Defense Grid: The Awakening in the test - The indie hit is coming to Germany

Author: Christian Schmidt
Date: 2009-10-09 18:30:00
It has been gaining laurels in the indie scene for a year now, and the highly acclaimed tactical game Defense Grid is now in stores as a German version. It's about time, because the tower defense game is a tricky and cool pastime.

Anyone who believes that the time of original concepts and new genres for computer games is long gone will be taught better by tower defense. The game principle comes from the modding scene for Starcraft and Warcraft 3, has enjoyed great popularity in recent years, especially on the Internet, and has now produced full-fledged games. Defense Grid: The Awakening has been at the top for a year. The indie program appeared as an English download version on December 8th, 2008, and since then it has garnered all-round praise and awards: The American magazine PC Gamer awarded 9 out of 10 points, and US colleagues from GamePro awarded 4.5 out of 5 points.

Even the creative mind behind Defense Grid is no stranger: Mark Terrano was formerly at Ensemble Studios and, among other things, chief designer of the classic Age of Empires 2. So a lot of hype, a shot of celebrities and the charm of the independent scene, the surprise hits last year as World of Goo or Braid has brought about, accompany the release of the German version of Defense Grid: The Awakening. But is that bohei justified?

»View the Defense Grid scoring box

This is how tower defense works

Tower defense doesn't mean anything to you? Never mind, the principle is quickly explained. Swarms of monsters run on a manageable (mostly screen-sized) map on a winding path from A to B. Because the critters want to destroy B, they must not reach their destination at all costs. Your task is to build defense towers along the way, which then automatically shoot the advancing hordes. That's it, more than building towers, demolishing or upgrading them if necessary. This simplicity is the attraction of tower defense, because the game principle is understood immediately, but unfolds astonishing tactical depth.

Because the opponents are advancing in ever more powerful waves and tower defense games usually do not allow you the luxury of a pause button, there is also constant time pressure because you are building against the relentless onslaught. So simply setting a turret becomes a tricky puzzle, because the decision when to put which tower and where is not a game of chance, but the result of logic and consideration.

Defense Grid does that differently

Defense Grid: The Awakening follows the tower defense gameplay down to the icing on the cake. Its strength lies not in original new ideas, but in the almost perfect implementation of the standard. If you want to know how the young genre works, you will find an oiled, high-gloss version of all core mechanisms in Defense Grid.

Instead of the fantasy monsters that are otherwise popular in the genre, extraterrestrial beasts knock on the doors of future systems in Defense Grid. So fight defensive battles in high-tech ruins, in front of crashed spaceships or in laboratory complexes. The campaign comprises 20 missions that are not connected by any notable plot. Instead, the common thread is a computer intelligence that gives instructions and comments on what is happening. And that out of sheer self-interest, because at the center of every level of Defense Grid is always a central computer of the babbling AI, which the alien attackers are trying to reach. If they manage to do that, they will gradually steal 24 cores and try to drag them to the level exit. In contrast to other tower defense games, Defense Grid not only features opponents marching through, but also their way back on most maps. Only when the enemies manage to carry all the cores out of the level is the mission lost.

Constantly new play elements

With each mission of the campaign, Defense Grid: The Awakening adds at least one element, and often several, to the game mechanics. Everything that has proven itself in the genre is included. In the towers, not only more and more powerful flamethrowers, lasers, rocket positions or lightning-spitting Tesla coils sizzle the approaching hordes, but there are also expensive auxiliary towers to choose from, which, for example, slow down opponents briefly. With the enemies, crawling cannon fodder is soon followed by more difficult calibers such as fast-moving speeders, heavily armored monsters or attackers who simply absorb energy beams with protective shields.

Even the initially straight levels are becoming increasingly complex, soon offer forks and alternative routes and culminate in open levels, where you have to block the enemy streams the direct route to the computer by forcing them through rows of towers to make as labyrinthine detours as possible. The more complex the difficulty increases, and at the latest after half of the 20 missions Defense Grid becomes extremely tricky. Then there is hardly a way around starting the operations several times in order to vary and refine the building tactics. After all, there is a convenient jump-back function that returns to the position in front of the enemy wave that has just advanced at the touch of a button. Another button can also speed up the time. This comfort is exemplary.

Best graphics in the genre

Even if Defense Grid remains conservative in terms of game mechanics (the genre colleague Plants vs. Zombies, for example, is much more original), it outclasses all competitors in terms of presentation. The 3D graphics are based on the Gamebryo engine, which is also found in The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion or Fallout 3, among others.

Defense Grid not only creates fluid, detailed environments, but also flaunts a special effect. Explosions, laser beams and lightning bolts burn off such colorful fireworks on advanced maps that the entire screen sparkles and glitters impressively (which is sometimes at the expense of the overview). Defense Grid conceals at the same time that there isn't much going on on the sterile maps, but that doesn't matter anyway; There's not much life on the chessboard either. Music and sound effects are appropriate, the proper German setting refers exclusively to the voice of your AI advisor, whose comments begin to repeat themselves after a while.

Defense Grid: The Awakening was released on September 14th via the publisher Aspyr, both on the Steam download platform and as a packaged retail version for 20 euros. Nice: In addition to the game DVD, it also contains a download code for Steam, so that you get practically two versions at once. Only the Steam version can access online leaderboards and statistics, which doesn't make any significant difference in terms of gaming enjoyment.