Game: Of Orcs and Men
Developer: Spiders / Cyanide Studios
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Available on: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows PC
Reviewed on: Xbox 360
Developers Cyanide haven’t had a great run in recent years. Their fantasy sports sim Blood Bowl drifted on the thermals of its Games Workshop heritage rather than by dint of its actual gameplay, and this year’s Game of Thrones adaptation failed to capture the hearts and imaginations of even die-hard fans of George R. R. Martin’s seminal franchise.
So why should you take a chance on Of Orcs and Men? What makes it so different from the company’s previous efforts? It still contains pointless elements of quasi-strategic planning; it’s still got a fairly unoriginal fantasy world. Well, yes and yes, but (and this is a big one) it has a confidence to it that Cyanide’s games have arguably been lacking in the past, and a sense of its own identity. It’s not unique, but it’s no copycat either.
STORY: Of Orcs and Men is a story about prejudice, about an evil race of murderous savages who are subjugating, enslaving and exterminating an entire species for the sake of their empire. The twist in this particular tale is that the nefarious race of genocidal conquerors are humans, and the plucky underdogs fighting for their survival are the Greenskins, the Orcs and Goblins of the south. The premise is impressively fresh, even if the setting is not; the world is largely recycled fantasy vistas like sun-dappled forest paths, wood-built towns and torch-lit catacombs.
You begin the game as Arkail, a hulking Orc warrior with a long sword and a short fuse. Despite a very bad temper, Arkail is one of the best warriors in the Bloodjaws, a dwindling group of elite Orc soldiers in the resistance against humanity, and is tasked early on with assassinating the human Emperor, a quest that will require crossing The Wall (a massive edifice designed to keep the Greenskins caged in the south) and liberating a human Mage called Arkence who can lead Arkail to the heart of the Empire, the Island of Laments. And he’s got to do it all before the Emperor calls a summit on the island that will see the Elves and Dwarves unite against the Orcs and wipe them out.
Aided by various parties both Orc and human, Arkail’s greatest ally – and occasional worst enemy – is Goblin Styx, a sneaky little thief and assassin unique among his own people for his intelligence and ability to speak. Acting as Arkail’s guide, Styx is barely trustworthy but handy in a scrap, and often the voice of reason to Arkail’s lethal temper. Thanks to competent scripting, Styx is likeable and comical, delivering his sweary lines in a rich Bronx accent. The story has its share of twists, mostly stemming from Arkail’s troubled past and Styx’s backstabbing, and occasional branching pathways lead to different events and missions.
There is sometimes a strange sense that the story is happening around you regardless of your actions. An early example is when Arkail and Styx first team up and literally minutes of gameplay later, there are wanted posters up for both of them. It has a disjointing effect, yet despite small hiccups like this, Of Orcs and Men is Cyanide’s best effort yet in terms of plot and storytelling.
GRAPHICS: Co-developers Spiders have created the Silk Engine based on Sony’s PhyreEngine (used for Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls), and as a result the aesthetics are fairly pretty. Detailed environments and a good use of lighting are the main positives, even if the atmosphere sometimes falls flat due to an abundance of empty, superfluous space.
While their animations are adequate, characters are stuck in a loop of movement during dialogue that becomes almost hypnotic and ruins any sense of immersion when you find you’ve stopped listening to the conversation and are just waiting for Styx to point at the ground or Arkail to punch his palm again. Also, the voice syncing is woefully poor, actually becoming distracting if you watch a character’s face during a chat. That said, the character concepts are great, particularly where the two leads are concerned. Visual bugs are regular, although there’s nothing game-breaking.
SOUND: Dialogue is delivered in a hodge-podge of regional dialects from Dorset to Detroit with no real concern for realism or context, but the delivery is surprisingly good on all counts.
There’s little to be said for incidental music and sound effects in this kind of adventure, as the sound direction is almost by the numbers, but there are occasional moments of brilliance in the soundtrack and Styx’s dialogue is always chuckleworthy.
GAMEPLAY: Quite unexpectedly, Of Orcs and Men is a commendably fat-free game. You follow a linear path through forests, underground slave camps and mountainous crags, but while there’s no real mission structure it’s not open-world. As you move from hub to hub (where you can trade for new gear or learn backstory from NPCs) you’ll often be taken directly to quest areas and brought back again when you’re done; the same goes for the optional sidequests.
Perhaps unexpectedly, where Of Orcs and Men threatens to come apart is in its combat. Where it could have easily gone down the same route as the actually-not-that-bad Hunted: The Demon’s Forge, and cashed in the brutal hack ‘n’ slashery for which its two protagonists seem destined, it suffers because of Cyanide’s unwillingness to move too far away from their turn-based comfort zone. As a result, you’ve less control than you want or need, and Arkail’s brutal brawn and Styx’s lethal finesse are all but wasted.
Levelling up unlocks skill and attribute points, as is standard. The latter improve health, chance to dodge, critical damage, etc, while the former add special actions to each character’s trio of skill wheels. There are abilities to cater for most situations, and the balance between the two Greenskins is well considered. Arkail’s first wheel (opened with LB on Xbox 360) is Aggressive, filled with power attacks, charges and threat-raising tricks, while the Defensive wheel (RB) has skills to lower his Rage (which if unchecked will see him go berserk and kill everything in sight, Styx included) and bolster his damage mitigation. Styx replaces Aggressive with Melee (poisons and stab attacks) and Defensive with Ranged (throwing knives and threat mitigation). They share the central wheel, though Arkail can heal from it by calling on Styx to hurl him a potion and Styx can activate his stealth mode. Attacks are stackable, so what could have been fairly immersive, real-time button-mashing becomes a pause-pause-watch slog throughout which you just want to hammer buttons and make Arkail go smash-crazy.
Outside direct combat, Styx’s stealth mode is a godsend. You are almost always outnumbered, so it’s essential to first switch to Styx to silently take out as many enemies as possible before it kicks off. It’s not always easy since the AI is pretty stupid. If an enemy sees you, he will without fail run directly at you while bellowing for others to do the same, who will then do the same, without question. Occasionally the buddy AI freezes completely, and whichever Greenskin you’re not using will stand still amidst swarming guardsmen until either they get hit or you take control. These days, that’s just not great. Likewise the enemy patrol routines seem to have no sense of purpose; they remain constant, but either have strange stop and start points that display little logic or take the form of never-ending loops. It’s actually comical when you leave a litter of stealthily-murdered corpses all over the ground and the patrolling guards literally walk over them without so much as a downwards glance.
The lack of multiplayer struck me as an omission, if I’m honest. As with the aforementioned Hunted, working together with another player in real-time dust-ups would have worked wonders.
LONGEVITY: Aside from Of Orcs and Men’s main 10 to 12 hour quest there isn’t an awful lot to keep you interested. There are no collectibles to return for, no arena mode (despite a mini arena segment in the narrative), and no real reason to go back again.
VERDICT: It’s difficult to score Of Orcs and Men, because the ambition is there and is something that should be applauded, but the execution lets down both Cyanide and Spiders. Unfortunately, a decent story, passable aesthetics and a handful of cool ideas are muddied by some of the laziest AI of this generation, uncomfortable, unnecessary “tactical” combat and horrific lip-syncing.
Of Orcs and Men is by no means terrible, and in fact might possibly be Cyanide’s best game to date, but whether or not that’s a compliment really depends on your standpoint.