On paper Of Orcs and Men appears to be a very traditional fantasy role-playing game. It has orcs, goblins, men and wizards. So far it is the same old, same old. However, we were pleasantly surprised with a much more unusual take on the swords and sorcery traditionally associated with the genre. How many games give you the chance to throw a goblin at someone? Not enough.
Developed as a joint project between Cyanide Studios and Spiders, using the latter's specially constructed in-house "Silk" engine, the title is already visually striking. Production on the game began as far back as 2008 with Cyanide creating the concept and Spiders concentrating on the development. Both studios wanted to create a realistic and uncompromising fantasy setting that was suitably different from the plethora of more generic offerings available.
The universe in which Of Orcs and Men takes place is a darker and more mature setting where magic exists but only in very limited quantities. Cyanide were especially keen to avoid a very "Americanised" feeling and were keen to stress their desire to avoid the traditional orc and goblin clichés of crazed, sharp-toothed madmen desperate for violence. Similarly, they wanted to provide a rich and detailed backdrop for the story to take place in.
The narrative takes place in a world where it is safe to say that orcs and humans don't see eye-to-eye. The human emperor has an intense dislike of all Greenskins (that's orcs and goblins to the uninitiated) and waged a bloody and devastating war on their population. Having been defeated, goblins are being hunted down and brutally exterminated en masse and surviving orcs are either tortured to death or forced into slavery. This very dark background led to a markedly different atmosphere from most genre titles.
Of Orcs and Men is a single player game but you take control of two characters: Arkaïl, an immensely strong orc and Styx, a small, sneaky goblin. While the combination of a pair of radically differing individuals is certainly nothing new, it was clear that tactically using the strengths and weaknesses of each was one of the key gameplay areas. At any stage during gameplay it is possible to switch between Arkaïl and Styx, allowing you to approach situations in a number of ways.
Arkaïl is a brutal melee fighter with high health and devastating damage output who is the mainstay in combat. Styx on the other hand specialises in infiltration and assassination and is more useful in acting as a distraction and removing dangerous enemies before the main action begins. Your goblin also has access to ranged attacks in the form of throwing daggers that are great at keeping attention away from Arkaïl.
Our gameplay demonstration began with the two heroes chatting to a fellow orc, which showcased the dialogue system. The conversations were very much traditional RPG fare with a number of options present; however where Of Orcs and Men differed was the ability to choose either of the main characters to answer. Both Arkaïl and Styx would have a variety of different options to choose from, with the former being more aggressive and brutal and the latter having a sneakier angle. It was not possible for us to determine what sort of impact this would have on the game but the developers assured us that how you dealt with certain conversations would have an impact on later quests.
Once the conversation finished, the two Greenskins arrived at the outskirts of a human encampment in the wreckage of an attacked village. Crucified orcs littered the town square and a large group of humans had congregated here. The troops were led by an Inquisitor, a member of a cloaked, mask-wearing puritanical group that were tasked by the emperor to hunt down and kill the remainder of the orcs and goblins. Inquisitors have raised awareness and skills and make it tricky for Styx to effectively sneak up to them to directly attack.
Observing the guards on the outskirts Styx saw a number of weaker threats. Several guards were equipped with spears and pikes, which were particularly dangerous to Arkaïl. These weapons allow the human soldiers to inflict damage while being able to keep the hulking orc at a safe distance. As such, these enemies were a priority for the goblin to eliminate and allow him to get his companion safely into the thick of the action. Leaving Arkaïl safely out of the fight, he made his way stealthily towards the nearest guard, who was out of sight of the rest. The developers also assured us that Arkaïl's AI has been carefully designed to ensure that he won't run into combat while you are busy sneaking around with Styx.
Here one of the goblin's special powers was very useful, giving him a faint invisibility effect to allow him to evade detection. Slipping in behind the guard he quickly dispatched him with a brutal knife slash. Setting himself up again, he made for the nearest spear carrier and as he was assassinating him he was spotted by another guard, blowing his cover. Here the developers seamlessly changed characters and sent Arkaïl dashing to his assistance. However, there was one remaining soldier armed with a pike which would have caused serious damage to the orc.
Pausing the action is another important feature in Of Orcs and Men and immediately brought to mind the similar system from Dragon Age II. During combat it is possible to halt the game and assess the battle to see what options are best available to you tactically. From here you are able to manage attacks and stack up specific actions. Arkaïl and Styx are also able to pull-off a number of co-operative moves, one of which was ideally suited to this scenario. In order to deal with the last serious threat, Arkaïl grabbed his goblin fellow and threw him into directly into the pike-wielding human.
Combat resumed and Styx was able to swiftly deal with the threat, by keeping his distance and whittling his health down with ranged attacks, completely mitigating the effectiveness of the long weapon. Meanwhile, Arkaïl laid-into the rest of the troops hacking and pounding his way into their feeble frames. However, the orc has a serious weakness that needs to be carefully managed. Due to his aggression and violent tendencies alongside his health bar is a "Rage" meter that fills while he is attacking.
Once this gauge has been filled you lose control of Arkaïl and he will indiscriminately attack anything in his path at the expense of any self-preservation. In order to avoid this potentially fatal freak out from occurring, you can place the orc in a defensive stance where the rage builds much slower. However, it is also important for Styx to distract enemies and draw attention away from the monstrous beast before he can do too much damage to himself. Yet, Cyanide emphasised that clever players can bend this berserk spell to their own advantage as he will hit harder and faster. So when only a few enemies are left, triggering rage can be an efficient way of decisively ending a battle.
After this short gameplay demonstration ended we were able to talk to the developers about some of the more complex aspects of the game, in particular levelling, skills and equipment. Armour and weapons can be found during the quests and can be bartered using a special system. Equipment provides specific stat bonuses and benefits and finding a set that will complement your play style will be important, especially on the harder difficulties where each percentage bonus will count.
Levelling has also been an important focus for the development team who wanted Of Orcs and Men to be more of an RPG than an action game. When improving your skills you will be forced to choose between two perks, in a manner that brought to mind the original Deus Ex. These choices are designed to be difficult and challenging and to make players get the most out of playing the two Greenskins in specific ways.
We were also particularly keen to establish what the balance of gameplay would be between Arkaïl and Styx and whether it was possible to play the game entirely as one character while neglecting the other. In a conscious attempt to avoid this mentality, both characters co-operating is essential and at best you can attain a 70-30% split favouring one over another. In addition some levels will give you a single character, for example Styx will have infiltration missions and Arkaïl combat quests.
While co-operative gameplay between the two characters is a focus of the game, it might seem strange that no two-player option exists. Both development teams wanted to ensure that the emphasis on choices and the impact of the story were the key aims and the inclusion of another player would only dilute this experience. We have a lot of respect to both studios to stick to their guns and produce a title where they want to focus on doing specific ideas well. This approach certainly seems to have worked well from the game we were shown.
Of Orcs and Men will provide a minimum of 15 hours of gameplay with plenty of side-quests and other options to extend the lifespan. Cyanide have also ensured that the title has an intuitive difficulty curve with a series of tougher difficulty modes for more experienced and hardcore players. Visually the title was stunning in the PC build we were shown and the levels varied from dark and oppressive forests to beautiful snowy mountaintops.
We were hugely impressed with the ambitions and ideas of the project and it is safe to say that it was one of the best surprises of the show. It had the look and feel of a big-budget release and appeared to be able to stand up proudly alongside the other big names in the world of RPGs. With an interesting new take on the fantasy setting and gratifying co-operative elements, it seems that Of Orcs and Men could well be a subtle success when it launches in October.