Thursday, May 20, 2010

Sol Survivor Review

Sol Survivor, developed and published by Cadenza Interactive.
The Good: Cooperative and competitive multiplayer, diverse officers encourage different strategies, range of turrets, varied mouse-driven support weapons, assorted alien behaviors, $10
The Not So Good: Sluggish pace can't be adjusted, restricted enemy paths
What say you? A tower defense game distinguished by multiplayer: 6/8

If tower defense games have taught us anything, it’s that the incoming alien hordes will be nice enough to walk in a straight line down predictable, obvious paths towards their objective. They are so accommodating! All we need to do as guardians is to place some turrets and let our bullets do the talking. We’ve fended off water and zombies and whatever generic aliens were in Defense Grid, so now it’s time for even more generic aliens in Sol Survivor, a great “punny” title for the latest tower defense game to march across our computer screens. What, if anything, sets this game apart from the unrelenting crowd of tower defense titles?

Sol Survivor looks pretty good. There are some nice weapon effects (especially fire) and the alien models are varied. The game also features some nice level designs with buildings and terrain surrounding your territory. The textures are detailed, making for a decent-looking game even when zoomed in to see the carnage up close. While the aliens do confine their movements to specific paths, at least the maps show those paths as roads or canyons so it makes a little contextual sense (although they should have just landed right next to the colonist houses, right?). Sol Survivor also has appropriate sound effects and music to fit the mood of the game. I was pleased with both the graphics and the sound of Sol Survivor, especially for the $10 price tag.

Sol Survivor features four single-player campaigns of five missions each where you must stop the aliens from eating the brains of your citizens (or something like that, I never paid attention to the background story). In addition to these maps, you can enter survival mode and attempt to hold out as long as possible. Most important, however, is the inclusion of multiplayer. Sol Survivor has an in-game browser where you can join (or host) Internet games of several varieties. You can play cooperatively with others, either on a single mission or across an entire campaign, where each person can place turrets and use support powers. Or you can divide up the responsibilities and have one person place turrets and the other control the orbital weaponry. If you don’t work well with others, you can enjoy versus mode where you are competing to see who can last the longest. Sol Survivor also offers a “war” mode where you spend resources on turrets and (hopefully) coordinated alien attacks directed towards the enemy bases. All of the modes are entertaining and inject uniqueness into the genre that single-player only games can't match. Thankfully, all of the weapons and items are available to everyone in multiplayer (it’s sad that I have to mention that). These are all very nice additions for a tower defense game, and it’s what makes Sol Survivor a distinct product.

Like any good turret defense game, Sol Survivor features a number (and that number is “26”) of turrets for you to place around the landscape. These can induce heat, concussive, piercing, or electrical damage, in addition to providing buffs to surrounding turrets. The turrets also have varied ranges, so they key is in placing them at the correct locations to maximize their impact on the incoming enemy units. Luckily, the firing ranges for specific weapons are clearly displayed (along with the highlighted enemy path) while placing them, resulting in more efficient designs. Turrets can be upgraded (once you have progressed far enough in the campaign) and cost mass that is earned by killing enemies (it’s a vicious cycle). While your turrets are automatically firing away, you can use your mouse to direct a number (and that number is “19”) of support powers. These cost energy (which regenerates gradually) and cause damage to or buffs on enemy units. Power (earned through playing for a while, I think) increases the effectiveness of the support items. You never have access to all of the turrets and weapons, however: the ten officers in the game only come with eight of each item. What this does is encourage different play styles based on who you have chosen and the weapons they have available in their arsenal. Honestly, I like the restriction as it makes playing Sol Survivor much less cumbersome since you only have access to sixteen items at a time. More items are unlocked as you play with a particular character more often. It would be nice to customize your own officer with specific weapons and items, but it could lead to game imbalance, I suppose.

Like most (but not all) tower defense games, Sol Survivor resorts to restricting the enemy movement to set paths. Why this is the accepted convention in the genre I don’t know, but I would personally be more interested if you didn’t have advanced knowledge of the enemy’s behavior. This approached worked pretty well in the Stronghold series of games, so why it can’t work here remains a mystery. At least Sol Survivor uses the terrain as an explanation for the predetermined channels of enemies and provides varied paths that cross and turn often. Sol Survivor gives you a good amount of freedom in placing your turrets: unlike in Defense Grid, you are not restricted to towers or some other arbitrary constraint. You can’t place things on steep slopes, but you can crowd them anywhere else. The paths undulate enough where there isn’t an optimal placement and you can’t quite put things in perfect harmony. Twenty-six aliens will invade your colonies, all of which have varied abilities like shields, leaping, flying, cloaking, teleporting, or being resistant to a specific weapon. Sol Survivor is more interactive than some tower defense games, since the use of support items is required in order to win. The game’s difficulty seems to be balanced well; veterans to the genre will want to increase the stakes a bit. The game could use time acceleration to speed past those times that your defenses are adequate enough to repel the incoming horde and you are simply waiting. Still, fans of the tower defense genre will enjoy what Sol Survivor has to offer.

As far as tower defense games go, Sol Survivor is in the upper echelon of quality. This is mainly due to the inclusion of multiplayer: you can join forces with others, or go up against them to see who can survive the longest. The “war” mode even lets you take some control of the aliens to take out the human competition. The game’s use of officers restricts your arsenal to eight turrets and eight weapons at a time, but this is fine: each officer has an interesting base strategy and the reduction makes the game more streamlined and increases the importance of planning your layouts efficiently. There are plenty of turrets (twenty-six) and support items (nineteen) to choose from, each with varied attributes. You rarely sit back and watch, as most maps (beyond the first introductory missions) require use of the mouse-driven weapons to take out the pesky stragglers. The twenty-six creeps exhibit wide-ranging attributes and require different approaches. Although the enemies are restricted to pre-determined paths (following in the tower defense tradition), Sol Survivor does give you lots of placement positions and trails do cross, producing choke points for maximum enemy destruction. The game does suffer from a relaxed pace; Sol Survivor could benefit from time acceleration to power through those times where your defenses are stout. Still, Sol Survivor is quite an enjoyable game for fans of the blossoming tower defense genre thanks to its multiplayer features.