Friday, March 16, 2012

Defenders of Ardania Review

Defenders of Ardania, developed by Most Wanted Entertainment and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Simultaneous attack and defense, tower placement can dictate enemy (and friendly) unit movement, good unit and tower strategic variety, multiplayer
The Not So Good: Poor scenario balance provides too many resources and not enough units and towers, occasionally inert AI, few differences between races
What say you? This competitive tower defense game adds variety by protecting your castle while storming the opponents’: 6/8

Classically, tower defense games have entrusted you (yes, you) with placing turrets, lasers, machine guns, and other assorted hardware to stop a seemingly endless horde of enemy units. But what if you are attempting to storm an enemy stronghold at the same time? This is the question raised by Defenders of Ardania, a tower defense game where you must place the defenses while ordering units to attack the castle of the opposition. This competitive tilt gives you more to do and keep track of as helpless soldiers meet their untimely doom. Does this unique approach deliver solid strategic gameplay?

Defenders of Ardania takes place in the world of Majesty 2 but offers nothing special in terms of graphics or sound design. It’s all generic fantasy stuff, from the unit designs to the towns and the towers. While the three races in the game fundamentally look different, there is not enough detail up close (with fewer polygons than I’d like to see) to produce plausible fantasy characters. The maps show a variety of terrain elements (farms, castles, towns) that do convincingly evoke a fantasy setting. The towers look, well, like towers, that stand out against the background (possibly on purpose so you can spot them more easily). The weapon effects are occasionally neat, especially those that use fire or electricity. Things do get pleasingly chaotic when multiple teams are fighting on the same map, but normally you're zoomed out too far to appreciate some of the visuals. As for the sound design, things are at their most basic: the sound effects are repetitive but effective, the voice acting ranges from average to annoying (the poor Sean Connery impression was grating from the start), and the music utilizes recycled dramatic themes. Overall, Defenders of Ardania comes right in at budget-level in terms of graphics and sound.

It’s time to defend Ardania, you Defenders of Ardania. The campaign has you traversing the various environments of Ardania, beating back foreign threats with towers and units. The eighteen maps do offer some varied layouts, but generally the objective remains the same: destroy the enemy castle. The scenarios also last too long due to high castle health and suffer from poor balance due to low unit and tower limits. You also cannot save your progress mid-mission, which can be a problem in the longer scenarios. The tutorial is plodding as new items are gradually introduced during the campaign, though the dialogue can be skipped using the “enter” key. Given the game’s competitive nature, you can play any of the campaign’s maps online. With support for two or four players (depending on the map), you can play a free-for-all format, two-on-two, or team survival against the AI. Instead of waiting for castles to be destroyed, you can introduce a time limit with a victory condition like sudden death, the highest score, or ending in a tie. Everything is unlocked online, so you are not at a disadvantage taking on humans before finishing the campaign. While I’d like to see more maps (and maybe an editor, too), there is enough replay value in the larger maps to extend the life of the game.

The interface of Defenders of Ardania is mouse-driven, but units, spells, and towers are only listed three or five at a time, requiring you to unnecessarily scroll to see the rest of the available items. You can access unit production, spells, upgrades, and combat focus quickly by using the right-mouse button, which is a handy feature. Still, the game doesn’t fully take advantage of higher resolution displays, but that’s my only (admittedly minor) complaint levied towards the interface. During the game, you’ll need to deploy towers and send units to destroy the enemy castle. There are three races in the game (humans, animals, and dead things) and they all basically have the same stuff, with the exception of a couple of special units for each side. Your first task will be to place towers. These are generally designed to combat a single unit type (swarmers, air, tanks, sprinters) or provide support (repair, blocking paths). A handy grid shows where you can place towers, and you must place towers within a specific radius of other towers, slowly expanding your coverage away from your base. Most maps allow for flexible placement of towers, and you can place things to obstruct and re-route enemy unit movement, which is pretty interesting. However, the tower limit is never high enough to cover all of the possible paths, and on the really large maps, significant stalemates can result as each side can only control a small portion of the grid. Still, playing off the enemy tower placements and altering your plan during a mission is certainly an intriguing dynamic.

While you are carefully placing towers for defense, you will also queue offensive units to attack the enemy castle. Each of the unit types (from basic to tank to flying to fast, plus a couple of race-specific variations like invisible and anti-tower units) must be sent in waves and can’t be interacted with directly. Thus, it is a good strategy to send slow units first and faster units later, so they arrive at the enemy castle at the same time (overwhelming the enemy turrets). You can set rally points for units to pass by during their march towards the enemy, or place a bounty on an enemy unit or tower to concentrate your attacks. Unit classes gain experience points over time, which gradually improve their stats (and increase their cost) and eventually unlock a powerful hero unit that can heal others and deal more damage. Between the tower and unit types, there are many different strategies you can employ as you attempt to take down the enemy stronghold.

Money used to buy units and towers slowly trickles in over time, but you also gain a chunk of cash by destroying enemy units (it’s like recycling, but deadlier!). In addition, you can place towers on resource zones to further accelerate your income. Cash can also be used to cast spells on the map, destroying enemy units and towers or repairing your own. Even with building towers, recruiting units, and casting spells, the low tower cap, low unit cap, and high resource levels means you’ll have to accelerate time more often than not, as you sit around unable to construct any more towers, waiting for your units to slowly move across the map and slowly destroy the enemy castle. You can purchase upgrades to your towers and economy while you wait, but the game pace is still too slow. The AI is occasionally competent, especially at the beginning of each game, sending out waves of units before you are prepared and placing effective towers near their castle. However, there's a point in each game where the AI just kind of gives up and fails to adjust their tower placement while spamming the same units over and over again. Because of that, the game becomes pretty easy to beat once you unlock enough different components to counter any of the AI’s plans that will remain static after a couple of minutes into each mission.

Is the two-part gameplay of Defenders of Ardania enough to make it stand out? Besides the uniqueness provided by being on both offense and defense simultaneously, the game offers other innovations to the genre. Most significantly is the ability to place towers to block enemy paths, effectively funneling units towards your more powerful towers and away from the enemy’s. There is also nice variety in the types of towers, allowing for different complimentary strategies. Units are also varied in their abilities, and you must coordinate your unit production so forces converge at the same time and overwhelm the enemy towers. While you don’t interact directly with your units, you can place rally markers and bounties to highlight important places to attack. Defenders of Ardania does suffer from some poor mission design: typically you are given too many resources and nothing to spend them on, especially during the early missions when you don’t have everything unlocked. There are also low caps for towers and units (until you spend the cash to slightly expand them during a scenario), which restricts your strategic freedom. The high castle health drags games out too, so you will need to accelerate time and wait for the enemy stronghold to slowly crumble. The AI can place effective towers and mount successful attacks, but it can also fail to update its placements when alternative strategies need to be employed. The eighteen map campaign offers some challenging scenarios but rarely sways from the same “destroy everyone” objective. Multiplayer is great fun, although I’d like to see more maps that offer varied paths towards the enemy (or a map editor so the community can get involved). Overall, Defenders of Ardania offers a unique take on the tower defense genre with competitive play and tower placement that dictates unit movement.