Review: With a unique spin on the fantasy genre, can OF ORCS AND MEN rise up against the horde of big name RPGs or does it get trampled underfoot?
Everyone knows the usual, cliché-filled fantasy setting and story that comes with a game like this: the land is being invaded and it is up to your heroes to stop the oncoming army. Of Orcs and Men does it a bit differently, though – it’s the humans who are the invaders this time. The orcs are all but defeated, and in a last ditch attempt to turn things around, you’re put into the shoes of an orc and a goblin tasked with assassinating the evil and corrupt human emperor who started the whole mess.
An interesting premise, then, but unfortunately it’s ruined by an opening half hour that serves little more than an info dump. It even manages that great sin of having you walk down a corridor only to activate another cutscene the very first time you’re given control. Not helping matters is a ropey script made even worse by bad voice acting. Occasionally, it goes up a notch, especially with Styx, the goblin, but for the most part you get the impression the actors have no idea what they’re saying, or in what context.
Then there’s the orc, Arkail, who can’t seem to decide on his personality. At the start of the game he comes across like just another dumb bruiser, but suddenly, after the first level, he takes on the mannerisms more associated with a Klingon. Or at least I think he does, his personality yo-yos like no other. At one point during a mission briefing he sounds reluctant, branding the task petty revenge, but ten minutes later he’s revelling at the chance for some payback.
When you finally get the chance to bash some human skulls, sadly, things don’t get much better. When I first approached Of Orcs and Men I expected a traditional hack and slash action RPG, with the big orc the slow, but powerful type and the goblin the faster, weaker fighter. Then, the first brawl kicked off and I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Of menus and men
The combat leans more towards the tactical elements of Dragon Age: Origins than anything else. You hit a bumper to bring up a radial menu and the action goes into slow motion, giving you the chance to carefully pick your next four moves. Once you’ve decided, hit the bumper again to let the beating commence.
Unfortunately, it takes a while to get your head around this system and the three different menus for each character. An atrocious tutorial doesn’t provide much help, giving you the bare minimum explanation of one menu during a practice fight. The second is hinted at during conversation, but never properly explained.
Persevere anyway and you start to get used to it. Once you hit level ten, it actually starts to make sense, but bad explanations can’t help overcome the fact that all combat moves feel so similar. Except for the obvious light and heavy attacks, all other nuances are gone and you never feel like your attacks are having an impact. Blows don’t feel weighty or as if they’re even hitting anything – you’re just seeing a health bar go down.
Both characters do feel very different, though. Arkail towers high, properly portraying his strength as the heavy hitter. Styx is more skilled with ranged and stealth attacks, the camera hugging the ground to give you a strong impression of his sneakiness. It’s here where Of Orcs and Men’s ideas actually show potential. With the goblin you’re main job is to sneak into a group of enemies and pick off stragglers to slowly shift the odds in your favour. Once you’re happy, or get discovered, the orc steamrolls his way in and starts smashing heads.
When these plans succeed the game actually starts to feel good, briefly. But it still isn’t without its faults either. I’ve murdered a guard surrounded by civilians without any of them batting an eyelid. Then, with the area cleared, the orc comes to join his pal and suddenly the civvies are running for the hills. So murder’s fine, but this guy walking round the corner is a problem?
Of Orcs and Men may be a budget title, and while that usually means lower production values, it doesn’t always mean fun can’t be had. Here, it just seems far too many corners have been cut, with underwhelming combat, perplexing character development and a reluctance to properly explain its mechanics. It’s a game full of interesting ideas, but disappointingly, they haven’t been executed well enough to distract from the issues elsewhere.
Of Orcs and Men, by Focus Home Interactive, Cyanide Studios and Spiders, is out now on Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3 and PC.