Revisited: Defense Grid

02/07/2013 by Matt | Source: Tap Repeatedly
There are a few games that I break out semi-regularly. I don’t have a schedule or anything, it’s just that sometimes when I’m in a certain mood, or when the weather is behaving a certain way, or what have you, certain games will call to me. One example is Defense Grid: The Awakening. If you find me playing it, chances are I’m sick or depressed. These states happen pretty often with me so I play a lot of Defense Grid, and for years I've been meaning to come back and write something more about it, something more than what I wrote in the review linked above, because that review just isn't right. It isn't right at all.

Over the years I've published a handful of reviews I later question. In most cases I regret going too easy on a game, but in a couple instances I was too harsh. It’s unsurprising; if you’re remotely interested in keeping your reviews timely, you have to blaze through the game, pound out your words, and file them without ever taking a week to reflect. Certain games need to marinate before your opinion reaches its optimum flavor, and that was certainly the case for me with Defense Grid.

Some of what I said back in 2009 holds true. I said Defense Grid was an excellent example of the tower defense genre, and well worth anyone’s time. I said its production values were exceptional, demonstrating that this wasn't some tawdry money grab. I said the level design was stupendous. I said the one speaking character is worth the price of admission on his own.

But I also said “while it tastes great, it is less filling.” If you’re a friend of mine on Steam you can see that I have played 108 hours of Defense Grid, which rather suggests it’s pretty god damned filling after all. The base game is now bolstered by four expansion packs, and the latest – Containment, released January 23 – includes a level editor and access to community-built missions. Then of course there’s Defense Grid 2, which is still only in the hopeful stages but I think there’s reason to be optimistic about it.

Like a Parade, but with Artillery Fire

Tower defense games are necessarily abstract; they have almost no basis in reality. And historically they were free, browser-based time sinks, not commercial releases. I believe Defense Grid was the first attempt by a professional studio to make a tower defense game that was worth money: with top-shelf 3D graphics, with expertly tuned balance and design, with all the production values one expects from a “real” game. People hadn't seen that before, and wondered if the genre offers enough to make it worth someone’s investment.

The answer is yes, since we've now seen quite a few commercial tower games. Even so, Defense Grid is unique, and its pedigree explains why it is what it is. Hidden Path Entertainment was founded by some stonecore industry veterans, people who go back to the King’s Quest games, to FASA, to the initial development and launch of Xbox Live. I at least tend to connote “small independent studio” with relative newcomers to the business; Hidden Path’s leadership is quite the opposite, with something like a hundred years of professional industry experience between them. The people at Hidden Path know what they’re doing, which explains a lot about why Defense Grid is so good.

You probably know the basics of what tower defense games are and how they work. They’re strategy puzzlers. They tax your resource management, your ability to plan complex geometries, your comprehension of Lean concepts like Flow, and your understanding of long-form conditional causality. They are almost never emergent systems and usually take just seconds to learn. Essentially your job is to expend resources to build a network of towers that attack approaching enemies.

The depth comes in the use of landscape and towers themselves to guide the enemy path, forcing them to take the most roundabout possible route to their objective. The longer they take, the more time your towers have to inflict damage. This, plus managing tower upgrades and new purchases as ever increasing waves of enemies pour in, is pretty much all there is to a tower defense game.

It’s a pretty silly concept, but intensely rewarding. As a great lover of symmetry and elegant systems (something you wouldn't be able to surmise from my kitchen), tower defense games strike the same chord in me that city builders do. You’re not constructing an artillery network, you’re weaving a lattice, a clockwork aegis that properly shepherded is nothing short of sublime in its intricate mechanisms of action and reaction.

There have been splendid tower defense games, from the beguiling sweetness of Defender’s Quest to the sweeping magnificence of Immortal Defense (it is not, actually, a requirement that the word “defense” be in the title). But none of them did it half as well, for my money, as Defense Grid.

Fifty Shades of Fray

Defense Grid: The Awakening manages to take itself seriously without ever letting go of its inner goofball, juggling loony characters and concepts with subtle-but-there undercurrents of tragedy, loss, guilt, and redemption.

When and where we are is unrevealed and irrelevant, but we know that about a thousand years ago, these aliens turned up and started attacking human colonies. Apparently they were hungry for the cores that fueled the colonial power stations – little glowing boxy things that kept the lights on. Nobody ever found out what the aliens’ problem was or why they wanted power cores, but the attack was vicious and something needed to be done. Observing the alien behavior, human commanders responded by creating defense grids: vast, extraordinarily complex artillery fields that capitalized on the enemy’s near-pathological beeline toward the power hubs. Well-designed grids forced the aliens to go much farther out of their way than they’d otherwise have had to, and each grid was composed of nine different tower types serving assorted roles of attack and support. The most advanced defense grids were enormous, sprawling confections of lead-spitting, time-bending, lightning-throwing towers capable of mowing through hundreds of aliens in seconds. It was still hard-fought, though, and while the game doesn't go into it the assumption is that a lot of people died and a lot of property was ruined and eventually the aliens were chased away.

