Review: Defense Grid: The Awakening (PC)

Defense Grid: The Awakening
Developer: Hidden Path
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Genre: Tower Defense Strategy
Release Date: 12/08/2008

Tower defence games are nothing new; due to their simple nature – an enemy force has to get from point A to point B, set up towers at points C-Z to blow the crap out of them before they reach point B – they have a strong base with the casual gaming crowd, as there are websites devoted to nothing but tower defence games. Though they’re all virtually the same game, they are becoming a more popular strategy game genre.

With Defense Grid: The Awakening, Hidden Path are aiming to create the definitive tower defence game by adding a few extra elements, a story, and an AI partner with a British accent, because no game is complete without a pretentious Brit that talks too much.

Did they succeed? Have they made the best tower defence game on the market? Considering there’s not much competition other than browser games, it’s not much of an accomplishment, but Defense Grid does succeed in being an addictive strategy game.

The story behind the game is flimsy and transparent, but for this type of game it’s not really important. A thousand years ago, some aliens invaded your planet, but they were defeated by some mechanism (it’s never explained exactly what it did) which is run by power cores. Now, the aliens are back, and are attacking the source of their problems directly, by taking the power cores from the defence mechanisms. It’s your job, with the help of the AI of the person that defeated the invasion a millennium ago, to repel the invasion. The entire purpose of the story is to link the stages together and give you a reason to go through the game, and while it is essentially tied together with duct tape, it works well enough for the purpose.

Aliens come in swarms; there will be a few groups of smaller, weaker enemies like Swarmers who come in packs, then maybe a few moderately armoured Rhinos will come in, and in later stages, heavily armoured boss characters that take forever to take down. The way you fight the alien horde is to take raw resources and build towers with various purposes to fight the aliens. Some are guns, some are lasers, and they all have a specific purpose, most of which is to blow aliens up. You eventually get more resources – the more you have, the quicker you gain them – and also gain more as you kill the metallic-based alien invaders; the harder the alien, the more resources you gain. Your towers are indestructible, and can all either be upgraded to be more powerful, or sold back at almost full price. Gaining resources can be painfully slow – it doesn’t make a lot of sense that you need a big number to gain them at a decent clip without killing enemies – but thankfully, there’s a great balance in the towers you can buy with those resources. There’s not one weapon in the game that loses it’s usefulness; even the guns and inferno weapons are useful, because though the enemies get harder as you go along, you still see enough of a variety to justify every single type of weapon you can buy. For example, some enemies have a force shield around them that’s impervious to heat weapons. Therefore, your more expensive lasers are useless, but a few cheap, 100 resource Gatling guns will do the trick for those, regardless of what stage you’re in. The guns and other airborne weapons are also useful against flying enemies, which other weapons can’t reach. I love the emphasis this puts on a well rounded defence.

One thing that is different in Defense Grid from most other tower defence games is that you can use your towers to make the enemies take a different route to their goal. This requires a bit of explanation, and for that, I’m going to break out my pathetic MS Paint skills.

Let’s say the map is divided into what you see below (all example images are clickable for larger versions). Let’s say that every square you see is a place where a tower, and that the lines between bold boxes are bridges, as the enemy cannot cross the bolds as they’re islands:

All enemies will take the shortest route to get through the stage that they can; in this example, this stage has separate entrance and exit areas, though most of them have enemies going in and out the same area. In example 2, you will see the shortest route out of a stage, with an enemy taking a power core with them:

If you put towers around that route, the enemy will not be destroyed by the time he gets out, and you will lose quickly. So the game encourages you to put towers down, with the explanation that the towers have force fields that the aliens don’t like one bit. So with that flimsy pretence, if we were to set this up properly, the stage would look like this; notice the difference in the length of both travel lines:

This is, simply put, an outstanding mechanic. Not only are you tasked with setting up your perimeter defences, but you have to be smart about WHERE you place them. Do you load up in the early part, and hope you can build around a longer path later, risking the enemy getting out of reach? Do you build resources, load up the back, then build in? Do you spread out your towers, knowing they could be spread too thin? It turns what’s usually a casual type of game into something that requires some true strategy, and that alone sets Defense Grid apart from other TD games.

