Orcs Must Die! has had a surprisingly tumultuous run for a budget downloadable game series. The original from 2011 was a third-person shooter as much as a tower defense game, and a sequel with a bigger story, voice acting, and a successful run of DLC maps followed in 2012. But then Orcs Must Die! Unchained happened, becoming a sore spot among the community as a free-to-play Tecent-funded stab at the MOBA market. It shut down after two years in 2019, but developer Robot Entertainment clearly learned from the experience. It shows in Orcs Must Die! 3 (heretofore Orcs Must Die 3, sans punctuation), which after a year of Stadia exclusivity has finally launched on Steam. Not only is it a welcome return to form, but it serves as a gleaming example of designing for fans without restraining a franchise’s potential.
The original Orcs Must Die allowed you to platform around the levels, harness fully 3D physics against ragdolling orcs, and weave traps across floors, ceilings, and walls to great effect. Skill was as much a matter of dungeoneering as it was harnessing your magical weapons to defeat what foes survive your hilarious traps. With Dreamworks-y silly conversations in-between stages and a treasure trove of unlockable equipment and unique playable characters, the game is instantly charming, quick to pick up, and engaging to keep playing. The sequel would go on to enhance these various exceptional elements, whereas MOBA Unchained would underwhelm series fans by, among other things, throwing in more heroes than traps and deemphasizing enemy variety and physics.
Orcs Must Die 3 thus goes in the perfect opposite direction of Unchained. Though there are six heroes you can choose among, the primary emphasis is on deathtraps mauling a wide gamut of orcs in unique environments. Even greater next-gen levels of physics chaos ensue, and new war scenario missions pit you against tens of thousands of orcs. Co-op remains a series hallmark, but the PvP of Unchained is thankfully absent.
It’s not that Orcs Must Die 3 is superior simply through reversing course, but by how it also finally addresses common gripes and opportunities posed by its more direct predecessor. For instance, dying no longer costs rift integrity, but there’s a chance for greater reward if you never get hit by any enemies. You can reset your trap and weapon loadout so long as the first wave hasn’t started, and you can also sell your partner’s traps to help them free up some spare rift points without lots of backtracking. The quality-of-life improvements lead to a brisker, smoother pace for new players and veterans alike.
This close attention to detail extends to the additions and changes to core elements. New traps like the gravity beam and confusion plant offer more tactical opportunities. The mediocre guardian allies you once used are now actually powerful legions of archers and arcane priestesses in the war scenarios. Where Orcs Must Die 2 emphasized fire traps and frost enemies, Orcs Must Die 3 doubles down on enemies weak to cold and electricity, leading to delightful shifts in the meta-strategies afforded.
It sounds simple on paper, but whole traps like brimstone are massively reprioritized when a map is full of fire fiends charging over your traps as if they were welcome mats. My old habits from 80 or so hours in Orcs Must Die 2 had to be rewritten, pushing me to explore new strategies, as I’m sure Robot Entertainment intended. Several classic enemies have also been fully retooled, such as the quicker but weaker gnoll hunters, and kobold sappers being supplanted by more engaging dynamite archers.
There are a few disappointing absences, but they’re often accounted for — either hidden as an upgrade for a new trap such as the acid function for the wall sprayer, or replaced by a superior variant like the ice thrower ceiling trap. In my roughly 20 hours so far with Orcs Must Die 3, I’m still discovering new ways to maximize the first story campaign’s levels. You’re also nudged to get riskier with your layouts with a Par Time bonus skull that necessitates starting waves ASAP, lest you lose out while overthinking things. It’s most rewarding to play on the knife’s edge like this.
The only real criticism I can levy is that Orcs Must Die 3 is a bit too keen to throw this exact circumstance at new players still coming to grips with its systems. Granted, there’s no explicit rush to complete the campaign quickly, and you can easily grind for skulls to enhance your arsenal across the campaigns (DLC expansion Drastic Steps is included for free with the non-Stadia version), Endless, and roguelike-inspired Scramble. However, when first playing the story campaign, you have to use whatever default gear your chosen hero canonically wields, and many useful traps are barred behind story progression.
The story this time is also far more extensive, centering on a mysterious old enemy seeking vengeance against the warmages Max and Gabriella and their eccentric apprentices Kelsey and Egan from Orcs Must Die 2. It’s not that there are massively more maps, but there’s a great deal more emphasis on merging the gameplay and narrative design. Kelsey and Egan spend hours with many traps unavailable to them, while flashback sequences starring Max and Gabriella’s master Cygnus emphasize older-school methods of combat. Obvious tactical options that you can use upon revisiting levels are kept out of arm’s reach the first time around, leading to a rougher introduction for newcomers. This design counterintuitively encourages you to charge through the main campaign just so you can unlock the loadouts to optimally approach these levels on replay.
Previous entries certainly emphasized unlocking more effective options as progress is made, but never to this extent. In several cases I didn’t feel like I was truly experiencing all Orcs Must Die 3 had to offer until I replayed certain levels hours after first clearing them. Some of this is a genre constraint, as many tower defense games similarly emphasize replaying levels to net better scores and faster times. It’s even incredibly enjoyable to do, especially with all my optimal gear unlocked so that I can experiment more freely. I simply can’t help but wonder if this could’ve been achieved without restricting players so much.
It’s the upside and downside of building a game with diehard fans in mind. I might know how to get the most out of flip traps, barriers, and tar, but a first-time player might not realize you can close routes to redirect the flow of orcs or use environmental hazards with traps and not just your weapons. Every game has a learning curve, but as a huge fan of the series, I really hope more people can properly enjoy this latest entry and get to the good stuff swiftly. When Orcs Must Die 3 is firing on all cylinders, it’s easily the strongest the series has ever been, with plenty of room to grow like its predecessors post-launch.
In the end, Orcs Must Die 3 is the game fans have been waiting for. It has the potential to truly reinvigorate the franchise. If you can be patient with its initial learning curve, it’s an immensely replayable, deeply rewarding experience both alone and with a friend. Everything from the soundtrack to the animations has been polished to a mirror sheen. The build variety is incredible. Even if you’re not typically one for tower defense, Orcs Must Die 3 is a compelling wave-defense game. The only question now is how it will grow following its escape from Stadia exclusivity. With full cutscenes and everything included in the Drastic Steps expansion, it seems the war is far from over — and I wouldn’t have it any other way.