Review: Defense Grid

Raspberries and laser-death. Not the most likely of bedfellows, perhaps, but a pairing Hidden Path software have seen fit to create. Fortunately, their willingness to experiment didn’t end there. Defense Grid sees fit to marry the ever-popular ‘tower defence’ genre to retail-quality polish, including a full 3D engine and an actual storyline. Less pleasingly, it also defies conventional wisdom with its relatively high price point ($20 rrp).

 

Some laser-death, yesterday

Some laser-death, yesterday

The gameplay itself is nothing particularly new: the player’s main interaction with the game is placing turrets. Different turrets have different strengths: some are good against multiple weak enemies, others against single big targets; some specialise in damaging speedy targets, others at anti-air – and so-on. On top of this, turrets are invulnerable and virtually impenetrable by the enemy, so they can be used to funnel them according to the player’s wish. However, there are some caveats to this usage: firstly, the player is limited in where they can place the turrets (though as the later levels approach, more and more freedom is offered). Secondly, if all possible routes to the enemies’ goals are blocked, then they will force their way through the turrets to get to them. Finally, there is the simple issue of cost: the player only has a small amount of money at the beginning of each level, being expected to earn what they need to build a suitable defence as the level wears on (each dead enemy providing an amount of money reflecting their difficulty to kill): as such, more complex mazes will take time to create. 
The player also has the option of upgrading their turrets, with each turret type (there are ten in all) being affected in different ways. Upgrading, like building, costs money – with most turrets, each upgrade costing more than the last. However, the benefits often outweigh the cost, particularly as space becomes tight. An extra spanner is thrown in the works by the fact that upgrading takes time – the turret has to be disassembled then reassembled, taking it out of commission for a few seconds – seconds which can be crucial as the fighting becomes more intense.
The first thing to jump out at the player of Defense Grid (after the shock of their vastly reduced bank balance, of course), are its visuals. While there are certainly prettier games out there, it’s fair to say that no other tower defence game comes close. Impressively, it manages to maintain hectic levels of violence while never hiding information from the player: mental overload might lead to errors in battle, but never will you find yourself cursing the game for allowing its special effects to obscure the battlefield. 
For those not impressed by simple aesthetic pleasures, the 3D engine offers other benefits. Most towers require line of sight to target enemies and cannot shoot through one another, so terrain and the relative heights of the towers must be taken into account to ensure maximum efficiency. Moreover, the engine allows for level designs far more complex than any of Grid Defence’s competitors, twisting over and under one another in increasingly complicated patterns – so much so that towards the end of the game the average player will find themselves spending several minutes working out the possible routes that the enemy may take before they’ve even considered how to control their options with turrets.
The aliens had to concede that while the view was stunning, the neighbours left something to be desired.

The aliens had to concede that while the view was stunning, the neighbours left something to be desired.

The game offers innovations beyond its technology, however. As eagle-eyed readers may have picked up, enemies have multiple goals in Defense Grid. In most tower defence games, their simple aim is to get A to B, with a set number of enemies allowed to exit the map before the player loses. Defense Grid, by contrast, has the enemies entering the map with the aim of stealing the player’s energy cores from a cache, then exiting the map (sometimes from their entry point, sometimes from another point of the map). If they are killed while carrying a core, then said core is dropped and begins to drift back towards the player’s cache – however, if another enemy come across it before its return, then they will immediately pick up the core and proceed towards the exit. This creates a very different dynamic to the average tower defence game, with the player encouraged to plan for the enemy’s entering of certain hot-zones several times, both on their way to and from the cache. However, over-reliance on this sort of planning can lead to disaster, as the enemy’s ability to pick up dropped cores can lead to something of a relay-race, with dead enemies passing their cores on to nearby, surviving enemies, who then repeat the process: given the right (or should that be wrong?) circumstances, a core can inexorably drift from cache to exit with little for the player to do but gnash their teeth.
The player has to work hard to prevent the enemy ever defeating their defences: either by ploughing through with forces the player is simply not prepared for (a sudden air-assault on an unsuspecting grid can prove disastrous), or through attrition as they gradually claw the cores towards an exit. If this sounds like a stressful, frustrating experience, then that’s because it is. Fortunately, the game is also well designed to minimise needless irritation, with a well-thought-out interface. While each level is fairly long, the game both features the ability to fast-forward at any point (useful if you’ve a defence grid you’re certain is up to scratch against the current wave of enemies, and want to hurry along to the next real challenge), and a clever checkpointing system, allowing the player to instantly jump back to a previous state at the touch of a button (even allowing for multiple steps back, thus avoiding the frustration of the game autosaving at an unwinnable state). 
It also has a secret weapon – literally. Upon reaching a certain point in the game, the player is rewarded with an orbital laser – it can be activated at any time, instantly killing any enemies within a fair radius of the cursor: however, the player gains no money for destroying enemies this way, and the laser takes a very long time to recharge between uses. However, in otherwise impossible situations it can be a godsend. On top of all this, the game benefits from the compelling nature common to all good tower defence games: as the difficulty increases so too does the satisfaction to be had from building a perfect defence grid, preventing the enemy aliens from escaping with a single core despite their best efforts.
The turrets were happy to have some new playmates

The turrets were happy to have some new playmates

Ah yes, the aliens. In all this text, we have yet to touch upon the game’s flavour: not unusually for the genre, Defense Grid favours science fiction for its setting. It is its execution of the setting which defies genre norms. Rather than simply dropping the player in control with no explanation, each level has a clear objective – be it to defend an outpost, or to reclaim power cores from an alien spaceship. On top of this, constant commentary is provided by the stored consciousness of an ancient, raspberry-loving defence grid operator, who acts as tutor and advisor to the player throughout the game. With voice-acting that puts many retail games to shame, this AI is responsible for nearly all the storytelling in the game, with him describing both the current situation and slowly giving away his own (surprisingly moving) backstory, adding a degree of character that is generally absent from this type of game.
This is undeniably a well-polished game. Its twenty levels provide plenty of challenge, its finely-tuned gameplay ensures that each is fantastically good fun to work through, and its plot provides extra incentive to complete even the most taxing of problems. It’s easy to see why Hidden Path felt it worthy of its price tag – for fans of the genre, this is an essential purchas; for those new to the genre: well, there’s always the demo!
Great Fun out of Ten
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