I'm standing at a hightop table in a hotel room in San Francisco. Next to me is Ian Fischer, design director on Orcs Must Die: Unchained, the latest title in the hit action tower defence franchise from Robot Entertainment. He's instructing me on the finer points of smacking a bugbear in the head with a shovel.
When I've saved up enough energy, he tells me to hit the V key to go "Unchained," a powerful turbo mode that only comes around a few times every session. Before long I've reduced a whole pack of bugbears to a steaming pile of chunks. They roll around on the floor like cartoonish cuts of bloodless meat. It's what I've come to expect of the brand of humor unique to this franchise.
But I'm not alone this time. My little dwarf miner, a crazed prospector named Dobbin, is cackling like a madman and behind him are four other unique player characters, all of them building traps and barricades before the next wave is on us. We're all having a tremendous amount of fun and, Fischer tells me, I've got fans of the game to thank for it.
"The reason we went from single-player in the original Orcs Must Die! to co-operative in Orcs Must Die! 2," Fischer says, "is because of the player feedback that we got from fans. And then with the co-op, the feedback we got from fans was, 'Well, why don't we have multiplayer?' So we started looking at ways that we could approach making a multiplayer version of our game. A lot of our work has been directed at making that group of people happy."
Unchained enters open beta today, and the free-to-play game features online, cooperative player-vs-environment modes as well as competitive player-vs-player gameplay.
"In the past games you were always on defense," Fischer says. "Someone was coming and kicking down your door and coming through just like you were playing on that survival. The way that we looked at it then was we wanted to give somebody the opportunity to be the ones kicking down the door. In that mode, you’re actually the one leading all those minions."
The game also scales to the number of users that launch into any session, so essentially the game is perfectly playable in single-player as well. The goal, Robot's CEO Patrick Hudson tells me, is to cast the net as widely as possible.
"We start with the Orcs Must Die! audience," he says. "We try to speak to them first. We’ve sold millions of units of the previous two games, all across the world and that’s what we think is the core of our audience.
"And then we hope to kind of broaden the rings out from there, to anybody who likes a multiplayer experience. If you like PvE we've got that. If you like competitive PvP, we appeal to those people as well. And we have a unique gameplay that a lot of other games don’t offer. The blend of action and strategy and bringing your traps in that you don’t see in a lot of other games."
In the mode we're playing there are ten waves of computer-controlled minions. Our goal is to protect a fortress stronghold, a map called The Wall, from assault. Through the first few waves, mostly smaller orcs and some bugbears, the attack has come mainly against the fortress' main gate. But in the next wave the enemy brings a siege tower to bear, spilling out dozens of monsters three floors above us. We have to split our forces, and our resources, to try and defend against an attack on two fronts at the same time.
Melee is just a tiny part of the experience. Hallways in the fortress are long and wide, built to hold a bewildering assortment of traps and barricades three or four abreast. There's pits of sludge to slow the badniks down, spring-loaded pads to launch them into walls of spikes and giant morningstars that swing across carefully created killzones. It is a symphony of destruction fully capable of doing the hard work of turning bugbears into mincemeat on its own with just a little bit of maintenance.
Performing that maintenance are other, unique ranged characters like Gabriella, The Redeemed Sorceress and Stinkeye, Shaman of Oasis. Not all of them are quite so up-close and personal as Dobby, and that Fischer says makes the game a much broader experience than the others in the series.
In fact, to make sure players explore all the various characters have to offer they've incentivized playing them all. An individual account, linked to your email address, will level up faster the more heroes you play. Each hero can be customized, as can your player account which allows for all kinds of synergies and bonuses. Add to that the ability to gather resources and craft upgrades to individual traps and the game is able to scale up for incredibly high-level play.
We're playing a map at level eight, Fischer says. Right now they reach all the way up to level 100. That's where timing and cooperation become so critically important.
"For every player on your team that goes Unchained at the same time," Fischer says, "it increases the damage that everybody gets to do. So timing your combos, and having a good plan for how you’re going to time the usage of Unchained.
"This mode has ten waves, but in the endless mode, which starts off at level 80, you'll be using physics traps to juggle enemies in the air and then hit them. To succeed you have to get combos pretty much every time."
When the game officially launches, which should be soon the team says, there will be a new hero every month. With luck that will be enough to keep fans of the Orcs Must Die! franchise coming back for more. The beta is open now, as is the game's official online store where gold and resources are available for those unable to commit the time to unlocking all of the game's content.