As nice as the diversion mechanic is, however, it’s not perfect. You’ll notice in the above picture that I didn’t place all my towers perfectly; after all, he still has a route to the end, right? Why not set up a tower at all the checkpoints, and let the little bastards run confused in circles while I pick them off like Duck Hunt? In the next picture, I set up a few new towers, coloured in black, and show you what the game does in response:

Notice that when cornered, the aliens say “to hell with it”, and break on through those towers you so lovingly set up. The game explains this by saying that while the aliens don’t LIKE the force fields, they’ll break through them if they have no choice, as if those force fields they hate so much are just a minor inconvenience. For an invading force that’s been waiting a thousand years for revenge, they sure do seem picky. The unfortunate thing is that this raises questions in my mind, the most forbearing of them being what other options the developers had. Couldn’t they have made it so that the areas around the bridges aren’t buildable? How about making it so that in order to wall off one area, you had to build a lot of different towers? How about making the towers destructible, if the enemy is passing through them? I feel that these options would have been better considered than the half-baked explanation we’re given for this game, especially since what happens if you make a mistake is that you’re forced to sell off a tower, at a loss, so that the enemies aren’t forced to go through your fields. It doesn’t ruin the alien diversion mechanic, but it does hamper it a bit.

As mentioned earlier, the whole point of the game is to keep the aliens from taking your power cores. This is harder than it appears because of the varying strength, speed and sheer numbers the aliens throw at you. You are pre-warned whenever a wave of enemies is coming in, and icons tell you what type of enemy it is, as well as how strong they are, but that only works for so long, because after awhile, especially in later stages, you’re so inundated with enemies at all stages of the map, and watching your resources so tightly so you can build a key tower as soon as you get a good enough number, that the only time you really notice the wave counter is to curse that you’ve got another five sets of Rhinos coming in, followed by a large wave of Wa–ohcrapherecomesaSeeker. If anything, one of the main issues with this game is that the difficulty gets exceptionally hard, very quickly; there’s not so much of a difficulty curve as there is a jagged spike. The first few stages are equivalent to letting you play in the kiddie pool with arm waders, but before you know it, the waders are off and you’re trying to swim the English Channel, and there are sharks in the water wearing bibs with your face on them. The main cause of the sometimes frustrating difficulty is the fact that power cores are passable. Let’s say you take an enemy out right by the area where it entered, and is about to exit out of. Close call, right? Not so fast, because an incoming team of Swarmers came in, and those three cores that you just barely saved have been claimed, and by the time your towers notice, it’s too late to do enough damage to take them out. It’s one thing when a weak Walker does this, but if it’s one of the really big and strong boss enemies – the ones that show up in red on the radar – then there’s no chance to save those cores. To the game’s credit, the towers themselves are very good at prioritizing targets, though my one complaint is that often times, ballistic weapons such as Meteors have a very bad habit of firing as soon as the alien it’s aiming at is taken out; since you can’t control the rate of fire, your best hope is that the meteor shots aren’t all wasted. Due to situations like this, it’s beneficial that the game autosaves frequently, and lets you reload the latest save, though I think it would have been a bit more beneficial if the game allowed you to choose your reload point; there were a few instances for me where I would reload just in time to notice that it was too late to save the last of my power cores, but instead of being able to go back a few waves, I had to start the stage over. If I worked for Hidden Path, this is something I would consider in a future patch if possible.

One of the main challenges to Defense Grid is deciding when to build new towers, and when to upgrade old ones. You are allowed to upgrade up to three levels per tower, and the difference in firepower can be staggering; it’s often times worth it, once you get a primary base set up that has the entire board covered (helpfully viewable with the T button), to spend the extra money and upgrade your existing towers, as it increases the range and power of your towers, often dramatically. Even a simple gun unit can become a single-handed area saver, taking out flying enemies with little effort, whereas more powerful weapons can take out even the strongest aliens.