Fast forward a millennium. Humans live in peace and are generally doing okay, though they've long since forgotten how the defense grids work. In fact you kind of get the feeling they've forgotten a lot of stuff, a futuristic society that depends on and takes for granted the artifacts of its past without actually comprehending them. Unfettered by knowledge, they’re a bit holy-crap when the aliens reappear. People remember that the defense grids exist, they just don’t know how to make them defend anything. Your character – who is never named, never seen, and never speaks – is awarded the unenviable task of fighting off the new assault alone, using technology no one understands, that ordinarily requires hundreds of people to operate. Good luck.

Fortunately, you have Fletcher.

He was a general in the first alien war, and when he died his consciousness was uploaded to the computer network. So he’s sort of an AI. He’s also batshit insane (but very benevolently so), and without him you wouldn't stand a chance.

Fletcher is very likable. He’s so crazy, and so good-natured, and also good at his job, and he’s got your back no matter what. He’s got a cheery outlook, but he’s had it tough; lost his son in the first war. You sort of get the sense that even though the humans won, he always regretted that they didn't win faster, or win better, and places those failures at his own feet. People died and he blames himself. Every now and then he’ll reflect morosely on loss, and he’s keenly aware that history is repeating itself. At the outset he often mistakes you for his dead son; later, he’s horrified at one point to realize that a pitched battle is taking place in your character’s home city, that your family is still there.

Thus the strong themes of guilt and redemption in Defense Grid. For better or worse Fletcher feels he didn't do a good enough job last time and he’s desperate to change the score. Your own character is just a cipher, but Hidden Path’s writers tried to make you feel connected to the present just as Fletcher’s connected to the past. What’s really amazing is that the game actually has very little exposition or dialogue – only 135 lines in all of The Awakening. It’s a great study in narrative minimalism, in creating emotion using less. I like stories, so I enjoy sort of putting them together in my head, and the challenge of doing it without much guidance. It makes me feel like they’re partly mine.

You fight off the aliens, of course. I put the game down at that point figuring I was done with it, but obviously I wasn't  Over the years, three worthy Defense Grid expansion packs came and went without adding much to the story. Two of them – Borderlands and Resurgence – were excellent; the third, You Monster, was maybe just okay but can readily be forgiven because it was a tie-in with Valve’s Portal 2 release and not really part of the Defense Grid mythology. Besides, it had GLaDOS, which makes anything worthwhile.

Spoiler! You’re Containing Aliens

Containment, the fourth and final installment, is where we’re going to go now. Unlike the others, Containment has a very specific point and a very explicit narrative, because Hidden Path is very decidedly setting things up for Defense Grid 2.

The beginning of Containment sees you and Fletcher lurking suspiciously near the big laboratory where they've taken the alien portal to study it, and sure enough, your vigilance is not unfounded – the aliens have a way to turn it on from their side, and soon enough they’re pouring through again. Fight them off in Mission One and Fletcher will talk you into following them through their portal, presumably to the alien homeworld where you can put an end to the damned things once and for all.

The ability to call in orbital laser strikes is a keen addition to tower defense, and the agonizing five minutes or so you need to wait before the laser recharges can be torture on harder missions.Imagine your surprise when you don’t come out on the alien homeworld, but on another human colony a few light years from your earlier position. They’re under attack too, so naturally enough you get down to business without giving too much thought to the whys or hows of your getting there.

Containment’s eight-mission span is, for my money, the very best level design we've seen yet in Defense Grid, a special compliment given how good all the missions are. Across the board Defense Grid missions may be hard or not so hard; they my be mind-knotting or relatively straightforward, but they’re always superb. I can’t think of any where there’s only one “right” way to win; in fact there are usually a dozen optimal approaches and fifty or more good ones.

This came into sharp relief for me one time when I was discussing Defense Grid with a friend and learned to my astonishment that he rarely uses Cannon Towers. That’s crazy to me; I’d be lost without Cannon Towers, those massive slow-firing recoilless monsters that pummel aliens from afar. Fully upgraded, I find them beautiful to look at, and hear poetry in the ponderous, sullen bakooomBAKOOOM a Cannon Tower emits, the noise of the discharge rolling in turgid waves across the battlefield. Not use them? I’d marry one if I could.

“They’re too slow and expensive,” he said with a shrug.

You’re too slow and expensive. Your mom is t-


So Containment’s missions are splendid. Exactly what you’d expect from a team that’s had a lot of years working within the parameters of Defense Grid. Here in Containment you see old challenges presented in different ways, and for the first time you really, really benefit from learning and using ALL the available towers, not just your favorites. Historically I’ve almost never employed Laser, Concussion, or Inferno Towers; here they came in handy. I played each mission at least twice, just to experiment with different approaches, and was delighted by the potential for variant play I found. If you get only one Defense Grid expansion, make it Containment.

