PAX Prime 2014 Defense Grid 2 Preview: Yes, the Grid Still Needs Defending

09/10/2014 by Mike Crump | Source: Indie Game Insider
Maybe the name Defense Grid doesn’t strike you immediately as something to get excited about. That’s okay! Defense Grid: The Awakening was a fantastic game – maybe my favorite tower defense game – but it never sold as well as it should. DG1 was a sort of a sleeper hit, slowly selling more and more each year after its release in 2008. It’s been a long road for Hidden Path to get the sequel funded, including a failed Kickstarter in 2012, but the game is finally slated for full release on September 23. Is it worth the wait?
From what I played at PAX Prime, Defense Grid 2 is absolutely everything a sequel should be. After the six year tenure of the first game, Defense Grid 2 is simply the logical next step for the series. It’s deeper than the original. It’s more accessible than the original. It looks, sounds and feels better than the original. It’s got way more multiplayer and level editing than the original, because those weren’t even in the original. And it’s definitely something to get excited about.

As in DG1, the goal is the same – prevent the aliens from retrieving your power cores by dropping turrets down along their path. The aliens take the shortest route on their way to and from the cores, meaning you can (and should) create a longer path by blocking chokepoints with turrets. It was one of the defining successes of the first game, since it left so much room for optimization in a level. A well-organized maze of towers could do a staggering amount of damage, but focus your defenses on building the maze and you might not be spread out enough to cover threats that slip through.

Anyway, Defense Grid 2 keeps that framework, adding in quirks to expand the possibilities. Though the cast of turrets is mostly the same, the command tower has been phased out. It’s been replaced by the boost tower, which allows you to elevate a square into a wall, blocking the path of the aliens but allowing you to build on that square later. Towers built on the boosted square have additional upgrade paths, but the ability to simply block a path without dropping the first turret you can scramble to is extremely refreshing. There’s also a command module outside of the grid itself, which allows you to modify the map in a number of ways, such as by adding tiles.
Another thankful omission from Defense Grid 2 is the removal of flying units, the bane of my existence. In Defense Grid 2 they’ve been replaced by the landing pod, which lands directly on the cores. Enemies which come out will already be on your cores, but shooting the landing pod will cause each enemy to take that amount of damage. There’s a vast new array of other aliens as well, including an enemy which shuts down nearby turrets when it dies.

Though the PAX demo dropped me into the middle, the story picks up where the last content expansion Defense Grid: Containment left off. Featuring voice actors such as Jennifer Hale and Alan Tudyk, there’s a lot of character coming to this game. The pedigree for the writing is apparently top-notch as well; however, we’ll wait to the actual review to comment on it. I just wanted to tell you about it here.
I spent some time chatting with the folks at Hidden Path while I was dropping some mad turrets on alien fools. The main focus in this sequel, I was told, was to “lower the skill floor and raise the skill ceiling.” In other words, Defense Grid 2 is aiming at both the casual and the extremely hardcore, which is great, since you know I’m hardcore as heck. It’s a philosophy that Hidden Path cultivated while working on Counter Strike: Global Offensive, and it very clearly shows here. First time gamers won’t have any problem dropping into the story mode on easy or normal, but the very hardest difficulty, Insane, is supposed to be neigh-untouchable for all but the very best players.
Defense Grid 2 also has a new item system, designed to level out the difficulty for those struggling. Through the campaign players will collect items, granting bonuses or special abilities to turrets. You can still score on the vanilla leaderboards, of course, but playing around with items has the potential to significantly change your playstyle.

According to the developers, DG1 had players that would drop hundreds and hundreds of hours into the game to grind out challenges and campaign leaderboards. For those not content with exploring the campaign, Defense Grid 2 has literally thousands of leaderboards, spread across 21 maps, difficulties, challenge modes and game modifiers. Players of every skill will find a way to measure their score against other players. Just like the original, there’s an absurd amount of replayability here.

Speaking of playing with others, Defense Grid 2 does have multiplayer, though I didn’t get a chance to view it at PAX. Cooperative will be split into two different modes: one in which you share resources and grid positions, and simply try to finish the level; and a more competitive cooperative mode, in which tiles are color-coded to players, and each player tries to out-score the other. Online competitive will drop two players in two identical maps, but as the game progresses, every alien killed by one player will appear on the other player’s map, exactly where it died. Even if it died right next to the power cores. You can imagine the possibilities for strategizing around that game type.
See the tower that's taller than the others? That one's on a boost tower. What a champion!

One more enormous addition to Defense Grid 2 is the level editor, something which was conspicuously absent from the first game. DG Architect will allow players to create and share levels via the Steam Workshop. Some selected levels may even be sold, similar to the revenue sharing system for map and item creators in Team Fortress 2. We’ll see more about how that gets implemented when the game comes out, of course, but the potential is very exciting.

“We want to make Defense Grid 2 the best tower defense game out there.” That’s what I was told when I picked up the controller at PAX, and an hour later I really felt like they meant it. Look, tower defense fans, I’m not going mince words here. If you’ve got an Xbox One, a PS4 or Windows/Mac/Linux, buy this game when it comes out on September 23. It’s also available for preorder via the Steam page.