Review: The addictening!
It's been a long time coming but the Xbox Live Arcade finally has its first great tower defense game in Defense Grid: The Awakening (yes, I know the Final Fantasy-themed Crystal Defenders debuted six months earlier but the less said about that, the better).
Tower defense games are maddeningly addictive thanks to their simple yet deep gameplay, and developer Hidden Path's outstanding entry into the genre is no different. You place a variety of weapon towers along a path to take out alien invaders who are attempting to steal your power cores. If they manage to exit the map with all of your cores, you lose ? but if you save at least one core, you win and can do a happy dance while loading up the next level. It sounds deceptively easy but from there, the difficulty builds in a nice smooth progression where the final levels will give your tower defense skills a challenging workout.
Now, you're probably wondering why you should spend money on a tower defense game when there are plenty of good free Flash games on the Internet (like BigPark's Wizard Defense). But trust me, at only $10 (half the price of the PC version) it is money well spent since Hidden Path has crafted what could arguably be called the best game in the genre, that is both friendly to beginners and can challenge the most experienced veterans.
Defense Grid includes several cool features not found in their free Flash competitors, like the very handy fast-forward button that greatly speeds up the action and eliminates the long waits between enemy waves. Even better is the check point system which automatically saves your game at different points during a round. This means you can quit mid-level and resume from the last check point ? no more having to start over from scratch! Best of all, if you make a mistake you can rewind back to any previous check point and revise your strategies. Very nice!
Also, no Flash game looks as gorgeous as this. Defense Grid is rendered in beautiful 3D, with exceptionally fine detail and impressive flame, shadow and explosion effects. The bird's eye view camera can be zoomed in to three levels where you can focus nice and tight on the action and admire the great sci-fi artwork.
The campaign consists of 20 maps, ranging from easy set pathways with a single entry/exit point to the much tougher wide open maps with multiple entries and exits. These latter maps will really test your strategies since you also need to place towers to ?shape? the enemy's path and block alternate routes as you try to funnel them into deadly choke points.
To help you take on the 15 different enemy types (which come in swarms numbering in the dozens) are 10 unique tower models. The cheap rapid-fire Gun is great for weak enemies while the powerful but slow-firing Cannon is best for the hardier baddies. The Missile tower is instant death for flying enemies but is useless against ground troops. The devastating Meteor mortar delivers far-reaching destruction while the Laser and flame-throwing Inferno both cause lingering heat damage long after enemies are out of range. The most useful tower is the Temporal, which emits a wave that slows enemies down to a crawl. Each tower can be upgraded to three levels, which increases their power, range or rate of fire.
Building and upgrading towers costs resources, which are replenished as you kill enemies. The trick is figuring out which tower to build, where to place it to maximize its effectiveness, and whether to make expensive (but powerful) upgrades or build more base-level (and cheaper) towers instead, all while working within your tight resource budget. It's this delicate supply versus demand balancing act that gives the game its surprising depth and intensity. It also requires a lot of strategic thinking in order to earn the best scores, and it's this quest to do better that really sucks away the hours and makes you come back for more.
After completing each map you earn a score and a medal, with the top gold medal awarded for saving every core and earning the most points (which are rewarded for kills, tower value and the amount of unspent resources). I do have a bone to pick about the medal system however, since the difference between gold and silver is only a small number of points. If you lose just a single core you can't win a silver. The game has a nice progression curve so it would have been better if they awarded a silver with a little leeway to the number of cores that can be stolen, rather than the stricter zero-loss threshold they have now. This is especially important for new players who like to see their improving efforts rewarded.
The campaign will take you about eight to ten hours, with some epic battles lasting 30 minutes or more. Once you are finished with the campaign, you can try the XBLA exclusive Borderlands bonus maps and 100 challenge modes (40 more than the PC version), so there is plenty of replayability to fuel your tower defense addiction.
The music and voice acting is top notch but the weapon sounds are a bit wimpy, especially the machinegun. Adding a bit more aural punch would have complemented the beautiful graphics nicely.
The game generally runs smoothly but can get bogged down when the screen is full of enemies. This is usually not noticeable in the campaign but if you play the Grinder challenge mode, which throws hundreds of enemies onscreen at once, things slow to a crawl.
There is no multiplayer but the game has detailed leaderboards for every map and challenge listing your score, number of cores saved and number of towers built. This means you can still have bragging rights with your friends, who may have a slightly higher score but you can boast about doing it with half the number of towers. So there!