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.