Tower defense titles hold a special little place in my heart – there’s a unique kind of joy that comes from passively slaughtering hundreds of enemies as they mindlessly leap into a series of well placed defensive turrets. Yet, the genre is swiftly becoming stale. For as long as it’s been around, we’ve yet to see much in terms of innovation.
Fortunately, Defense Grid manages to break the mold in a series of subtle, yet impressive ways that help it establish itself in the tower defense world.
The first, and perhaps most notable of these improvements is that of the visuals. Defense Grid is easily one of the best looking tower defense titles to date. The environments are both varied and beautiful, calling on the player to construct towers amidst rocky canyons, within the ruins of cities, atop dilapidated military structures and more. The towers themselves look and feel powerful, and become more complex as they increase in level. The aliens however seem to have a very hodgepodge sort of art direction behind them: none of them belong to a consistent form or style.
An AI companion guides you through the extermination of these mix-matched invaders, often providing details to the acceptably shallow storyline, and also offering tips on new tower and enemy types throughout the campaign: all with a delightful British accent. My only qualm with this mechanic is that some important gameplay tips appear too late in the missions, or are left out altogether.
In addition to visuals and storytelling, Defense Grid makes strides to improve upon the standard tower defense gameplay formula as well. Rather than simply preventing the enemies from reaching the opposite end of the map, players must defend a group of “power cores” which serve as a type of refundable “life” system. Enemies will take the shortest available route to reach the cores, grab as many as they can carry, and then take the shortest path to the exit. Enemies killed while carrying cores will release them, and they will slowly float back to the hub unless grabbed by another nearby enemy. This adds another layer of strategy to the player’s tower placement.
Unfortunately, the aforementioned “shortest path” isn’t always clear. Some maps are extremely large and contain multiple intersecting routes: it can often be difficult to determine exactly which course the enemy will take. This effect is amplified on maps that allow the player to define their own course by blocking lanes. On more than one occasion, I found my enemies taking a route I hadn’t even considered, forcing me to restart.
Fortunately, Defense Grid makes another valuable contribution to the tower defense formula in the way of an autosave feature. A simple press of the Back button will instantly reset to the latest autosave, allowing perfectionists to go back and adjust failing strategies.
Though in my experience with Defense Grid, it didn’t take long to learn what works. Of the ten available tower types, I managed to fast forward through most of the campaign using only three: certainly other players may find their strategies differ from mine, but a bit more balance between the tower types would have been appreciated.
Another issue is in the variety of enemies. Though there are quite a few types to deal with, each with unique strengths and weaknesses, most of them increase in health as the level progresses without any indicator to determine that its actually stronger. The same aliens that were torn to shreds at the beginning of the stage will return later with five to ten times the health they had before. This makes it difficult to determine the strength of an incoming wave until it actually reaches your towers, at which point it’s often too late.
Once the initial campaign is complete, the Borderlands stages become unlocked, offering 4 levels at a notably higher difficulty. In addition, each of the stages contains various modes of play. These include various challenge modes, and a “Grinder” mode in which the enemies just keep coming. These features stack up to offer quite a bit in the way of replay value, and help distract from the lack of multiplayer functionality.
Overall, Defense Grid takes strides to improve upon the existing tower defense formula, and in the end, it’s certainly enough to warrant a purchase. Be warned, however: a notable lack of balance between the available towers can result in a crippling lack of variety depending on your play style.
Reviewer’s note: The XBLA version was tested for this review
Defense Grid is leaps and bounds ahead of the competition on the tower defense genre: the environments are magnificent.
|How does our scoring system work?|
Tower imbalance leads to static strategies. Inability to determine enemy strength prior to their reaching the player's towers makes it difficult to strategize.
The music is atmospheric and appropriate. Weapon sounds tend to become repetitive, but the AI companion helps break up the tedium with interesting quips.
A variety of stages and gameplay modes help make up for the lack of multiplayer support.
Defense Grid breaks the mold enough to awaken dreary tower defense fans, but a few key issues keep it from achieving greatness.