iPhone Roundup: Tower Defence

It’s no secret that the iPhone (and iPod Touch) play host to a plethora of tower defence titles: simple to make and well-suited to touch controls, the genre is perfectly suited to the device and its indie-friendly distribution service. As such, fans of the genre are left with that most pleasant of problems: too much choice. To help prospective buyers pick the right TD game for them, I’ve rounded up five of the most notable tower defence games on the system: 7 Cities, Dungeon Defense, Fieldrunners, geoDefense and Sentinel. Pricing isn’t taken into account here, for the simple fact that all five games fluctuate wildly in price. The patient gamer will likely be able to pick any of them up for a bargain price.
Though all fall within the same genre, they each take noticeably different approaches. Fieldrunners and Sentinel are probably the most traditional, the former being a mazer pure and simple, the latter a typical fixed-route TD game. 7 Cities tries to be something for everyone, geoDefense is a puzzle game which rewards precise placement, and Dungeon Defense manages to be both the simplest and most esoteric of the bunch. So how do they all play?

7 Cities

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7 Cities covers its bases well: at its core is a fixed-route Tower Defense campaign mode, which gradually unlocks new turrets, upgrades and levels. The gradual unlocking system (you earn currency with which you can purchase new upgrades, towers etc.) gives it welcome momentum, while the the game offers plenty of variety – 4 turrets, each with two upgrade trees to choose from, and eight distinct maps.  Indeed, while seven of these maps feature distinct routes and fixed turret placement (the seven cities of the title), the final option (available from the outset) gives the player an open sea to place turrets upon, a welcome inclusion for fans of mazing.

Aside from its slightly unusual – and pretty – setting (fantasy naval warfare), and its breadth, the game stands out by being the only game in the list to feature a kill-based levelling system from the turrets, alongside the more typical paid-for upgrades. The gradual levelling of your more efficient turrets leads to an interesting balancing act, as you strive to keep a healthy mix of powerful turrets across the board, rather than ending up with one or two elite defenders and a rabble of useless ones.

It’s also pleasingly user-friendly: the levels aren’t too long, and the game offers a variety of speeds to play through, making it relatively painless to zip through easy waves. All in all, a worthwhile package.

Dungeon Defense

Dungeon Defense

I already described this as both the simplest and most esoteric game in the list. How so?

It’s simple in its limited options – only three types of defender (each with a single, two-step upgrade path), three maps, and four types of enemy. In the place of breadth, however, it offers polish: this is by far the fanciest-looking game in the roundup (though not, I would argue, the best looking), with high resolution, fully-animated sprites, and attractive background art. It also offers an unusual blend of fixed-path and mazing gameplay, through its use of active turrets.

Though their placement is highly limited, with yellow markers indicating the few valid spaces to put them in, your ‘turrets’ are surprisingly effective at blocking the enemy’s path: rather than the standard fixed emplacements, your defenders are a skeleton horde, who will happily march into combat and hold the enemy in combat until one or the other is defeated. As your skeletons only have limited upgrade potential, and automatically respawn a short period after being, er, unkilled, delaying tactics are a necessity, and planning the placement of your troops to best stagger enemy assaults is crucial to success.

This makes the game a little less immediate than the others – it doesn’t work in quite the same way as most TD games, and so takes a different mindset than most to get through. It’s also, as mentioned, rather slight, and the extremely limited placement options combined with the small selection of defenders lead to a game that’s easy to conquer. However, if you’re after something a little different, it’s worth a look.

Fieldrunners

FieldrunnersAhh, cartoon warfare. Fieldrunners is a by-the-books mazing TD: the player is presented with a large, empty space, upon which they create a maze of turrets to wipe out the oncoming enemy forces before they reach the exit. The gameplay centres around mixing the need for delaying tactics through complex arrangements of turrets, and the need for high-impact turrets, which means spending money on upgrades rather than developing your maze. Throw in the occasional airborne troop, capable of ignoring your convoluted path, and you have Fieldrunners.

