The next level of tower defense
While I can't say it factually, of course, I would like to think that the folks at Robot Entertainment spent countless hours playing numerous tower defense games to the point where they knew almost perfectly what works and what doesn't. I say this because Orcs Must Die! captures everything great about the genre while stripping away the bits that are outdated and cumbersome. Levels are short and varied and enemies never get more hp, run faster, or any of those usual tower defense tropes. In fact there are only a handful of enemy types you encounter across the games 24 levels. The difficulty and strategy required to win is always tied to each individual map design instead of enemy count or strength which is what makes it such a blast to play.
Outside of the basic core concepts Orcs Must Die! is nothing like any other tower defense game out there currently. Most of the "towers" are actually fun environmental traps that may toss an enemy into a specific direction or even simply kill them in one hit. In addition to this after completing a level the game gives you a new trap or item to play with which offers a nice carrot on the stick to keep progressing and experimenting with how you kill enemies.
Of course though, the big selling point of the game is how it mashes third person action on top of the tower defense mechanics, which it does exceptionally well. You start with a simple crossbow and a bladestaff that allow for ranged and melee combat eventually gaining access to elemental abilities each which their own function. What sets this apart from other games that have also tried the concept, though, is your character has an actual health bar and if he gets close to enemies they will go off their predetermined path and attempt to kill you. This mechanic actually adds on another strategic layer as you can simply kite enemies back through traps they have already passed so they take even more damage.
But that is just one of many ways to defeat foes in Orcs Must Die! which is really what makes it a joy to play. Similar to other games of the genre you have a limited number of traps and weapons you can take into any one level but unlike many of those games almost every single item can be useful on any map which allows you to play using what you want. To tie this altogether there is also a scoring system that rates your performance at the end of levels but instead of being for simple bragging rights or achievements like most games the points are actually used a currency to permanently upgrade your weapons and traps. This strikes an amazing balance forcing you to experiment and play better to make your items all the more deadly.
Tying this package together nicely is an art style that has that Warcraft cartoon-fantasy vibe and a soundtrack reminiscent of old-school Super Nintendo games, and while it's never really a focal point of the game or the genre as a whole it's worth noting Orcs Must Die! has an amusing story to go along with its art style. You play as an idiot mage-apprentice whose master slipped on Kobold blood and died leaving you alone to protect humanity from the questionably evil orcs. What makes this memorable is how great the writing is, even after 15 hours with the game hearing an orc scream "Why can't we all get along" as a spike trap impales him still brings a smile to my face.
This combined with a nice balance of action and tower defense has made me go from being sick of the countless tower defense games that seem to come out daily, to actually caring about them again. While there is plenty enough content given the $15 price tag (even more if you plan to play through the stages again on a higher difficulty which dramatically changes how you approach each level) I would love to see more DLC or a sequel come in the future adding in other modes or even some multiplayer. That said those are just future wishes, what comes with the game is just a lot of fun to play with really few downsides.