Wot I Think: Unstoppable Gorg

The other day I was having a chat with a gaming friend of mine, and we were talking about people’s interest in playing games that were basically unimaginative – Zynga stuff, that sort of thing – and we came to the conclusion that the people making those games couldn’t have much interest in actually exploring what was interesting about designing games. “You might as well make a tower defence game!” he laughed. I laughed too, but the ejection was hollow, because I adore tower defence games. I’m glad people make them. I changed the subject to talk about the giant owl that, until yesterday, had been eating cats in my village. Inwardly, though, the thought troubled me: is that what people think of tower defence?

These thoughts were at the forefront of my mind as I played FutureMark’s Unstoppable Gorg, a tower defence game with a kitsch 1950s sci-fi theme, and posited in orbital defence of satellites and planets throughout the solar system. It looks like this:

And between the levels you get superbly-produced send up sequences like this:

They tell the story and introduce a number of amusing alien characters, like this guy:

It’s cute, funny, silly. Splendid.

There’s lots to like about Unstoppable Gorg, and not just the neat presentation and excellent production: the actual tower-defence model is clever too. Each level’s “base” sits at the centre of the map, being a planet or a space station or something, and round that are a number of concentric rings – orbits on which your towers, or in this case satellites, can be placed.

Most of the towers will be able familiar to anyone who has dabbled in the tower defence genre before: there’s the machinegun, the one that slows people down, the cannon, and so on. There’s also an all-important repair tower, which is essential given that the creeps generally do damage to your satellites as they pass.

The towers can also be upgraded, although the mechanism for this is a little odd – you have to research as you play, by building a research base. Fail to do that in the easier early levels and the later levels become much harder. I pretty much ran into a wall about two thirds of the way through the game, where things become almost impossible. I assume this was because I couldn’t do much to upgrade my essential satellites.

Anyway, the thing that Gorg does which is quite different from other tower defences I have played is that you can rotate the position of the satellites in orbit. Initially this is fairly simple, but it rapidly becomes something that has a number of complicating ramifications. Firstly, because you usually have more than one point on which to build on any given orbit, you have to figure out the optimal position of multiple satellites against the routes that the creeps are taking toward you base. (And there are often multiple streams of those.) Secondly you can actively move turrets, so if you need to keep missiles in range of something tough, you can actually physically move it so that is stays in firing distance. It’s a bit of an odd feeling, but one that occasionally turns out to be extremely useful.

What seems to set Unstoppable Gorg tumbling in space is the unclear way the challenge escalates, and the way it conveys (or fails to convey) information to the player. It took me a while to realise that I needed to guess what weapon types were going to be better against which enemy factions, rather than the weapons simply having different general uses and effects. It becomes, rather than an escalation of complexity in use of the tools it has provided for you, a confusing and frustrating experience of over-complication.

Yes, the difficulty curve is more of a difficulty sine wave, with entirely uneven leaps in difficulty along the way. There are challenge mods and so forth to pad it out, but by the time I got to those I was feeling exhausted and irritated. Their arbitrary challenges further put me off, and by the time I quit Unstoppable Gorg for the last time, I was wondering when the next time would be that I would feel satisfied and rewarded by a tower defence game. Hope this isn’t the end of my affair with the genre, because it would be quite a clonky conclusion.

Unstoppable Gorg’s presentation is fantastic, but the execution as a tower defence game is something of a mess. Those ideas about orbits and stuff look clever as the start, but add nothing to the experience, and might even be to its deteriment.

Ultimately my friend’s words haunted me. Here’s Futuremark, who made the extraordinarily ambitious multiplayer shooter Shattered Horizon, now churning out a tower defence game that is as suited to tablets as it is to desktop PCs, and doesn’t really manage to be all that dazzling to play. That’s not to say that developers should be pigeonholed – my own games company is making some seriously diverse stuff – but the feeling that Futuremark are spectacularly failing to hit the heights they previously aimed for is one that makes my heart quite heavy.


  1. Meat Circus says:

    I love tower defence games too.

