In the four years since Stephen Totilo declared Desktop Tower Defense, a free Flash game from a couple of bedroom coders, as his Game of the Year, “tower defense” has become as much part of the video-game genre lexicon as “fighter”, “shmup,” or, if you’re a fan of Japanese PSP releases, whatever eight-character combo refers to the latest arcane permutation of the dating sim. But while a thousand Xbox Indie Games have tried, no one seems to have truly improved on or even equaled the simple perfection of the original. In fact, most attempts to add snazzy graphics or more direct interaction have actually been less enjoyable, and Double Fine’s new game Trenched is unfortunately no exception.
Each level of Trenched tasks the player with protecting bases from waves of enemy attacks by building weaponized emplacements. Like a lot of recent tower-defense titles, the game augments the drone-arranging with direct running and gunning. Your mobile trench must move to a spot on the map to build a turret there, making it impossible to quickly drop defenses on opposite sides of the battlefield. But the consolation prize is that you can get hands-on with the killing, taking out enemies with extensive weaponry. The strategy and the shooting are made deeper through elaborate upgrade systems both within and between levels.
For even more immersion, Trenched takes away the genre’s usual overhead view and drops you into a behind-the-back third-person perspective. Movement is slow enough that you still have to rely on the turrets to do much of the work, but being so directly present in the game world edges play away from the genre’s RTS roots and toward midtempo console shooters like Gears of War, with your mobile trench’s heavy, slow movement necessarily incorporated into gameplay strategy.
The problem is that the on-the-ground immersion of a third-person shooter doesn’t mesh very well with the battlefield awareness that defines the tower-defense genre. Desktop Tower Defense’s overhead view made a player feel like a thoughtful general glaring at the bivouac map, shifting awareness across wide distances and reshaping the terrain with each unit. Once you’re just another grunt, the game is just another shooter. It’s satisfying to figure out the best spots to put turrets so they’ll wipe out enemies for you (I did smile as I wandered through the hills, hearing behind me the comforting burr of machine guns mowing down my enemies), but that’s kind of a tip-off that the shooting really isn’t that fun. If your reward for playing a game well is that you have to play it less, you’ve got yourself a game that’s just an XP farm without being actually fun, and nobody needs that.
The problems come into sharpest relief in the cooperative multiplayer. Relieved of the chore of lumbering from one place to the other, all the players just stand around flattening the monsters who, laboring under typically pathetic tower-defense AI, can only march into the maps’ many chokepoints and suffer. In typical tower-defense, no one minds that enemies can’t dodge, feint, or really do anything except head to the target, but the equal footing a shooter places you on with enemies makes their dimwit behavior seem just plain embarrassing. Played as a strategy game, Trenched’s low viewpoint and slow movement is frustratingly restrictive; played as a shooter, Trenched is a sorta-interesting upgradable weaponfest made boring by enemies that are almost surreally predictable. Like on a jazz-fusion record, the genres haven’t combined to produce something exciting, they’ve just canceled out each other’s virtues.
As always with Double Fine, their failure isn’t for lack of trying. Though the gameplay doesn’t work, it’s highly developed, and the trench upgrade system is packed with enough options to keep the interested player busy. And it’s all wrapped up in Double Fine’s usual wonderful presentation; the steampunk 1940s art design is both unusual and enjoyable (as opposed to the gameplay, which is only the former and not the latter), and the TV-head enemy designs are a hoot. Unfortunately, the visual design ends up exacerbating the dissatisfying lack of full-field awareness; the copious browns and greys make it nearly impossible to see from afar where you’ve put turrets and what their upgrade status is, further forcing you to play the game as a draggy shooter rather than a strategy title.
If you like the sluggish trundling of Gears of War and the promiscuous upgrades of Call of Duty, then I suppose there’s something to be said for spending a hot July day holding down the trigger and piling on XP with your buddies. But for me, there was something genuinely sad about watching these pathetic little digital slaves, not even given the brains gifted to Halo’s old Covenant enemies, tromping glumly in front of my gun. The game’s enthusiastic and hardworking spirit means I can’t quite hate it, but I can’t say I enjoyed it much either.