Review: Trenched (Xbox Live Arcade)

Here’s a thing about Trenched: it’s a weird tower defence / customisable mech combat game hybrid developed by Double Fine, with a strong emphasis on online multiplayer, that thanks to fun trademark issues isn’t on sale in most of Europe.

He’s a thing about me: I’m a big fan of tower defence and customisable mech combat games, love most of Double Fine’s output, but don’t have a subscription to Xbox Live Gold, and live in Europe. Hmm.

Obviously, I had to chronicle my relationship with the game.

First things first, the release week was rather underwhelming. Mostly as the game didn’t get released. I was one of the group of European gamers who were confused to discover a distinct lack of Trenched on the Marketplace on the official day of release. It would take several days for Double Fine or Microsoft to provide any sorts of answers as to why we weren’t getting the game, so after a few days (and before anything had been announced) I decided I wasn’t going to wait any longer, made myself a COMPLETELY LEGITIMATE* American Xbox Live account and bought the game using it.

So, all that rigmarole out of the way, I got to playing. Double Fine’s trademark humour is in full effect throughout the game, and the whole “television-based aliens trying to brainwash the world crossed with First World War stylings and giant mechs” schtick is perfectly absurd. Led on by an American general fulfilling the brash cigar-smoking stereotype even as he lies in his iron lung, your aim is to stop the insane genius helping the alien intelligence – the “tubes” – from taking over the world through a liberal application of turrets and direct firepower from your mech – or “trench”.

À gauche: un trench. À droite: un tube. Tout droit: er, some sort of obelisk/pillar thingy, and I think that's a pyramid in the background.

In this combination of shooter and tower defence, it might remind some players of another recent game, albeit for PC – Sanctum. However, where Sanctum strongly divides the shooting and tower construction (with the player only able to place turrets between waves of enemies, with the game waiting for them to activate the next wave), and strongly requires the player be proficient at both tower usage and twitch shooting, Trenched blurs the lines and yet allows the player more freedom in their approach.

The system is simple – the tubes come in repeated waves, with short breathers between each horde. The player can place turrets at any time, and in any place, assuming they have the necessary resources. However, thanks to the customisable trench side of things, they can choose a load out that suits their playing style: from a lumbering, tough trench crammed full of guns and with only a single light combat turret type to place; to a fast, light trench with four different turret types to place, but armed with a peashooter. Er, figuratively speaking. This isn’t Plants Vs Zombies. Indeed, customising your trench for each mission is an important part of the game – different levels mean different sorts of enemies, and having a trench tooled up with the right weapons and/or turrets for the job is crucial to your success.

As I don't have the ability to take screenshots of console games, and didn't want to steal more images for this review, I instead present a photograph of a duck I once saw.

And it’s really good fun! At first. As you play through the early levels, learning the ropes and picking up loot (oh yes, this game also borrows from roguelikes and MMOs in its love of loot – completing a level earns loot. Earning achievements earns loot. Bosses drop loot. Even normal enemies randomly drop loot. The best weapons, interesting chassis and advanced turrets are there for the taking, and you’ll want them, oh yes), you’ll have a whale of a time. Running around the battlefields, trying to be everywhere at once, leaving a trail of destruction and setting up effective defenses – this is a frantic, fun game! Only… it starts to get very frantic. The levels get bigger, and it becomes harder to cover every angle. The enemies get more varied, and you have difficulty tooling up for every eventuality. And it hits you – they weren’t kidding when they marketed this as a co-operative game.

I can only imagine how much fun this must be with two players: each equipped to deal with different threats, each handling different areas of the map. Perhaps you have one player in a heavy trench, loaded out with the biggest guns imaginable and a repair turret, allowing him to stay in the thick of the action and wipe out the tougher enemies. Meanwhile the other is in a fast support trench, running around the field, laying defenses in outlying areas to deal with specialised enemies, like fliers and hordes. Or maybe both equipped as all-rounders, or even both playing as heavies, eschewing turrets for devastating firepower. It’s probably brilliant fun, and I’d really like to play that game.

Unfortunately, being a pleb on a Silver subscription, it isn’t open to me, and the lack of a local multiplayer option means I can’t play co-op on the couch. Which would, you know, be amazing. As it is, the later levels just start to become overwhelming and frustrating, requiring that the player farm the levels for loot, and ranking their character up for access to better equipment. For a certain type of player that might still be enough, but it’s not really for me. I still had ten or so hours of fun out of this game which would certainly make it worth the asking cost – or at least, it would if I hadn’t had to spend more than I would normally in order to purchase a US points card.

If you have a Gold account, this is an amazing game, and I’m wildly jealous of you getting to enjoy it as it should be played. I only wish that there was a splitscreen multiplayer option.

Oh, and that Mr Monteiro would accept that Trenched isn’t somehow impinging on his trademark for the board game Trench, so that people in Europe could buy the game without having to jump through hoops and pay a premium. That would be nice.

Bipedal Tank out of Eight



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July 2011
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