    Anybody who can’t love Sanctum, Orc Must Die, Plants vs Zombies, Defense Grid: The Awakening etc. is BASICALLY DEAD INSIDE.

    • Askeladd says:

      Interesting: I was thinking the same about some of my friends. They are dead inside… Maybe I should kill them with a chainsaw strapped to my leg?
      For humanity!

    • Sarlix says:

      Tower defence games are the root of all evil.

      Case in point: They’ve made the above commenter want to kill people with a chainsaw attached to his leg.

    • mckertis says:

      “Anybody who can’t love *snip* Defense Grid: The Awakening”

      What’s to love ? The most unimaginative tower defence i have ever seen. Those who created it must lack imagination completely, or, as you say, be “dead inside”.

    • realityflaw says:

      I remember when Defense Grid came out being excited to finally see someone take on the TD genre in a robust way and develop it into something worth paying for, but then I realized that I had played that same game sans graphics a hundred times before for free, and I cried inside.

    • paterah says:

      No mention of the best: Dungeon Defenders :)

    • Dreamhacker says:

      I agree with Sanctum and Orcs Must Die, but Defense Grid and PvZ?

      Defense Grid is beyond bland. You would have to be obsessive-compulsive to enjoy that game.
      PvZ, on the other hand, is just the kind of game that would make Zynga proud: carefully analyzed and packaged endorphine triggers behind a psuedo-game front.

      These two are the last things I would ever hold up as shining examples of good games.

  2. Jimbo says:

    Defender’s Quest is fabulous.

    • ZIGS says:

      It really is

    • Keymonk says:

      Very much so.

    • Rhygadon says:

      Agreed on Defender’s Quest. Most TD games give me that queasy “why am I doing this?” feeling after a few levels, but that one held out for the duration.
      Their support is amazing as well. I had trouble exporting my saved game from (the old version of) the demo, so they *hand-built me a save* based on a screenshot of my existing characters!

  3. trjp says:

    Immortal Defense, Kingdom Rush, the list goes on and on and they’re all lovely lovely lovely (tho Defense Grid is the daddy).

    I didn’t quite get on with the demo of Unstoppable Gorg tho – I like the “rotating towers” thing but it did seem to me that there are some quite specific solutions to the early levels and that you’ll have to find them (you can’t just wing-it, you’ll have to work hard to avoid any losses).

    Looks lovely tho and they’ve arguably put more effort into the silly newsreels than the rest of the game :)

  4. magnus says:

    Difficulty spikes? Why not play it on easy then increase the diffficulty as the research tokens carry-over.

    • trjp says:

      Words do not exist to describe the sort of person who would do that – or the sort of developer who’d expect you to :)

      Were I to decide to do that I’d feel – at the very least – soiled.

    • ankh says:

      I see no problem with magnus’ suggestion. If something is broken try and fix it yourself first.

    • ScottTFrazer says:

      The research tokens change the max level that the towers can go to, but they don’t make the initial towers any better. You still have to accrue enough money to get those towers up to speed. And since you need to get all the awards at once, there’s most definitely a “correct” way to place each level. It ends up being a bit of a trial-and-error restart-a-thon to get that perfect placement.

      Which is generally true of all Tower Defense games, but in this case, you’ve got near infinite levels of customization thanks to the spinny-orbit mechanic.

  5. SanguineAngel says:

    “What seems to set Unstoppable Gorg tumbling in space is the unclear way the challenge escalates, and the way it conveys (or fails to convey) information to the player. It took me a while to realise that I needed to guess what weapon types were going to be better against which enemy factions, rather than the weapons simply having different general uses and effects….”

    I am beginning to think that a lot of the design philosophies that have become standard practice are flawed thinking.

    In a game, the rules are clear and obvious, the appropriate tools clearly signposted, the upcoming challenge wholly explained so that you already know exactly how to deal with it. You must always be able to win.

    Why does it make a game better if the way in which a system operates is clearly mapped out for the player? This does not happen in real life. To most people, the way the universe operates is largely a mystery.