Normally, tower defence games aren’t what one would call varied, but Defense Grid, though a bit short on unique stages, gives a lot of ways to beat it’s stages. The main story mode isn’t long – five to ten hours, depending on ability and how much one uses the F key to speed the game up – but there are plenty of other modes to play; for example, once you beat a game’s story mode, you can sometimes play through the same stage with tougher enemies, or with a tower limit, or with no regenerating resources, or sometimes with no way to lose the game, just to practise. This adds a load of replayability that is missing from just about every other game in this budding genre. Once you beat a stage, you’re given a medal depending on your final score and how many cores are left, though it’s a bit frustrating to know that the only way to get better than the lowest medal in most of the game’s stages is to save every single power core in that stage. The game also supports Steam achievements and leaderboards, however the game ONLY supports any sort of extra when it’s connected through Steam; even Direct2Drive download customers are reporting that the game has to install through Steam. If you don’t like Steam, be advised that at least for the time being, you really don’t have much of a choice if you want to get the most out of your game. And in terms of input methods, the game supports controller input, and it supports my pad (the 360 controller) perfectly, and though this is to be expected for a game that’s going to come out for XBox Live Arcade, my question is why anyone would want to use it in the first place; the game controls perfectly with a mouse, and considering it’s the type of game that really demands mouse control to be played right in the first place, unless you’re gearing up for the almost inevitably cheaper Live version, there’s no reason to use any controller. I’d even go as far as to say that mouse controls are worth the extra price of the game; while the game doesn’t have a final price on XBLA, it’s $20 on Steam or D2D, which is a very nice price considering the amount of game you’re getting in this package. Even without the bonus stages and extra content extending the play time, Defense Grid is extremely addictive, and worth the price of admission for story mode alone.

Graphically, the game is competent; for a game that primarily takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, the colours are vibrant, especially on my max settings (1680 X 1050 on an ATI Radeon 4870HD, played on an HP w22 22″ widescreen monitor), and the only time I noticed any jaggies was when I put the game’s camera to a very zoomed-in range; since the game almost has to be played with the camera zoomed out all the way, this is irrelevant. However, I feel more work could have gone into getting this game workable on lower-end systems; while the game’s minimum requirements are lower than most games nowadays, this is misleading, as you’re required to have a DX9 compatible card to play the game. This doesn’t sound like much, but if my lower end machine’s PCI-based card (an nVidia GeForce 6200) crapped out – it’s happened before, that’s my second card on that board – I’d be out of luck, as my onboard card only goes to DX7. Considering this is because of an audio driver, I find that Hidden Path could have done a better job of working around this to get this otherwise playable game onto lower-end systems.

When it comes to audio, there’s a few soundtrack pieces that play in the menus and during stages, and they blend into the game’s drool atmosphere well; while you’re not going to be demanding Apple carry this game’s soundtrack on iTunes, it certainly doesn’t get in the way. What does get in the way is the AI companion of yours. He’s voiced competently, with a typically pretentious Cockney accent, and when he has something significant to say – what to do in a stage, how to use a particular weapon, etc. – he’s well voiced and helpful. The problem is the other 75% of the time, where he just sprouts off random nonsense that serves as a distraction at best, and an annoyance at worst. I had times when no enemies would be coming in, and he’d just scream out “Let’s clean this sorry lot up!” in an uncharacteristically gruff voice; this was only less annoying than when he’d do this as aliens were making off with half my power grid; apparently, my AI had Tourette’s Syndrome when he was still a human. Speaking of random non-sequiturs, the AI likes to randomly cry out whenever an enemy is making off with a power core, whether it’s the first one or the twelfth of fifteen, which caused more than a few conversations between me and my game’s English voiced AI that would get me locked up in the presence of less polite company. “Mind the cores! They’re taking them!!!” “No s***, Sherlock! Why don’t you tell me something useful, like how to make them go boom so this doesn’t bloody happen!?” “Honey, are you yelling at your computer again?”

Story/Modes: Mediocre
Graphics: Decent
Sound: Poor
Control and Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Classic
Balance: Bad
Originality: Poor
Addictiveness: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Miscellaneous: Very Good

Short Attention Span Summary

Hidden Path set out to make the best tower defence game on the market, and they nailed it. Though there are some major issues with the difficulty curve, Defense Grid: The Awakening is a good example of what this genre can be, and it actually makes me thankful that this game has a few issues; as the tower defence genre matures, the higher end games will only get better.

For anyone that likes any kind of strategy game, I recommend grabbing this on Steam right now. At $20, you can’t really go wrong.



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2 responses to “Review: Defense Grid: The Awakening (PC)”

  1. Paz Avatar

    I just bought this game (defence grid) but can’t get it to load. The demo worked fine. I have a Gateway FX 2 duo processor and have never had any problems with games before. Any ideas?


  2. Heh Avatar

    A good start would be checking event viewer in control pannel and checking what error it comes up with it not loading could be 100 reasons why thus the lack of responses

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