They Knew All the Words and Said Them in Order

Flush with money from their successful quarter-million dollar Kickstarter campaign, Hidden Path was able to lavish some resources on production values for Containment. Art assets have gotten a face-lift, with old towers sporting new looks, and some of the environments are more dynamic and varied than the urban wastelands so typical in previous installments.

The wonderful Jim Ward returns as the voice of Fletcher. The game wouldn't work without this actor, he’s absolutely glorious as the batty, raspberry-loving computer. Though Containment’s writers have dialed down the loony quite a bit. This time around Fletcher seems not just rational, but, frankly, leadership material… which of course he was a thousand years ago. Your own character remains a voiceless, faceless proxy.

The big misstep Hidden Path took with Containment was the decision to bring in some semi-bankable stars to play the two new speaking roles. They’re awful.

Ming-Na Wen (ER, Mulan) voices Cai, the colony’s artificial intelligence, as an angry, exasperated pedant. It’s surprising how bad she is; usually Hollywood actors in video games just come off as bored and phoning it in, but Wen actually comes off like she can’t act, sort of unexpected from someone who’s got a strong history of voice work. We can blame her mediocre dialogue for some of it, but at the end of the day she’s the one saying the lines no matter how bad they are.

Meanwhile Alan Tudyk (Firefly, Suburgatory) apparently ate a tab of meth the size of a urinal cake before getting into the sound booth. Tudyk’s frantikinetic, mile a minute babble as Commander Simon Ritter is dreadful character interpretation. We’re to believe that this panicky imbecile is in charge of an entire colony? Tigger would've been more comforting.

Containment ends the story pretty effectively – though without ever explaining why the alien portal didn't take you where you thought it would – allowing for the possibility that Hidden Path isn't able to make Defense Grid 2. And ends on a sort of bittersweet note, I might add. To the degree that tower defense games are able to (or should) make you look upon your works and reflect, Defense Grid does it, offering ample closure while still leaving the door open.

Prozac for the Soul

Containment also includes the much-desired level editor, which I experimented with a bit. It’s not the easiest, but far from the hardest, editor I've ever worked with. A handful of community-made levels are already available, with more sure to come. Even with this update, some things that I’d love to see are still missing from the game: a kill counter per tower, for example, both dynamically during a mission and during a post-mission debrief.

With a game like this you always run the risk of introducing too much complexity. Indeed, in my old review of Defense Grid one of the points I tried to make was that it is, ultimately, a pretty simple game… but the implication is that’s somehow wrong. Like a symphony, a game should have precisely as many notes as it needs, no more or less. Defense Grid did introduce a lot of unique stuff: an interest system for resources; the ability to wipe out masses of foes with an orbital laser strike; the agonizing seconds as a tower shuts down and then redeploys following a carelessly-timed upgrade. Could more be added? Assuredly! Custom upgrade paths, XP and perks bought with it, one-use items, additional tower types, you name it. The question is would the game actually benefit from any of those things.

In a way this is what sequels and expansions are for. You take what worked, you improve what didn't  and maybe you add some new stuff to enrich the experience. I’ll be excited for Defense Grid 2 even if they change nothing of the core game for the same reason I've been excited for each and every one of the expansions: no matter what, it means new levels to play. It’s important to balance the squee desire for new shiny things and the realization that ideas aren't always as good in practice as on paper. Ultimately if Hidden Path decides to add, say, roleplaying elements to Defense Grid 2, I’ll be all for it because I trust the company’s experience to do it right. If they decide against major changes, it’ll be because they don’t think it’s the right move.

I once told Jim Garbarini, Hidden Path’s CFO, that Defense Grid had magical powers of healing. I told him this because it’s true. Whenever I get sick I play it and I always get better. He was dubious; “If Defense Grid actually has the power to cure your cold, I suspect we’ll have no problem getting financing for DG2, 3, and even 4.”

In fairness, it may not be Defense Grid that cures my colds. I can only say I play it when I’m sick and my ailments have always gone away.

I also play Defense Grid when I’m depressed. In my worst funks, it’s one of the few games I can actually bring myself to play. Its track record for cheering me up isn't quite as good as its 100% average against the common cold, but it fares better than a lot of alternatives. The reward of doing something right and seeing it play out, the construction of something beautiful that then does its intended job. It’s not just building your machines, it’s admiring them, like the scene in Das Boot when the U-Boat’s chief engineer slides a stethoscope gently against the roaring engine and listens, his face a beatific mask. To someone else it’s a bellowing, coughing, grease-covered monster, an asymmetrical slur against elegance. To him, it’s perfect. He made it, he made it work, and now he will keep it working, so it’s always every bit the lissome synchronicity it is now. He could stand there and listen forever. That’s what a good defense grid feels like, that’s what a good dungeon in Dungeon Keeper feels like, that’s why I still play the game, and always will. It tastes great, and it is very, very filling.