, we get gold to place better traps and refine our kill zones, we get experience to better our own characters. Rinse and repeat.
But where Orcs Must Die! Unchained really steps into a bold new horizon is with the inclusion of competitive multiplayer which essentially mirrors the single player component of the game for each team. Instead of defending your rift against waves of attacking orcs, you’re now defending against another team’s wave of attacking orcs, working tirelessly to gain an edge so that your orcs push farther into the base than theirs. In that way, Unchained’s MOBA-esque multiplayer feels more at home in the genre than few others, and each of Orcs Must Die’s various aspects tend to slot perfectly in place in these matches.
You’ll still have to work together to make smart use of the variety of traps by combining them together in various patterns to produce devastating effects on the enemy waves. You’ll still manage your character’s various abilities, and choose between a host of specific upgrades to tune them towards various purposes. And, most importantly, you’ll still slaughter a lot of orcs. But Unchained’s new multiplayer mode is seriously such a natural extension of the tower defense gameplay, and it folds so perfectly into what current MOBAs offer, that you’ll wonder why the two took so long to join hands and ride off into the sunset.
But while the marriage of these two elements is a match made in heaven, and there are certainly some wrinkles in the formula that will give players well versed in current MOBAs something to fixate on, I have to wonder if that is enough to give Unchained life beyond its traditional tower defense mode.
With the market for MOBAs already as crowded as it is, and with new contenders for the throne already dying in the gutters, I do have concerns that Unchained doesn’t bring enough to the table to really turn it into the competitive esport that it hopes to become. While I only played a few matches, and only got to try out two heroes, and the game itself is still locked in development, I’m not sure I came away feeling particularly enthused about Unchained. I think, if anything, fans will likely love it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if attempting to appeal to a new crowd by donning the mantle of MOBA ends up without a whole lot to show for it.
While the tower defense aspect certainly lends a fresh perspective to the multiplayer battles, I also didn’t feel all that challenged by what Orcs Must Die wanted from me. On paper, having to build traps and defends against waves while also balancing a sturdy offense by upgrading your own waves of creeps feels like it might add a ton of depth, but as I was playing I just didn’t feel like it distracted from the fact that, most of the time, I was playing a game that felt a little too familiar to the other third-person MOBA, Smite.
That said, these are the fears that likely won’t be worrying someone who isn’t into Orcs Must Die! Unchained as a competitive player, but rather someone looking for a unique twist on a familiar genre. In that regard, Unchained is nothing if not adept. Even being in closed beta, there is a level of polish on everything I saw, and during the hour I spent with the game, I hardly noticed any glitches or foibles with either the way Unchained played or how I interacted with its menus.
Unchained also retains the pitch-perfect tone of the previous games, feeling at once cartoonish and delightfully violent. Though I only managed to play with two of the heroes, Dobbin and Oziel, I greatly enjoyed the diversity between them and their respective approaches to playing. While heroes will certainly fit into the archetypes established by classic MOBAs, the new element of tower defense emphasizes the importance of defense in a way few other MOBAs achieve. Instead of an entire team rotating from offensive to defensive positions in response to enemy movements, Unchained seemed more intent on relegating certain members of the team to defense while others focused almost purely on offense. What this meant was that, while I played as Oziel, a hero who was undoubtedly a pretty heavy hitter, I spent a large portion of my time on the enemy’s side of the field instead of my own.
While I worked tirelessly to push lanes and keep our orcs and monsters upgraded with my gold, my teammates set to work building traps and initiating ambushes for enemy players who dove too far into our base. That distinction between the two roles might really help players by allowing them to focus on being good at one, easily tangible task. Whereas most MOBAs require a vast and varied wealth of knowledge on the game and how to play it, Orcs Must Die! Unchained seems to allow players to find a niche more readily, and, at least at a more basic level of competitive play, allow players to hone that niche rather than constantly worry about the 90 other things that they are forgetting or failing to learn.
Heroes themselves also have their own unique flavors but don’t do anything unheard of in the genre. My first game with Dobbin was spent working on defenses while using my special Mineshaft Shortcut to jump between different areas of the map. Dobbin also had an excellent ability that would slow any monster walking through it, a perfect match with an especially vicious trap.
My second game was with Oziel, a hero who I found much more interesting if only because of how powerful he was, but how much management that power needed. Oziel was, without a doubt, a huge mana-vacuum, and I found I could chew through his mana incredibly quickly if I wasn’t careful. Many of his abilities deal with getting into fights and making smart use of his abilities, but relying on passives like Soul Harvest, which gives him a greater mana pool the more enemies die in his presence, to keep him swinging. Like most of my favorite characters types in MOBAs, Oziel can also drain his health in order to replenish his mana, an ability that always tantalizes me with the risk/reward scenario it undoubtedly presents.
There is a lot to be excited about with Orcs Must Die! Unchained, and any reservations I might have towards it are issues that won’t be made more apparent until months into the game’s full release. With MOBAs becoming a readily more crowded market, jumping in this late can seem a bit foolhardy, especially because Unchained is forsaking its prequels financial models to pursue the ever-popular free to play system. But even with that said, it’s shocking how natural the multiplayer element of Unchained fits. The blend of tower defense mixed with traditional MOBA elements is an intriguing one, and the ability to fight against or alongside other players will certainly give the series a new horizon to explore, I’m just concerned that, despite how much Orcs Must Die is already beloved by its fans, the game will struggle to be the huge success that it obviously strives to be.Related: Beta, Hands On, MOBA, Multiplayer, Orcs Must Die! Unchained, PAX Prime, PAX Prime 2015