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A Couple Of Hours With... Dungeon Defenders II

Operant conditioning chamber incarnate

Dungeon Defenders II is a tower defence/action-RPG hybrid, with a very heavy focus on co-op multiplayer, in which your fantasy archetype lays traps and wades into the fray themselves in the hope of defeating waves of marching monsters. Its 'pre-alpha' has been out on Steam Early Access for a short while now, and is proving rather popular. I gave it a very quick look to try and find out why.

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Aka "ageing man plays game not really aimed at him." Perhaps that should be an ongoing series? I can find a million of 'em, I'm sure. Anyway: given I'm partial to tower defence, and to action RPG spin-offs like Orcs Must Die, I thought I'd take a look at Dungeon Defenders II. It's doing well for itself on Steam despite being early access, so presumably was doing something right.

First thing to say is that I don't think I've ever seen anything quite this slick and glossy with the phrase 'pre-alpha' stamped on it before. DD2 feels much further down the line than that, and is presented lavishly. I can't tell you yet how much content the current build offers before petering out, but it's certainly got its core up and running, I haven't hit any bugs to speak of, the networking just works and there's no shortage of players. It is bright, colourful, cartoonish and feels like it came from a huge studio: there is no doubt that a great deal of care has been poured into this.

On the other hand, what I've played so far is as shallow as a Hollyoaks cast member's crayon drawing of a puddle. It may escalate to far greater tactical complexity some hours in, but so far it revolves around one thing: gimme gimme gimme.

Dungeon Defenders II is primarily a loot delivery system. Shiny things drop regularly during a match, chests appear at the end of it, unwanted items are frantically sold in the midst of battle or upgraded outside of it, and everything glitters and gleams and makes those Blizzardy 'ooh! a trinket!' sound effects. This is the operant conditioning chamber incarnate. Even the art style, falling somewhere between Warcraft and kids' game, is risk-free and built from distractingly familiar parts; its evocation is cuddly safety and instant gratification. I found the ephemerality of it all to be oppressive.

Old man plays game.

Many people want that sweet, sweet loot, of course. I'm not saying that it's a great evil, just that there wasn't enough else for me to attach to, and I didn't enjoy the extremely commercially-minded aesthetic.

Where I can imagine DD2 offering me something is in multiplayer at higher levels, as managing the rampaging swarm of personality-free goblinoids turns from perfunctory bashing and zapping and into desperate 'oh God get over there!' and 'aaargh it's trashed my lightning trap!' and general panic/recrimination.

It's Orcs Must Die 2 with far less invention in terms of trap types, placement and combination, but on the other hand it's better at straight-up carnage. There's less punishment for not having traps just so at every choke point, and more focus on smacking things down yourself, ideally in combination with others' traps. Wade in, unleash hell, grit teeth as the enemies just keep on charging, come out of it all with some reward.

It grows more interesting the harder it gets, in other words. I can see why people are enjoying it - 15 minute adrenaline surges with a candy fountain at the end of it. You've got to really care about finding a hat that's 2 better than another hat to connect with this game, and frankly there's no shortage of people who do.

With a bolder look, and not these instantly-forgettable infantalised characters and chunky, squat constructions, I might have been amongst them. I quite like getting new hats. That the stuff I've claimed so far achieves nothing other than raising a number turns me off, though - I found nothing to show off, nothing to be proud of, nothing to drop my jaw, nothing other than licking at the salt block. Even the wacky fonts made me wince. Old man.

It really is impressively slick, though. Least Early Accessy Early Access game I've ever played, I think. On a technical level and even on a presentation level, it's as solid as they come, but I won't be going back. Then again, I am far too old for it. Don't mind me.

Dungeon Defenders II is out on Steam Early Access now.

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