Sunday, April 11, 2010

Colony Defense Review

Colony Defense, developed and published by Mana Bomb Games Studio on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Challenging, action packed with almost constant building, enemy resistance prevents over-building a particular turret
The Not So Good: Planetary setting adds nothing since enemies are path restricted, terrible control scheme, slow linear unlocks, few weapons, insignificant upgrades
What say you? A very traditional tower defense game with wasted potential that adds nothing to the genre: 3/8

As Al Gore continues to warm the Earth in order to sell more books, it is imperative that we reach out to other planets in our Solar System, so that we may pollute them into submission. I suggest colonizing Uranus (never gets old). Of course, we must defend these newly founded colonies against alien attack, and such is the premise of Colony Defense, an entry in the increasingly popular tower defense genre. We've seen games that range from very good to pretty good, successfully avoiding poor entries in the pantheon of tower defense games. Does our streak continue?

The presentation of Colony Defense is pretty much what you would expect for an independent game: adequate. The game reminds me of Light of Altair, taking place on a series of planets, but Colony Defense is worse off. The planetary textures are OK, although the planets are usually monochromatic and indistinct. Of course, you can’t make a sphere terribly varied, so some leeway should be granted here. The enemies have some nice models and you quickly learn the capabilities of each combatant based on appearance. The backgrounds are typical space stuff, and the paths the enemies follow are discrete yet subtle, blending well into the topography of the planet. Of course, having them move through actual canyons or valleys would make more sense, both visually and realistically. The sound design is acceptable, thanks to background music that I almost found entertaining. The sound effects are pretty basic: lasers and explosions that sound appropriate enough. What you get is what you expect in Colony Defense.

Colony Defense roots itself in a traditional tower defense game: there’s aliens afoot, and it’s up to you so construct static defenses and stop their unending quench for destruction. The game comes with thirty-four planets that offer different paths the enemies take; all of them take place on a spherical planet, so one planet looks almost the same as another. The paths almost always converge, granting you a choke point designed for maximum death. There are usually multiple spawn points and multiple bases to defend. There is a set amount of enemies that must be destroyed before the level ends, and you are usually allowed ten aliens enter your base before epically failing. The thirty-four levels, despite being displayed on an ever-expanding triangle, unlock in a strictly linear order, as do the weapons: disappointing. The weapons unlock slowly, partially due to the fact that there are only ten. Every level should feel different, or else why have it? Plants vs. Zombies was very good as adding something new each level, but Colony Defense suffers from an excessive amount of monotony. Good performance is rewarded with talent points, which can be spent on insignificant upgrades to tower cost, damage, and firing rate. Really, am I going to notice a 2% increase in credit income?

Significantly distressing is the absolutely horrible control scheme employed by Colony Defense. Clearly designed for a console controller (which is always an indicator of failure), you can use the mouse but not to place objects on the screen: the target reticule is always at the center, and you must scroll to place instead of using the mouse. I cannot express how limited and truly annoying this design choice is. The problem is only exacerbated by the fact that the spherical maps must be scrolled constantly: your hands will be tied to WASD to navigate around (you can’t move the mouse to the edge of the screen to scroll, of course). You get used to it after a while, but I still want to use the mouse to place towers anywhere in view, not have to scroll around. Yes, “designed for a gamepad” is simply a euphemism for “crappy.”

Probably the most disappointing aspect of Colony Defense is the use (or lack thereof) of the planetary setting. Enemies are still confined to paths: although there are multiple paths on each map, you can still predict with certainty where aliens will appear. Why, then, does the game take place on a planet? Even flying units are confined to the paths (which makes no sense); at least the developers could have placed the units in canyons or something to at least justify the restriction. There is simply no difference between playing Colony Defense and a traditional tower defense game on a 2-D map, except this game requires a lot more scrolling (with the keyboard, of course). The turrets you place come in several flavors: lasers for medium ranged attack, flame throwers for short ranged attack, artillery for slow but powerful attack, and air to air weapons. The six basic weapons can be accentuated with boost towers that can slow the enemies down or improve range, speed, and damage of nearby turrets. And that’s it: you’ll run through the gamut of options pretty quickly, and Colony Defense becomes a matter of slowing down units and placing turrets at choke points. You can’t overlap turrets and each has an area of effect that is clearly shown while placing a turret, which is helpful. Cash is earned by destroying enemies, which can be used to purchase turrets and upgrades. If you place too many of a certain type of turret, enemies become resistant to them, requiring you to place other turrets or upgrade existing ones, which improves range and firepower. Once you place your turrets, it’s just a matter of waiting for things to die. You can use an orbital cannon (firing on the target reticule that’s always fixed to the center of the screen) to eliminate pesky units, but it’s slow and underpowered enough to make it meaningless. Humorously, units disappear before the cannon shot hits them, which initially confused me. Levels can be complex enough where you need to constantly move, so there isn't a lot of waiting, and each level is short enough to keep the action flowing. Still, Colony Defense doesn’t offer anything above and beyond any other tower defense game, so there’s real no reason to play it.

Simply put, Colony Defense should have used the planet setting to better effect. What we get is a very standard tower defense game that takes place on spherical maps that require you to constantly move the camera. Enemies are still confined to paths (even flying ones!) so their movements and behaviors become quite predictable. The game is challenging, though, and you are busy constructing new turrets most of the time. You are given six weapon turrets, but really they are repeats of two themes: slow and powerful or fast and weak. Four support turrets are also granted to slow down the enemies or provide small bonuses, but your strategic options feel very limited. The maps are quite repetitive and never distinctive, offering slightly different paths that cross, providing easy choke points to defend. Like most tower defense games, Colony Defense becomes a matter of simply placing and upgrading structures. Doing this is more frustrating than it should be, since the controls are absolutely horrible. Why support a mouse if you can’t use it to place objects? Restricting interaction to a static reticule constantly positioned at the center of the screen is archaic and cumbersome. Because of the proliferation of tower defense games on the PC, a new title should provide a unique experience (like Creeper World) or a highly polished one (like Defense Grid), but Colony Defense does neither and fails to capitalize on its unique setting by relying on traditional linear enemy paths.