Editor's Choice - 9 / 10

09/04/2009 by Tom Price | Source: Team Xbox

The concept of the “casual” game is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Even hardcore gamers that take pride in their Gamerscore and personal rankings on the Gears of War 2 leaderboards are willing to admit that they also play games on their phones and sometimes fritter away the hours at work playing Flash games on their PCs. No longer is Peggle just for Mom, nor is there any shame in admitting that her high score is better than yours. Okay, maybe there’s some shame in that.

The point is, casual games can be as good, if not as complex, as anything you bought for $60 at Wal-Mart. Simpler, yes, but some might just call that elegant game design. One of the elegant designs that’s caught fire in the casual-game sphere are “tower defense” games. The basic idea is, a line of enemies follows a path to your “treasure” and you must strategically place towers with turrets in them along the way to stop them. It’s like a shooter where you never pull the trigger.

Creating your own pathways can be crucial.

However, up to this point, most tower defense games have been Flash games, with less-than-stellar 2D graphics. Some definitely look good—or at least have some sort of interesting artistic hook—but none of them have really featured a 3D engine on a par with the Xbox 360 and that “other” next-gen system can do. Not anymore. Defense Grid: The Awakening from Hidden Path Entertainment is a graphically slick take on the genre, and it looks completely at home on the Xbox 360.

Defense Grid: The Awakening is more than just a Flash game in a prettier package. It’s one of the best designed tower-defense games I’ve ever played yet, with a whole host of upgradeable towers to choose from, all with unique strengths and weaknesses that are appropriate for the different types of aliens trying to steal your power cores and escape with them. Defense Grid: The Awakening is as well balanced in its design as it is well polished in its look.

You begin each round with a certain amount of money/resources. With that money, you need to buy towers to protect your reservoir of energy from being grabbed by the marching aliens and taken back out the exit. The strategy in the game comes not only from where you place your towers, but what kind of towers you place and when to buy new ones or upgrade your old ones. As the game progresses and the enemies get tougher, you unlock more tower types and the ability to upgrade them. Depending on the tower type, upgrades will buy you more range, better rate of fire or the capacity to deal out more damage. Or all three. Carefully balancing your resources, so that you can improve your “defense grid” in accordance with the increasingly difficult horde, is the name of the game here.

It’s fairly simple in the early going, but as you progress, you’ll encounter more aliens that have to be taken down with a certain kind of tower, as well as ones sporting shields, as well as, of course, boss characters that have a ton of hit points. The maps become increasingly complex, too, starting out with simple routes to your energy cores with spots to place turrets next to them on the way; to larger, more sprawling maps, where the placement of your towers will define the route taken by your enemies.

The slick graphics, along with excellent tower and alien designs, might have been enough to make this game an above-average strategy-game diversion. But the developers really went all out in creating unique challenges for the player, exponentially increasing the amount of replayibility for the already bountiful amount of maps on which to play. You can play the basic story mode, which is fun, if a little slow starting; it takes a lot of levels before you’re using all the towers. There’s also a mode called “story challenge,” which is essentially the same, but with tougher enemies. Other modes put a limit on the number or type of your towers as well. Beating every map in every game type would be quite an accomplishment.

Different towers do different things, like take down shields or slow enemies down.

Defense Grid: The Awakening has some nice little touches, too. With the bumpers, you can fast forward the flow of the onslaught, so you don’t get bored waiting for dudes to creep along. You can also zoom down really close to check out the cool artistic design of the aliens, though I would have liked it if I could have also been able to rotate the camera. There are special weapon attacks later on for that last-ditch desperation move when a boss is about to walk off with your energy core.

All told, Defense Grid: The Awakening is the pinnacle of design for tower-defense games, and not just because of its fancy Gamebryo-powered 3D graphics. It’s challenging and complex without breaking the same simple rules that all tower-defense games follow, even the most unsophisticated ones. Taking a simple yet classic game design, then adding depth and polish to it, is probably the purest way to make a great game. And Defense Grid: The Awakening is a great game.