Friday, September 11, 2009

Defense Grid: The Awakening, or Creativity Within Constraints

Blast those little guys! I know, I know.  You’ve played a tower defense game before.  Maybe you started on Battle.net.  Or spent a few hours with Desktop Tower Defense.  Or you might have even dropped some dough on Locke’s Quest for the DS.  It’s a familiar enough formula, a distant cousin of Rampart that found new life in user-created scenarios for Starcraft and Warcraft III.  The goal is (almost) always the same: stop the incoming dudes from reaching a specific location.

When I told Andrew I was playing Defense Grid, he immediately replied, “You’ve always had more patience for those than games than I have.”  Maybe that’s true.  I enjoy the puzzle elements of the RTS sub-genre, creating paths for my enemies out of the very turrets I’m using to destroy them.  But even I’ll admit it’s often a grind.  It always takes a few levels before all of your options are unlocked, and sometimes the waves just take too long.

Hit the jump to find out if Defense Grid rises above the pitfalls of its genre or bores with wave after wave of sameness.

What You’d Expect

If Defense Grid broke too many conventions, it would cease to be a tower defense game.  Alien invaders traipse along a path toward their goal.  It’s your task to stop them.  You have a variety of towers at your disposal.  Some shoot lasers at individual targets, others billow forth gusts of flame to assail groups.  There’s a Temporal tower, known in other genre iterations as the Freeze tower, which slows them down.  And each one is upgradeable, of course, bumping its rate of fire, range, or strength.

The different enemies fill roles typical of tower defense titles.  You’ve got your speedy low-HP guys, your shielded tanks, your swarmers, your boss aliens.  You’ll need to use different types of towers to exploit their particular weaknesses, which makes planning a necessity.  Heat weapons are ineffective against shielded foes, but their flames do damage over time – useful against speedsters.  It’s all slickly presented and completely intuitive.  Never did I waste time figuring out how a particular aspect of the game worked.

What Sets It Apart

Wisely, Defense Grid makes subtle changes to a handful of tower defense tropes.  Yes, enemies continue on a path toward their objective, but it’s not just a bunch of chickens crossing the road.  They’re trying to collect power cores – little glowing orbs hanging out on your grid’s CPU.  Not only do they have to escape your towers, they have to make it out with cores in tow for you to lose.  Sometimes this means the enemies simply grab the cores and turn around.  On others maps, they pick them up along the way to a second destination.  This makes for some mind-bending encounters later on when you’re expected to build the path yourself.  “How do I maximize exposure to my towers?”  “How do I keep myself from walling them off?”  And when you kill an enemy carrying a core, it takes time for it to float back to its home.  I’ve seen this create a relay of sorts, with aliens taking a core as far as they can, falling, and another picking it up and running.  It’s definitely a new way to challenge players who cut their teeth on older tower defense games.

You can zoom all the way to watch guys get shot up.

Levels alternate between providing the path for the enemies to follow and handing you open fields of tower placements to build your own.  Towers can only be built on predefined tiles. Early on, you’ll often see a dirt path winding around squares of tiles where you can build.  In later levels, you’ll be asked to construct your own maze.  This freedom can be oppressive at times.  I had to restart a few levels because I couldn’t visualize the path I wanted to create.  And you’ll know fairly quickly if you’ve misplaced your towers.  This “Creativity within Constraints” approach creates a more refined, demanding experience than some more open-ended defense games.

Defense Grid also sports some of the highest production values I’ve seen in a tower defense title.  It employs the Gamebryo engine, of Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, Civ IV, and Fallout 3 fame.  There’s some occasional slow down during heavy traffic periods, but it handles smoothly and the explosions are satisfying.  You can zoom in and out in its isometric viewpoint, allowing you to see some of the detailed tower/enemy models or view the battlefield from afar for strategic purposes.  The story, while sparse, is as epic as can be.  You’re activating old defense grids in an attempt to stave off the invasion of your planet (presumably Earth?).  It’s remarkably earnest, told via the English-accented computer that helps you operate the grid.  His voice-acting is solid, even if the writing’s a little ho-hum (his affection for raspberries is a cute attempt at comic relief).  Care went into making this game look as solid as its mechanics feel.

What It’s Like as a Whole

This game can be punishing.  Like, Spike Your Controller punishing, if you aren’t the best strategist.  But most levels can be beaten on the second or third try if you pay attention to the types of enemies in each wave.  There’s also a fairly forgiving checkpoint system.  Every few waves or so, the game saves a checkpoint to which you can rewind should you find yourself in a pickle.  And if the waves are moving a bit slow for you, hit the fast forward button and the game will speed along until you get overwhelmed.  Still, I found myself needing a break after the lengthier final levels.  The grind does get…well, grindey

It took me at least five or six hours to work through the campaign, repeating only a handful of the twenty story maps.  I haven’t even attempted the challenge modes; I’m happy with my current level of Defense Grid competence, thank you.  There’s a lot of bang for your buck here, especially if you’re a tower defense fiend.  If you’re not, I still think it’s worth a shot.  It wears its genre on its sleeve, but the levels are so varied and the new mechanics so fresh, that winds up being more than just a Flash game in a fancy suit.

You can pick up Defense Grid: The Awakening for your Xbox 360 or PC.  It’ll cost you 800 MS Points ($10) or $20 on Steam.  Wait for a price drop or sale weekend if you’re a PC die-hard.