Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Defense Grid: The Awakening Review

Defense Grid: The Awakening, developed and published by Hidden Path Entertainment.
The Good: Varied upgradeable weapons, well developed countering system, diverse layouts, impressive graphics for the price, challenge modes introduce some replay value
The Not So Good: No direct influence on targeting, levels last a bit too long, lacks direct competitive online modes, no level editor for additional content
What say you? A very solid tower defense game: 6/8

A very niche (but fairly popular) sub-genre in the world of strategy games is the tower defense game. I’ve reviewed my fair share of them…well, actually, I haven’t: just one, and it was good. So, in order to fill my every-year-and-a-half quota of tower defense games, we get a review of Defense Grid: The Awakening. It works just like any other typical tower defense game: build towers in order to defend. It’s in the title, people!

Clearly one of the highlights of Defense Grid: The Awakening is the graphics. Everything in the game looks outstanding with a great attention to detail. Each of the environments is finely crafted, with emphasis even on background areas that never impact the game. Locations are unique but still maintain a consistent futuristic feel. The character models are well designed, and along with imaginative weapons and satisfying effects, Defense Grid: The Awakening provides a complete graphical package for a budget game. This is far above and beyond what you would typically see in some Flash game or mod: the graphics are quality stuff in the tower defense genre. The sound design doesn’t fall far behind, with agreeable effects and moody music that fits the foreboding theme of alien invasion. The voice actor (your computer friend) is also not annoying: a definite plus. People accustomed to Internet-based tower defense games will definitely appreciate the amount of work invested in the graphics of Defense Grid: The Awakening

Your objective in Defense Grid: The Awakening is to construct a grid of defenses in order to prevent the awakening. More specifically, you need to stop aliens from stealing power cores by shooting them dead with towers you place around each level. There are only twenty levels to choose from, but each one takes a while to beat and there are challenge modes available once you complete a level. These challenge modes add in tougher aliens, fixed resources, tower limits, or a single core to defend; they do a nice job in making the core game more difficult for experienced players while introducing diverse conditions to mix up the action. The layouts are varied, especially when multiple paths are introduced and flying aliens make an appearance. Putting the aliens on elevated platforms makes the tower defense mechanic more plausible, rather than the usually arbitrary restrictions your enemies follow. Defense Grid: The Awakening lacks a level editor to increase the content of the game; while I think being able to create full 3-D levels is beyond the scope of possibility, altering paths and tower placement locations could be supported by the game. There isn’t any online competitive play in Defense Grid: The Awakening, but there is an online scoring system and achievements you can earn, so there is at least something you can compare your skills against.

Since this is a tower defense game, you will be placing towers in fixed locations in order to repel the incoming alien attack. You use resources collected from killing aliens to fund additional towers and upgrades to existing ones. Resources also regenerate slowly over time, and you will get more resources if you save them in your bank. There are ten tower types in the game that vary according to weapon type (bullet, fire, missile, electricity, lasers) and range; upgrading towers (which is expensive) will result in improved damage or range (or both). You are limited to placing towers on fixed points around the map; you can kind of tell that the interface is designed for a console controller, as the mouse “snaps” directly to menu items, which is fine as it makes selecting things easier. There is time acceleration (by pressing “F,” for some reason), but the game still involves a lot of waiting around for things to die, since the only interaction you have early on is placing and upgrading turrets. There is no directed targeting for the towers, but you can eventually use an orbital laser to eliminate more troublesome units. The orbital laser is a one-shot deal (although very effective) and it doesn't provide additional resources, so it’s really only a viable option during the last wave if a pesky alien is too close to the exit. You also have radar that graphically displays the next wave of attackers so that you can exchange towers for more effective structures for those particular aliens.

Speaking of particular aliens, there are sixteen types that will make their way towards your defenses. There is a good variety in the enemies, from fast to shielded to flying to boss aliens, each of which are susceptible to a specific turret. While the first couple of levels are very standard fare for the genre, giving you a few turret positions along a very linear path, things get a lot more interesting later on. You are given the freedom to place turrets in a giant open area and you can guide the aliens on a path you can customize according to the locations you have chosen. This ability to create custom levels in a sense greatly increases the replay value of Defense Grid: The Awakening.

Defense Grid: The Awakening forces you to make decisions regarding construction and placement of turrets. You must balance building new towers with upgrading old ones, and use key locations effectively. You never seem to have enough funds to create your perfect layout, and since all of this planning is going on while you are being invaded, the game can get hectic. The pace is still leisurely, as I used time acceleration more often than not, but the last couple of waves usually induce some close calls. Dropped spheres slowly move back to the base, making it possible for them to be relayed by the aliens. The difficulty seems to be well adjusted, gradually introducing more powerful aliens and more capable towers. You are limited in your interactions with the game (place towers and the occasional orbital laser), but that is the nature of the genre for the most part.

Because of all the free tower defense games available on the grand expanse of the Internet, it might be difficult to justify paying for a game that is fundamentally the same, but Defense Grid: The Awakening does a good job validating an investment. The first key feature, something I usually do not put much emphasis on, is the outstanding graphics of the game: the environments, textures, aliens, and even the towers are all very well done and fine to look at. The game has online scoring and achievements to compensate for the lack of real-time competitive battles, and the additional challenge modes and flexible layouts of later levels increase replay value. The game is very methodical and each level seems to last just a bit too long; copious use of the time acceleration key is suggested. The combination of the sheer variety of towers and flexible placement of these towers makes Defense Grid: The Awakening interesting. I would like to have more direct control of targeting specific aliens (especially bosses carry a lot of spheres) because you’re mostly just sitting there once your network has been set up. Defense Grid: The Awakening comes with a nice variety of aliens and towers with which to deal with them, which also increases the replay value of the game. Defense Grid: The Awakening won’t appeal to many people who don’t like the genre to begin with, but it is a complete title that should appeal to fans of tower defense games.