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Wot I Think: Fieldrunners 2

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Fieldrunners 2 is a classical tower defence game, originally for iPhones and iPads and now converted to PC. Is this game of marching men, upgradeable turrets and maze-building as perfunctory as the PC adaptation of its predecessor? Is it as gloriously silly as it looks? Is seeing a picture of a little guy with his face covered by his oversized helmet still funny the five hundredth time around? March onwards to find out.

Me am too dumb to beat dumb little men. All dumb little men do is march forward in dumb straight line but me am too dumb to kill them. Why dumb little men go down when I place tower that should make dumb little men go up? Why dumb little men walk under bridge bristling, with machineguns not over it? Why, dumb little men, why?

Because me am dumb.

Fieldrunners 2 has the blandly calming face of smiling Disney clown and the fiendish brain of Mirror Universe-Einstein. Admittedly, more taxing tower defence games do exist – abound, even – but it’s the disparity between FR2’s oh-so-casual appearance and how demanding it becomes at times that addles me so. It’s a game that looks for all the world like it should be treating me with infinite compassion and kindness (not from love, but from ‘don’t spook the strategy virgins’ business nous), but no, it has far darker intentions.

Rather more importantly – because I’ve just spent far too many words saying ‘it’s quite difficult sometimes’ – it is a classical tower defence game with absolutely no shame about being a classic tower defence game. Quite the opposite, in fact. FR2 consciously dispenses with all the gimmicks and inversions and oddball features we see listed in so many games heralded by claims such as ‘tower defence… but with a twist!’ and instead tries to do the absolute maximum it can with that absolutely minimal concept:

The dumb little men march.
Place towers.
Kill little dumb men, earn money for more towers.
Kill more little dumb men. Or don’t.
Win/don’t win.

Which makes it an oddly complicated game to describe, as I can’t sit here reeling off features and judging mechanics or saying ‘and wait until you see the hyper-splat piss-dragon unit!’You put down turrets, and the most familiar archetypes turrets at that: gatling for basic damage and wall-building, glue to slow down the infernal march, rockets for area damage, flame for damage over time… Yes, there are less well-trodden roads in there, and particularly if you get into the business of unlocking the farthest branches of the tech tree you’ll wind up with hybrids (i.e. stuff like damage and slow), but the basic formula, as laid down by Warcraft III mods a million years ago, remains.

So the distinctively Fieldrunners 2 aspect comes from the presentation – more on which shortly – and a clear focus on treating the maps as puzzles rather than simply escalating unit numbers or toughness as the game wears on. These are, usually with some degree of flexibility, train sets which must be constructed in particular patterns if your toy locomotive is not to tumble off the side and onto the dusty doom of the carpet below. So, bridges placed apparently at random somewhere in the middle of the map must have turrets built around them in such a way that, after crossing them, the titular cloned army-men loop around and then under them, thus ensuring they are peppered by your static gunfire for a couple more precious seconds. Or the Fieldrunners must be guided onto vents which lie over fiery pits, all the better to slowly roast the dumb little men with.

It’s surprisingly rare to encounter the open map with a start and end(s) which typifies tower defence, and much more about solving a more specific logic puzzle. It’s a subtle distinction – and perhaps not an especially novel one – but it works in the game’s favour, encouraging real analysis of each new level rather than a mere girding for the stiffened challenge ahead. There aren’t that many maps, but somehow the cleverness, twinned with the work done on animation and sound, makes it feel dramatically bigger than any other TD game I’ve played.

Presentation-wise, it’s superficially charming, all teeny cartoon men who look for all the world like Team Fortress characters in the Super deformed style, assisted by tanks and planes. As I say, the unit types don’t fall far from the standard tower defence tree, but that’s a positive: it entails snap judgements and understanding of what you’re dealing with. What bothers me, though, is that it takes the same approach to humour as the ubiquitous and oddly soulless titan of popular culture that is Angry Birds. It looks like it should be funny: the men are little! Their helmets are too big and cover their faces! They make squeaky noises when they die! The loading screens say silly things! But it isn’t, in fact, funny.

More than that, it very rarely even tries to be. Like Angry Birds’ green pigs and scowling fat sparrows, all the wit, such as it is, is crammed into that most superficial glance, with nothing beneath it whatsoever. Haha the men are short! Haha. Ha. Again, like Angry Birds (and because the Fieldrunners series has also been a significant iPhone success long before it ever came to PC), it is a sniper targeted unwaveringly between the eyes of the broadest possible audience. Safe, toothless, without edge, rocking no boats. So it doesn’t even make any gags, even though it looks and feels as though it should, and with any thought applied the ‘oh, that’s sweet’ gives way to a dull sense that there’s something insipid about the whole affair.

Actually, it does try to make some vague jokes about clones – for this is the origin of the endless Fieldrunner hordes – but I think it would be better off dispensing with these bland loading screen statements and whatever thin humour and exposition they were intended to create and simply being a set of levels. This was the case with Fieldrunners 1, a game I did not suffer such common-denominator concerns about.

I like it anyway. I completed all its levels anyway, then went back and beat a bunch of them on harder difficulty settings. It’s not impossible that, in spare moments, I will continue to chip away at the fearsome task of three-starring each map, even the ones which once seemed brutal and unfair on the lower settings. They are all beatable at all settings and even without having to unlock all the mega-turrets first, because the levels are puzzleboxes rather than gruelling tests of endurance and reflex. I feel a potent satisfaction at solving these riddles that’s meaningfully different from the ‘phew, I survived’ relief of beating the more monstrous levels of other tower defence games.

If you played the rather listless, blatantly phone-y PC port of Fieldrunners 1, you’ll be very glad to hear that this time it’s the real deal. I very much doubt I’d have guessed at Fieldrunners 2’s iThing origins did I not already know them: it fills a large monitor expertly and even spectacularly with its crisp 2D art, its menus work as they should and there’s no question that it was made for a mouse. Though that pressing Escape exits the whole game (after confirming Yes) rather than going back to the main menu repeatedly got the better of me, but that’s probably because I’m an idiot.

I’d like Fieldrunners 2 to be wierder and wilder than it is, and my (unproven) fear that it isn’t so purely due to commercial reasons means I feel a certain resistance to recommending it. But I do. It’s a game that very much preaches to the tower defence converted and will do nothing to lure that loud crowd who despise the entire genre, but if there’s a grander sermon than this I’m yet to hear it.

Fieldrunners 2 is out now, via Steam.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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