DG 2: Defense Grid 2 – Wot I Think

Defense Grid 2 sees you building elaborate mazes of mounted guns which shoot, burn, zap, freeze and otherwise slaughter vast armies of dumb aliens who are attempting to steal ‘cores’ from a techno-thingy at the centre of the level. In other words, it’s tower defence. It’s also the sequel to one of the most-acclaimed and charming tower defence games around. Privately invested into existence after a failed Kickstarter last year, it was released on Steam last week. Here’s wot I think.

I miss the solitude. What was once a lonely, half-mad Stephen Fryish AI wittering amiably to himself about raspberries is now a cavalcade of unseen personalities bickering and worrying and wise-cracking and smack-talking to drive forwards a plot about… something. In this, tower defence sequel Defense Grid 2 sails dangerously close to Wacky waters. It comes within sighting distance of Zany Ocean. It seriously considers an excursion to the Sea of Madcap. Not for everyone in that regard, then, but the strategy game this boisterous prattle is attached to holds rather more universal appeal.

It’d be challenging to hold up many particular aspects of Defense Grid 2 and exclaim “look! Shiny new hotness!” It’s a tower defence game and completely unashamed about it, which is faintly unusual now. In recent times, attempts to get noticed within the genre of auto-marching soldiers being ushered around a DIY death-maze have tended towards ‘tower defencebut’. This is the pure strain though, albeit adorned with as many bells and whistles as it can lay hands on. Co-op, mod support, a level editor, per-turret persistent upgrades, mode upon mode, a slew of difficulty settings and yeah, all those chattering AIs (though these are mercifully silent when not playing story missions).

Even the game’s launcher bears a raft of buttons for stuff like video guides, level stores, wikis and digital art books. And there are graphs. Huge, tweakable, vaguely meaningless but highly satisfying graphs at the end of each level/match.

They’re there to make you feel good about yourself, to demonstrate how many tiny marching aliens you murdered and how quickly, and they absolutely work. Celebration Graphs should be a feature in more games. Defense Grid 2 isn’t trying to break with tower defence tradition – it’s shooting to be the definitive tower defence title.

It certainly makes a decent fist of it, but where it falls down is presentation. The various death-marching aliens are indistinct and short on personality, while too many of the unambitiously angular turrets themselves can’t be readily identified with a single glance. While there’s a pleasant neo-industrial look to the maps, and the combined sound and vision of assorted gunfire has a delectable intensity, in terms of ‘character’ design the whole thing’s buttoned-down to the point of homogeneity.

I’d say this was at odds with the high spirits of the writing and voices, but each campaign level kicks off with a screen of gravitas-laden, doomy text. I’m not sure Defense Grid 2 entirely worked out what tone it was aiming for.

Tone is very much secondary to the business of turret construction and alien slaughter, of course, and in that regard Defense Grid 2 is probably the game to beat. Alternating between playing field-type maps, which require you to build a deadly maze of your own devising, and fixed structure ones which place heavy limitations on where you can build, it keeps up the variety.

There are plenty of turrets of course, although the vast majority fit into the familiar pantheon of tower defence offences – short range but fast, long range but slow, burny, slowing, area effect, anti-shield, mortars, and each gets its own unlockable upgrade too. There’s also a choice of glacial-to-recharge uber-powers – mega-kill, cash bonus, overcharge turrets, that sort of thing – which add to the general sense of tweaking the game to your liking.

A favourite feature is hitting backspace to flash back to the last wave of enemies (repeatedly if you want to go even further back), usually ditching the grim need to restart a level entirely if you make a pig’s ear of it. This is far from an easy game – entirely the opposite, if you crank up the difficulty settings – but it very clearly wants you to have a good time, and to give you the opportunity to work out what you’ve done wrong. ‘The beatings will continue until morale improves’ is so often the philosophy of tower defence, but Defense Grid prefers that you only undergo beatings by choice, and once you’re good and ready. It also avoids prescribed solutions, ditching the need for mathematical planning in favour of creative thinking when it comes to turret layouts.

There’s a whole lot of it, too. Beating the campaign on normal difficulty alone will safely take you past double-digit hours, and after that there’ll be a strong compulsion to tackle it with the challenge ramped up. Then there’s co-op, and various mutators such as turrets only firing when you hover your cursor over them, or having a fixed amount of cash to spend, or not being allowed turrets which use bullets…

This wants to be comfort food that you’ll return to again and again, mixing things up a little each time. And you probably will do just that. Again, it’s familiar fare but approached with enthusiasm and expertise, and makes a strong case for tower defence having as much lure as it ever did. I want to say “Defense Grid 2 is the best tower defense game I’ve played in ages,” but I haven’t played any other tower defense game in ages, and a big part of that is because the last time I tried to I struggled to find anything like the level of craft and care in DG2.

The chattering narrators and a noodling plot about not a whole lot are the major stumbling blocks for me. Defense Grid the first stood out from the TD masses because it successfully combined character and carnage, but this comes across like two different games strapped loosely together. It’s not without its decent lines, but there’s just so much of it, and so many faceless characters competing for attention. I found it exhausting rather than openly irritating, and do wish it had been more restrained. As a result, it’s the sustained snacking aspect of Defense Grid 2’s many modes and weapon options, rather than the intended banquet that is its campaign, that’ll keep your belly full.