    Recent discussion of X-com, playthroughs of shogun and Crusader Kings has taught me that being caught off guard and failing can be spectacularly fun. Surely the game experience itself is what matters and not really whether we win or lose? The game itself is where your story is told.

    Playing a game and not knowing how the gears are working has provided some fantastic times in my life. Working things out myself, figuring out how to best defeat my enemies, having surprising set backs and epic failures. Taking the experience to my next play through and doing better through my own hard fought knowledge has been tremendously exciting and rewarding.

    Knowing how it all operates and the best way to win straight away – without figuring it out for myself – actually seems to have been a fairly hollow experience on the whole.

    Without playing the unstoppable Gorg myself, I can’t tell if my isolated quote is a valid criticism or not. Whether it’s good design or bad. But I thought it was something worth talking about.

    • trjp says:

      Tower Defense games have a history of being very ‘Rock Paper Scissors’ – there are set problems which have set solutions.

      The complexity comes from having to juggle all of that – often with hordes of enemies rushing at you.

      The idea that you’d need to experiment is quite new in the TD market I think – generally there are given tools for the job and the trick is just working out the order/placement of them (and their upgrades).

    • Joshua Northey says:

      I find this very true. The more you know about a games mechanics the less fun it is. Because soon you are playing “the game” instead of simply playing the game.

      It is a lot more fun to try out different rifles and see which ones functions best than it is to have a list of them and all their effects for you to pick apart and cry “imbalance” about.

      P.S. Your fears are correct. Tower defense games are just a slight step above farmville or mafia wars. There is just no diversity in gameplay, you played one you played them all (IMHO).

      I might play a tower defense if I was drunk, or standing in a line for 5-10 minutes and had to do something to distract myself (though generally I would rather read a book), but I would never fire one up for an actual gaming session. It would be like sitting down to diner and eating 15 popsicles.

    • TsunamiWombat says:

      Speaking of the game, you just lost it.

      I embrace your hatred.

    • enobayram says:

      Knowing the exact mechanics makes the game more enjoyable for me. What takes the fun away, is when you read on the internet about the optimal behavior (if it exists in that particular game), which, you could already derive yourself given the game mechanics. That’s some sort of cheating. I just don’t like not knowing what nonsensicallatinverb-ence stat does in the game…

    • Rhygadon says:

      Sanguine, I think the problem is in the experience of figuring out the causal structure of a game. In real-life situations, we usually have at least some basis for guessing what kinds of factors are likely to be relevant to any given problem or interaction. In games, because it’s so unconstrained, we need some signposting (or reliance on tradition, which amounts to the same thing) to give us a sense of what factors we need to pay attention to.
      For example, in games like this, it’s common to have access to “hard” numbers for things like damage, fire rate and armor. That provides for a certain kind of fun in figuring out what’s going to work against different enemies. But if there’s *also* some hidden factor that changes weapon effects against different enemy sizes / types / factions / whatever, that can lead to a lot of pointless frustration unless/until you realize what the devs had in mind.
      I agree with you that failure and the attendant need for exploration can be fun. But figuring out what random factors the devs decided to make important in their formalization of reality, not so much.

    • NathanH says:

      Supporting the hiding away of the rules of a game is dangerous and wrong. Down with that sort of thing. We need more rules to be made clear in games, not fewer.

    • Harvey says:

      @TsunamiWombat: Oh, you’re terrible.

  6. Wodge says:

    No mention of Dungeon Defenders or Sol Survivor?

    I am disappoint, but yes, Defense Grid is so full of win.

  7. Vinraith says:

    Sanctum has largely ruined me for other tower defense games.

  8. Easy says:

    Kingdom Rush is as good as it gets re. your classic 2d tower defense. I picked up Gorg for my iRectangularApparatus and in the end I liked the presentation more than the actual gameplay. It’d give it a meh! recommendation. Maybe a meh+.

  9. sneetch says:

    Dammit Jim! You failed to answer the most important question: why did the owl stop eating cats in your village? Has it just taken a break? Has it left? Did it pick on the wrong cat? I must know!

