If I had to sum up Of Orcs and Men in one word, I would instead use two. Those two words would be “missed opportunity”.
Of Orcs and Men comes to us from Cyanide, the team behind the nice-ideas but didn’t-quite-make-it Game of Thrones RPG, and you might be forgiven for thinking that Orcs and Men is in fact a user-made mod for Game of Thrones. After all, with the same slow-down-time skill and combat system, same engine and almost-identical same art style, there’s little to differentiate it from Cyanide’s previous offering — other, perhaps, than a wheelbarrowful of poor design decisions, niggly bugs, and level design so staggeringly linear that you’ll cry yourself to sleep.
Let me get this out of the way first: I love orcs. Orcs are my favourite race in any fantasy setting (or science fiction setting for that matter, he says, eyeing off 5000 points worth of Warhammer 40,000 greenskins) bar none. And so it’s a pleasure to say that the orcs in Orcs and Men look great. They’re beefy, hulking creatures with tree-trunk arms and thick necks who look really delightfully badass, and since they’re the focus of the story, that’s important. You’ll meet dozens and dozens of different, unique orc NPCs throughout the story, and they all look interesting and varied, and it’s a real testament to what can be done if you stop thinking of them as trash mobs and start thinking of them as a real people.
But that, unfortunately, is pretty much where the visual excellence stops: humans are the trash mobs in this game, copied and pasted to form big groups of enemies through which you must relentlessly wade. There’s a couple of highlights — for example, the Inquisitors look excellent — but it seems like all of the visual budget for the game went into the titular greenskins. The humans are boring cardboard cut-outs, the levels are uninspired messes of dark brown tunnels, sewers and canyons, and even if there was something to appreciate visually, a cramped camera which refuses to zoom out makes it impossible anyway.
Level design is perhaps the biggest item on Orcs and Men’s laundry list of missed opportunities. Each new level finds some excuse to surround you with high walls and impassable terrain, whether it’s wandering through a generic canyon, crawling through a sewer, or traipsing down the main street of a town. Invisible walls are the order of the day: citizens might be cowering, terrified, next to some crates — but you can’t go up and interact with them because the ground-level planks they are standing on count as an invisible wall. Oh, did you find an interesting side passage down a city alleyway? Sorry, it’s blocked by an invisible wall. I wonder if I can drop off these stairs to get behind that fen- nope! Invisible wall.
Exploration is simply not possible, because everything that looks interesting is blocked by an invisible wall. Even in the bits you are allowed to play in, there’s no pots to smash or secret doors to find or puzzles to solve in any of the environments whatsoever: if you’re lucky, you might get the occasional dead end or multiple paths, but there’s never any reason to pick one over the other because all roads lead to Rome, and by “Rome” I mean “yet another fight”.
“Fight” or “don’t fight” are the only words in Orcs and Men’s design dictionary, and while there are some neat moments where picking the right dialogue option can either bypass a fight or reduce (or increase!) the challenge ahead, it seems like there was some sort of company mandate that you had to get into a scrap every five minutes or players would end up being bored out of their skulls. Ironically, the repetitive, constant combat is what really wore me out in the end.
For the most part, combat is one of the better aspects of Orcs and Men, and if you’ve played Game of Thrones at all then you’ll know exactly what it’s like: each of your characters can be issued with up to four moves to perform in order, and you can slow game time down to a crawl when you issue orders. Slow motion movement looks pretty excellent, and watching Styx sink his daggers into an orc’s neck and then backflip off as you queue up his next attack is undeniably rad. But after the twelfth time — let alone the fiftieth — it all just wears a bit thin.
Ostensibly, each character has two skill trees they can use, which you might think means you’d spec one character for, say, tanking, and the other for damage dealing. In reality however you get so many skill points that you end up getting nearly every available skill (and upgrading them), and all the attacks are so interchangeable, that you end up using one or two old, reliable strategies in every battle and never really having to deviate.
Arkail has a ‘rage’ meter that builds up when he takes damage, which, when full, causes him to go berserk — uncontrollable, he will choose his own targets and bash away at them until they (or him) die. This can include Styx, which is pretty funny the first time, but after the tenth time that you try to flee only to get blocked by an invisible wall or can’t go through a seemingly innocuous doorway because the game thinks it’s a ‘different zone’ and you end up muttering an inane line about how you “can’t leave without Arkail” even though Arkail is trying to murder him to death and oh I think I’ve gone cross-eyed.
When Orcs and Men works, it can be cool. Occasionally you’ll get a sweet spot where you can put Styx into ‘stealth mode’ (which is total invisibility, for some reason) and assassinate a guard, then queue up a rampaging Arkail-charge from the other end to draw attention away from the upcoming throat slitting. That feels good. Then sometimes, you’ll kill a handful of lone sentries in succession only to watch as the patrolling guards come back and literally step over the corpses of their friends without concern and disappear into the night. Then it’s stupid.
Orcs and Men also managed to ship with a distressing range of issues that make playing it a constant barrel of surprises, above and beyond the weird “walking over this step counts as a different zone” bug.
The game suggests that you use the Q and E keys to navigate between targets, but this can wind up with you picking targets that you didn’t even know existed yet because they’re hidden behind a wall in the next section of the level.
You could use the mouse to pick targets, but you can’t rotate the camera (at least not any way I can find) so targets hidden behind objects are un-selectable unless you run over near them. My favourite bug is that your characters also have some kind of ridiculous spider sense about upcoming enemies: at several points during the game I idly clicked the mouse by accident only to watch as Arkail took off at top speed, legged it down the street, rounded a corner and began beating up some bandits that I had no idea even existed who were waiting to ambush me five minutes from now.
And once you’re in combat too, you can’t get out of it until all the enemies are dead (even if some of them haven’t gone hostile to you yet, for some reason — they still count as enemies), so there was no way I could turn him back; it was like the game just hijacked control from me because I accidentally clicked the mouse. It’s just flat-out bizarre, and to top it all off, if you don’t like the controls, tough luck. They’re not rebindable.
The whole game is just so frustratingly uninspired, and doubly so when you consider the great things that other games have done with the same setup. The game positively screams to be made into a great co-op experience like Hunted: The Demon’s Forge, or The Lord of the Rings: War in the North, where each character has a specific skillset that compliments the other, where splitting up is a great risk/reward decision, where levels are filled with various traps, puzzles and secrets that require players to work together to uncover, or where your actions have a measurable outcome on the game beyond “how hard the next fight is going to be”.
Perhaps I made things hard for myself by finishing Dishonored just before I jumped into Orcs and Men. Perhaps I’d set the bar a bit too high, expecting a world that was full of complex systems that reacted to my actions. But, dammit, I love orcs. And I wanted, so dearly, for a game where my favourite fantasy race are the main protagonists, to be — at the very least — a solid RPG experience. Instead, it’s a linear, buggy, mess of a game that will appeal only to the very dedicated or the very forgiving.
- Great-looking, unique take on orcs as a race
- Some impressive art direction
- Good to see a storyline that puts the generic trash mob front and center
- More graphics options than many AAA ports
- Missed opportunity to make a fantastic co-op game
- Buggy and unintuitive
- Staggeringly linear level design
- No puzzle solving, exploration or character development to speak of
- Controls cannot be rebound
- Awful voice acting with really forced, “edgy” swearing
- New loot is few and far between, and never very important
Of Orcs and Men is currently selling for $40 on Steam.