DG2: Defense Grid 2 is out now.

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34 Comments

  1. subedii says:

    I spent a lot of time with DG1, and not a small amount on DG2 now. So far I’ve found the game to be basically DG, but better.

    Yeah, characters are a bit much on occasion, but I largely ignore them when the game gets like that. In gameplay terms, the towers feel more distinctly useful and necessary. Laser towers are actually far more useful this time around owing to more strategies to deal with shields (the presence of shields in the first game basically negated your choosing them far too often). I was actually hard pressed to find a tower that I didn’t find useful for its purpose. The ability to tweak them with addons helps this as well, as they can be modified a little to work in concert with other towers you’re planning to use.

    Overall it just feels more fun and strategic to play than the first one. In DG1 I felt I had a couple of set strategies that I applied to all the maps, tower choices and placement felt fairly obvious. This time around I find myself thinking much more about what I want to put down, why and where. I look forward to trying out some of the more esoteric modes in future once I’m done with the difficulty levels.

    • Chalky says:

      I agree, the tone of the chatter is a bit much at times but the game itself is solid. The first one was a good game with the added extra of a voice actor occasionally saying something amusing. The new one is an even more solid game with the minor issue that the voice actors can be rather irritating.

      Although it’s sad that they clearly over-egged the witty AI aspect of the original, the game was and is a really damn good tower defense game. I challenge you to play the first one with the sound muted and not enjoy it, and equally you can do the same with the second if the new voices are a problem.

    • Gap Gen says:

      I think they Kickstarter stretch goaled for a genuine sequel with everything overhauled, but didn’t make the cut, so they fell back on their original promise of basically making more DG1. Which, from what I’ve played, seems to be the case.

      • Dachannien says:

        After the KS didn’t make the DG2 “stretch” goal, they got angel funding to finish the game (which is where the “Dracogen” credit comes from, Steven Dengler’s angel investing company).

    • Pulstar says:

      What do you mean you didn’t like the musings of General Raspberry?!

    • bstard says:

      I’ve almost 350hours on DG1, but already bored of 2. It’s replayability is terrible due to the ‘new and improved’ scoring system, that doesnt make any sence, well, not to me. It used to be very simple yet interesting: minimal resources used, gave maximal interest, gave maximal score. Now it’s some wierd score ticking with tower value and status of the cores. It does not matter if you build everything you can, or the minimal. Once you figured out how to keep the cores on the map somewhere it’s ok and you enter the roulette of an average or good score. It’s a game to make nice light shows shamefully.

      -edit- and dont get me started bout the tower upgrades, that range from 1 to 5x upgrade per type per tower, rewarded randomly. Before you can max out a map you need to grind for many hours before you got them all unlocked.

      If you want a good TD try Kingdom Rush, that is a td where you need to figure out maps.

  2. amateurviking says:

    Defence Grid the first basically ruined tower defence games for me (not tower defencebut games I should say though). It was really good. I feel like I’m going to pick this up.

  3. Geebs says:

    Remember – if you’ve played any tower defense before (particularly the first Defense Grid, or Fieldrunners), play this one on Hard the first time around.

    I like tower defense games where pathing is important, so I’m really enjoying this one; even better, just when you’ve finally figured out the right path for a particular level and blown everything to hell, the next level won’t allow you to do any pathing at all.

    Balance is pretty good – temporal towers are no longer a way to win immediately, and cannons and meteor towers have been nerfed so you can’t get away with just building those. On the other hand, and hold onto your hats, crinolines and monocles for this one, lasers and Tesla towers are actually useful now.

    If you liked Defense Grid, this is more Defense Grid.

    • subedii says:

      I was having so much trouble on “split decision” specifically because I was in the habit of avoiding Laser towers. Eventually managed to brute force it, then read online for advice. I think it was “Kaboom” (Hidden Path community manager) who said she used laser towers for the top of the map (where fast enemies come in, and where I thought naturally I should put concussion towers instead).

      Man, night and day difference. I finished it on hard without losing cores (still a tough map).

      Another thing that helps the game is the reworked and new enemy types really make you switch up your game from DG1. Fast enemies often NEED something more than just temporal towers and damage spam. Drop pods force a more reactive playstyle and a need to plan around the core as well. Healers mean avoiding any significant “gaps” that they can regen in.

    • LionsPhil says:

      I must have been terrible at DG1, then, because I found laser towers essential for their stated purpose: zapping those fast boss buggers (and to a lesser degree, the regular fast buggers).

    • Recurve says:

      Actually I found Tesla towers to be pretty much useless. They do hardly any damage to health or shields and take far too long to fire so that it’ll hit an alien once but by the time it fires again that alien has moved out of range so takes minimal damage. You’re better off building a gun tower quite honestly.

      Overall I did enjoy the game but it’s far too easy on normal difficulty and the later maps are a breeze compared to the last few maps in DG1. In fact it’s harder to get a bronze medal than a gold on most maps as you can get gold even if you lose cores which seems wrong to me.