  10. Maldomel says:

    I hate those difficulty leaps too. One mission you’re all good, managing like a boss, and seeing ennemies coming close to your base, but ultimately failing because of your smart display of turrets.
    The next one, a new ennemy type appear and you suddenly realize the satellites you place are inneffective against it. And the ones to counter it are very expensive.

    I like a bit of difficulty in my games, and I like to keep this feeling of constant pressure in tower defences I play, but here it’s just…weird.

  11. CMaster says:

    I wanted to like Shattered Horizon, but the coupleof time I tried it (on free weekends) it was more of a shooty mess than anything that special.

    However, I do think that what they created could be put to use. How?

    Rainbow 6 in space/ Space SWAT.

    • mickygor says:

      Yea there’s a learning curve that it takes more than a free weekend to overcome ;)

    • calpin says:

      Yes but once you get over it, it’s fantastic. I hate that there are so few players for that game.

  12. soco says:

    I have an embarrassing number of hours put into Plants vs Zombies. Defense Grid is likely the best of the genre currently, it is fantastic. And I’m currently playing Orcs Must Die which is quite well done so far.

    I don’t understand how someone would think the tower defense genre is lackluster with titles like these, sure there are a lot of crummy ones out there, but that goes for every game type. No one would say; “You might as well make an FPS!”

    • mckertis says:

      “Defense Grid is likely the best of the genre currently, it is fantastic.”

      PvZ was indeed a great, charming game. Defence Grid felt like work, if nothing else. To call it best, i cant possibly understand what was going through your head when you typed those words in.

    • jrod says:

      You might as well make an FPS!

    • Rhygadon says:

      In my experience, Defense Grid was one of those rare games that undoes its own genre. By getting all the details right — near-perfect, really — but still being not that fun to play, it showed that the problem was in the hollowness of the core gameplay. (But of course, that’s just for me! I find repetition nauseating. Some people love re-trying things until they can achieve the experience of perfection, and for them, it’s a genuinely great game.)

    • PeteC says:

      I’m with Soco on this. I thought Defense Grid was great fun. 101 hours played according to Steam, and all that for less than two quid. Easily the best TD game I’ve played. The sequel will be a day one purchase for me.

      And embarrassingly, I’ve sunk over 200 hours into PvZ. It tapped into an OCD tendency I never knew I had. I just couldn’t stop till I’d collected every plant for the Zen Garden.

  13. SkittleDiddler says:

    Along with roguelikes, defense tower games are oversaturating the indie market. Perhaps because they don’t take much ingenuity compared to other genres?

    • Consumatopia says:

      Replace “ingenuity” with “content” and you would be closer to the truth. You can make a passable, even innovative, roguelike or tower defense game without expensive art assets.

    • MellowKrogoth says:

      Remember that games take time to make, as well. I think that many devs fall in love with a genre at the same time, take 6 months to 2+ years to make their game, and then we get the results: a flood of tower defense/zombie/(and so on) games.

  14. Zeewolf says:

    “Those ideas about orbits and stuff look clever as the start, but add nothing to the experience, and might even be to its deteriment.”

    I couldn’t disagree more. You absolutely have to learn to play this game actively, to use every little bit of advantage that you get from the ability to move satellites and stuff. Once it “clicks”, and you stop playing it like a regular tower defense game, the it becomes _much_ less difficult and very satisfying.

    Essentially, you have to unlearn the stuff you know about TD, and then learn to play Unstoppable Gorg. And then it becomes good.

  15. cylentstorm says:

    I often cringe or even flee whenever I see/hear “tower defense.” I’m not trying to imply that all such games are bad or unimaginative, but rather that I’m not a big fan of what I’ve played. There are a few rare exceptions that add to my yearning for a modern PC that can play most contemporary titles, but the majority evoke little more than indifference or disdain on my part. They’re just not “my thing.”

  16. Consumatopia says:

    I don’t deny that there are some well-crafted, innovative, deeply strategic tower defense games. Sometimes even with interesting stories. (The percentage of good ones is well below what Sturgeon’s Law would suggest, but leave that aside.)