The turret selection is similarly traditional – peashooters, splash damagers, slowers, focussed strikers – TD veterans will find no surprises here; ditto the enemies. With only three ‘maps’ (all being large, empty spaces at the start – the only difference are the enemy entry and exit points, and the texture used), it’s not the most varied of games either. What it does offer is a stylish, score-attack game, with longeivity offered by the high difficulty (when put into Hard mode) and unusual heft of the levels: 100 waves to complete each one.

Doing nothing surprising, this is a solid, well-executed game, which knows its audience and sticks to it like glue.

geoDefense

geoDefenseIt looks like Geometry Wars. It sounds like Geometry Wars. Hell, its title alludes to Geometry Wars. It plays… nothing like Geometry Wars.

Stylish, unusual, and fantastically thought-provoking, this is the TD game for fans of puzzles. Each of its 34 (count ’em) levels is designed to offer a unique challenge, while the whizzbang effects keep you enthralled (and occasionally distracted, or at least that’s my excuse!). Its selection of five turrets doesn’t sound so impressive, but between them they manage to offer a huge variety of possibilities, making this a puzzle game with many different solutions.

Much of this is facilitated by the free-placement of turrets: though the enemies follow a fixed path, your turrets can be placed freely – so long as they maintain a certain distance from the path, and from other turrets. This makes pin-point accuracy important, which combined with the frantic nature of the game leads to some truly tense moments. Indeed, tense decision-making is the order of the day here: if other TD games are balancing acts, geoDefense has you juggling knives. The analogue placement, swift build-up of enemies, necessity of upgrading your turrets (which deactivates them for precious seconds), combined with the widely varying abilities of the turrets leads to a hugely stressful – and satisfying – game.

Stylish, satisfying, and rock hard.

Sentinel

Sentinel

Ugly. That’s the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Sentinel – though it’s clearly had a fair bit of polish applied to it, nothing can save it from its own design, and with its pallette of gunmetal greys and rust browns, this isn’t the most pleasing game on the eye. That it does so in the attempt to fit into a gritty sci-fi aesthetic isn’t really enough to distract the player from the fact that this is an ugly universe we’ve been thrust into.

Fortunate, then, that this belongs to a genre which doesn’t prize good looks, where the mechanics matter more than the paintwork. Criticising the game for its colour-scheme is about as worthwhile as criticising it for not being an adaptation of Geoff Crammond’s seminal C64 title The Sentinel. Which it clearly ought to be.

No, what you get is another solid, straightforward TD game in the vein of Fieldrunners, only replacing the mazing with a fixed-path approach. And the attractive cartoon warfare with grungy sci-fi misery. I’m done complaining now, promise.

Fortunately, the game is well put together: offering four distinctive maps, a nice layered arrangement of defense (with several bulwarks to fall back on before the base), interesting resource management options (money can be spent on droids rather than turrets, which will harvest resources and/or repair your defenses) and a variety of turrets, this offers a satisfying game of tower defence. It even has a semblance of a plot!

The enemies, though dull to look at, offer a pleasant challenge: aside from the standard mix of swarmers, fliers, cannon-fodder and tanks, the game features teleporting aliens, who become untargetable for several seconds if struck by a slow-down turret – this enemy single-handedly prevents the traditional chain of slow-turrets that plague many of its ilk, offering a welcome bit of variety to the proceedings.

Just a pity it’s so damned ugly, really!

Sorry.

Conclusion

So, what to make of them? None of these titles are worthless – all of them have something going for them. For straight-up mazing, nothing beats Fieldrunners; Sentinel is a similarly solid take on the fixed-route approach. 7 Cities is a good all-rounder, and Dungeon Defense offers something a little different. But, if I’m honest, the real must-have here has to be geoDefense. Its emphasis on plain old challenge (as opposed to score challenge) marks it as a far more satisfying game than the others, and its wide array of levels guarantee days of enjoyment. It simply makes the others seem workmanlike in comparison.

Which, to reiterate, isn’t saying that the others are worthless – I’m happy to have all of them on my iPhone. But if I had to choose only one to keep, there would be no hesitation in my mind.

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