      With a few tweaks and balances it might rival DG1 for me, but it isn’t quite there just yet.

  4. simrex says:

    I’m enjoying DG2. It feels like more of the same to me, which is welcome, so long after the release of the original. I haven’t finished it yet, but have been playing about 2 levels per evening as time permits.

    *possible minor spoilers follow*

    In respect of the tone, I have to disagree. The tone from the human side seems very like the first game to me, with Fletcher egging you on to military success. It still feels like we’re on a “jolly old crusade” to give “Johnny Aliener” a taste of human steel. The other AIs are a bit grating, but the spirit of the first game is still there. The “gravitas-laden, doomy text” in between feels like a deliberate counterpoint, to me. It seems to me that it tells the story from the other side, in stark contrast to our heroic gallivanting across the system. Of course, as I progress through the game I may find out my understanding is completely wrong…

  5. phanatic62 says:

    I’m enjoying it so far, and I can echo all of the other comments here that if you enjoy TD games, this is a must. I was okay with the campaign in DG1, and LOVED the Portal 2 expansion, but for some reason the story in this game just makes no sense to me. I wouldn’t let that stop anyone though. If this game gets its hooks into you I doubt you’ll be spending the majority of your time in the campaign.

  6. corbain says:

    DG1 was the first game i picked up on RPS recommendation, so i’ll be getting this too.

    I’ve sunk more hours into DG1 i think than all other games combined, having a competitive group of friends who also play makes the leaderboards great fun

  7. thedosbox says:

    I backed the KS campaign for this, and am largely happy with it. I think the tower designs could be a bit more distinct, and the sounds tend to blend together, but the “comfort food” comment is spot on.

  8. Severian says:

    There’s no doubt I’ll pick this up at some point, given what’s been said in this review (and by my fellow commenters who’ve played this and DG1). I loved DG1, absolutely the best tower defense game , and played it to death trying to gold medal all the maps (which I never did). I played some of the expansion maps and found them great too, but sometimes insanely hard – especially if I’d been out of practice for a while. I’m looking forward to jumping back in and honestly, I’m glad that it sounds like not a ton has changed dramatically – but that the towers have been tweaked and balanced and there are some new enemies to worry about. Definitely comfort food.

  9. Sardonic says:

    I think you’re being a little hard on the story honestly, I haven’t beaten it yet, but it seems they’re really trying for something. The story for the first was pretty barebones by comparison.

  10. slpk says:

    I loved DG1 but became afraid of touching this because of the Steam comments I read. I’ve decided to get it after reading this review. Thank you.

  11. malkav11 says:

    Strictly speaking it wasn’t a failed Kickstarter. It reached its funding goal and IIRC even hit one or two stretch goals. The thing is, it was structured in a way that the funding goal got a bit of transitional DLC for DG1, and DG2 was a far flung stretch goal that was never reached. It was weird and kind of offputting, and I for one didn’t pledge until they assured us that even if they didn’t hit the DG2 goal they would still produce DG2 and KS backers would still get a Steam key regardless. Which they did, and we have.

  12. Thrippy says:

    I was worried that DG2 would be overshadowed by Space Run and Over The Top Tower Defense (OTTTD (Steam PC version)). But all is well. This Summer and Fall has been bountiful for TD gamers. Play all three!

    Score graphs are for players interested in climbing the score leaderboards. I believe that was a community request – a feature that would replace the guesswork of improving your top scores in DG1.

    I am ambivalent about boost towers. They seem to be a compromise to placate the player base that asked for NO JUGGLING in DG2. You can still juggle just fine by going without boost towers. Time will tell if jugglers will dominate the score boards again as they always have.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Juggling?

      • bstard says:

        Building/selling towers on specific points on the map so the mobs walk back and forth, exploiting the interest system of DG1. Since there isnt any interest anymore juggling seems to be useless now. It was a noob tactic anyway, but that seems to be subject of debate ;)

        • Thrippy says:

          The top ten, sometimes top twenty scores for each DG1 leaderboard are exclusively juggling scores.

          I forgot to mention you can’t sell towers in competitive mode games. Unfortunately Command teams and tower mods are disabled too. So the competitive boards are juggle free zones by design but also lack the tactical gameplay variations of tower mods and special abilities. Competitive is all about build order.

          Meanwhile back on the open boards, the top scores are indeed juggling scores in excess of a million points. Non juggling scores trail far behind, less than one million. No different than DG1.

          Juggling is considered by many to be an exploit. Finishing a level without juggling takes about ten minutes on average. Juggling a level can draw it out to an hour or more, hence those odd outlier scores.

          Juggling is still a viable strategy, but now only if it takes less towers to kill the same number of aliens, not just for lengthening the time aliens are on the map – Hidden Path”

          Doesn’t appear to be working as intended, at all, in fact.

          The issue here is long term replayability, replaying levels to improve your performance after the first few weeks. Short term replayability is “if I do it this way can I still get a gold medal?”

  13. slpk says:

    Holy crap! There’s a freaking heat map for the exact location where murder aliens most effectively, AND a live line graph of points earned throughout the match. I would have bought this instantly if knew about these.