    But whenever I play tower defense games, I always end up feeling worse as a person. Even the “good” tower defense games. They don’t all, or even mostly, employ manipulative F2P gimmicks as severe as those of Zynga, but they always feel so “gamified” and “addicting”. They don’t have the complexity of a full RTS, but they offer a simulation of the “feeling” of playing an RTS–so that I can feel like a brilliant commander even as someone is holding my hand and guiding me like a small child that the flight crew invited to visit the cockpit.

    Look, there are some flavors of soda pop that are delicious beverages with clever advertising campaigns, but Jobs was still right to ask “Are you going to keep selling sugar water to children when you could be changing the world?” I feel the same way about most of the “good” tower defense games. (Immortal Defense as an exception only because the inherent pointlessness of the gameplay is the basis of the entire plot.)

    • Joshua Northey says:

      The other problem is that they generally lack on narrative immensely.

      So afterward it is not as though you were “playing” some interactive book, instead it is more like you did a bunch of super easy Soduko’s for an hour and had flashy lights give you scores.

    • Keymonk says:

      You should try Defender’s Quest. The story is actually quite good in that.

    • picklesthecat says:

      Personally I thought Orcs Must Die was a hell of a lot better than dungeon defenders. Dungeon Defenders had way too much grind and clutter, but was surprisingly shallow in tactics.

  17. Tuco says:

    Speaking of Futuremarks, can we ask for more details about that goddamn X-Wing-ey space game they showed in trailer some time ago?

  18. Kryopsis says:

    “Here’s Futuremark, who made the extraordinarily ambitious multiplayer shooter Shattered Horizon, now churning out a tower defence game that is as suited to tablets as it is to desktop PCs, and doesn’t really manage to be all that dazzling to play.”

    Well, they have to pay the bills somehow, don’t they? I never got the impression Shattered Horizon sold particularly well and given they are working on a space combat game, they need a source of revenue.

  19. andyhavens says:

    I DISAGREE! And, as this is the Internet, I feel that it would be inappropriate and unhealthy to remain silent.

    I found this to be a delightfully different and well polished game in many ways. As you said in your review, you didn’t realize the importance of building research stations until later. That’s fine… you can go back and play each of the levels in the campaign — at standard or easy difficulty — and build the research facilities and then win in order to earn the necessary research points.

    This was, actually, one of the points I thought was really kind of neat. In order to earn research points, you have to build and defend (during a level) enough research satellites to generate the required research juice to earn upgrade points for future levels. So, if you beat the level, but don’t relegate one or more spots to research, it doesn’t help you in the future. The cool thing is that the first time you play a level, yes… you have to find out what kinds of turrets do best for which enemies and which spots to put them in. And beating the level might be kind of hard the first time. But once you do that, you have an incentive (research) to go back and do the level again, but with the slightly more difficult requirement that you save some spots for research.

    The research/upgrade points are also applied each time you try the beginning of a level. So you might decide to put the 4 points into max upgrades for the machine gun, since a level has lots of fast, little dudes. But on the next level, with slower, bigger enemies, you can use the points to plan for upgrades to your bigger guns. It’s actually quite a bit of strategy for a tower defense game.

    And the rotating orbit paths isn’t a small deal, either. At harder levels, it turns the games into much more of an arcade thing as you rotate various paths to different positions to cover different types/speeds of aliens.

    The graphics are very sharp, the music is fun-50’s-over-dramatic stuff, which is great.

    If you like tower defense games and are willing to spend a bit more time on the eccentricities of this, I think you’ll be very pleased, especially for the $10 price tag.

    Also, yes… Defender’s Quest is fabulous. Another neat take on tower defense. Both of these, and Oil Wars, all in one month… fans of the genre can rejoice at having some really interesting takes on the basics.

