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.