Deep Challengine Compelling and Pretty Darn Good Looking

01/06/2009 by James 'modeps' Hunter | Source: Evil Avatar
Despite being around for quite some time (1990's Rampart was probably the first example), there really aren't too many retail titles in the Tower Defense (TD) strategy niche of gaming. Instead, independent developers have released free mods for existing titles and Flash games to fill the void. Recently though PixelJunk Monsters and Ninjatown have stormed the scene and acquired many a rabid fan, making the viability of a retail TD style game plausible. Now, Hidden Path's newest PC offering titled Defense Grid: The Awakening hopes to capitalize on this addictive genre with an excellent out of the gate entry.

The premise is fairly simple in Defense Grid: You're in charge of trying to stop an alien race from completely destroying the last remnants of civilization. Among each of the twenty levels you get a map with entrances and exits, locations where you can build towers, some starting cash, and a stockhold of power cores to protect from being snatched from wave after wave of the alien horde.

At the beginning, you're able to build fairly basic towers along a set path. Done in a very nice learning curve, each level of the game presents new abilities for you to learn and master and different challenges to face. You're not just thrown into the fray and forced to figure out which towers work best in what situation, but instead given time to become versed in the ways of each tower. Additionally, levels can become segmented forcing you to manage two separate paths of attack or give you the ability to shape your enemy's walking route. Protip: The longer it takes the bad guys to get in and out, the better.

You can't just build your towers ad nauseum, you've got to pay for each tower and upgrade so there's a bit of resource management needed. Each destroyed alien unit yields resources for you to continue building more towers and your AI partner-in-crime (an omnipotent voice that talks you through and provides some witty banter as well as helpful tips) can more effectively 'process' resources the more you have, making it prudent to not just spend every penny you have in your pocket as you'll get some free resources for whatever's in your wallet.

When all is said and done, you get ten types of towers to construct, each with three upgrade levels indicated by a color (green, orange, red). They run the gamut from basic gun towers, energy and barrage weapons, and mortar fire. Similarly, there are a variety of enemy unit types each indicated by the same colors to show their strength. When you see red units coming in, watch out, those are effectively the boss units which can take quite a lot of concentrated firepower and keep on going. Seeing reds on your radar approaching can be quite nerve-racking when you realize you can't take on a Red Crasher and have no money to build or upgrade. It's wonderfully maddening.

Getting back to the power cores, about 95% of the time they're held at one point on the map. The bad guys will need to walk or fly past your towers to pick them up, then exit the map. If the units are destroyed while carrying one, the glowing core slowly makes it's way back along the same path it traversed to the holding square. This is particularly annoying because aliens can play bucket brigade with the cores, allowing their friends to pick up a core and make a break for the exit. Taking out your foes prior to them ever touching the cores is of course the best plan, but it rarely works out that way. The waves of enemies often take this brute force relay into account when attacking and expect you to not be completely prepared to save all of your cores. This again puts your brain to the test to try and figure out just what you have to build and upgrade to keep your stash.

Along with just simply beating a level by destroying all baddies while not losing 100% of your cores, the game provides three medals to achieve. The bronze can be obtained by just finishing a level with 1 core remaining, the silver and gold however, with the exception of the first few levels, both need all your cores to be safe and a score to be achieved. I kind of feel that the silver medal should be able to be obtained without having 100% of your cores, maybe 75% instead. This is one very minor quibble I have with the game as doing it the way they did, you've got to be really good just to get the silver and you may be good enough to get the gold as well. More often than not, you'll be getting the bronze the first time through a level.

Another small beef I have with the game is it's soundtrack. The voice-over work by your AI friend is great but the music to go behind everything is generic and repetitive. While it doesn't get in the way or become annoying, it is clearly not anything to write home about.

Defense Grid: The Awakening is deep, challenging, compelling and pretty darn good looking for a 'budget' title. In addition, it also has an addictive chemical reaction with the human brain, making you think about playing even when you're not. With twenty levels, three difficulty modes, leaderboards, and a high level of replayability, I can't help but recommend Defense Grid to any fan of the strategy genre.

Score: 4.5 out of 5

The Good

  • Tons of depth and replayability in a budget package
  • The best looking tower defense game yet
  • Level 3 Meteor Towers
  • The chaos, oh... the chaos.

The Bad

  • Some tower designs are a little too similar looking, making them difficult to distinguish among a sea of activity
  • The music soundtrack is not varied enough and a bit too repetitive

The Ugly

  • Taking on four Crashers without a satellite weapon while Racers are rushing towards the exit holding power cores