  20. LintMan says:

    My take:
    The 1950’s B-movie theme is a lot of fun and very well done. I really enjoyed that a lot and was impressed by the detail. Unfortunately the gameplay was a bit lacking. I generally like tower defense games and this was an interesting “spin” on them, but the game seems tuned toward the fast-paced “action” side of things, while I prefer more depth and strategy.

    My biggest issue there is the extremely limited number of slots you can place your defenses in – frequently less than 7 or so, with some of those slots needing to be dedicated to income and reserach producers. There’s just not a lot of room to experiment with less than optimal combinatons or non-dps-type towers. The relatively short attack paths and few tower slots also eliminate slower attrition or damage over time strategies.

    Also, the ability to rotate the tower orbits to reposition the towers is kind of cool, but I found that I was sometimes needing to constantly slide the towers to follow the units they were shooting at in order to keep them in range, or to slide a set of towers back and forth to try to cover two different tracks of enemies at the same time. This is essentially making the towers manually aimed and is a level of micromanagement I don’t care for. It makes for frenetic play, but I’d much rather be thinking and planning strategic tower placement and upgrades than dragging a tower around to follow a unit on the screen.

    So overall, it was fairly disappointing. It’s very well made and I really wanted to like it, but by the end, I was glad to be done with it.

  21. Diogo Ribeiro says:

    “you can rotate the positions of the satellites in orbit”

    I *think* Starship Defense on DSi let you choose the firing angle of your “towers” (basically weapon systems like lasers, missile launchers, etc. ) when you placed them on your ships. But yeah, DSi, not PC.

  22. NathanH says:

    I am not sure why, but the thought that tower defence has become a genre is annoying.

    • Chris D says:

      I am not sure why the thought that tower defence has become a genre is annoying.

    • Shadowcat says:

      I’m glad it’s a genre, because I’ve tried several (against my better judgement, because every now and then lots of people rave about one), and been bored to tears each and every time. I’ve learned my lesson, and now I can safely ignore any game that carries that label. Hooray!

  23. Jackablade says:

    I’ve never been able to handle the endless dreary repetition of the Tower Defense game. I keep trying them thinking “maybe this one will keep me amused”, but I never last more than a few rounds before losing interest.

    There was one game though maybe ten years ago called Netstorm. That was brilliant. It was ostensibly a tower defense game crossed with an RTS. Does anyone remember it?

    The game was set on a series of floating islands. You had build bridges from tetris shaped bricks out around the islands towards your enemy and then set up a variety different towers in order to destroy his defenses and eventually temple, after which you could send out a guy to grab the enemy priest and sacrifice him.

    It was a beautiful game packed full of innovative ideas and a good few ears before the first tower defence games appeared. I’d love to see someone do a modern take on it but given that Activision probably has the rites locked up in their IP dungeon at this point, that doesn’t seem terribly likely.

  24. Prime says:

    “Inwardly, though, the thought troubled me: is that what people think of tower defence?”

    “Most of the towers will be able familiar to anyone who has dabbled in the tower defence genre before…”

    “I was wondering when the next time would be that I would feel satisfied and rewarded by a tower defence game.”

    Answered your own question, Jim. Played one, played ’em all. All that changes – all that can change – is the style of presentation but the patterns, the strict mechanics of play, are so familiar, so arbitrary, so repetitive and so tediously, by-the-numbers predictable that there really isn’t any real worth from a gamer point of view in playing another one. If you’ve played Sanctum (and I have), why play Defense Grid?

  25. pertusaria says:

    I’m one of those people who don’t much like tower defence games. Every now and then I get sucked into one, only to emerge a few hours later desperately trying to convince myself that any of it was worthwhile, at which point I’m generally able to stop playing.

    I’m sorry that this is the case, because some of the developers (like Defender’s Quest) are nice and have done a lot of work to produce a good end result. For some reason I just don’t stay excited for long about “keep the bad guys from getting to the maguffin” in the way TD games are set up.

    I did enjoy Plants vs. Zombies. Aside from the nice graphics and so forth, I think it helped that there were so many lanes for the zombies to walk down, each of which had to be protected in some way, and you only had one hit point / life.