Presentation is, perhaps, one of the less important characteristics of the tower defense genre. Content with hundreds of flash-created interpretations, it’s a genre where balance is key, and everything else comes second.
That’s not to say function always takes precedent over style. PixelJunk Monsters and Plants Vs Zombies both attempted to peer out over the crowd with audacious visual flair and the latter game especially, managed to combine balanced gameplay with impressive production values and remains one of the best the genre has to offer.
However few titles are as revered, or met with such unanimous praise, as Defense Grid and the popular PC tower defense game from 2008 is just as refined on Live Arcade. Striking a near-flawless equilibrium between its horde of attackers and the towers themselves, it’s fairly unmatched in the genre. It also boasts style to match its substance, going as far as to incorporate voice acting and a plot as well as reasonably easy-on-the-eye graphics and enough gunfire and explosive sound effects to drive anyone nearby to insanity.
Though it sounds ostentatious, it’s still core tower defense; your objective, as per the norm (though the circumstances are slightly different), to defend a set number of glowing cores from being transported off the map by your attackers, in this case aliens. The usual suspects are all present; weaker faster aliens, slower more powerful, flying, invisible and boss aliens arrive in different strengths and numbers and each has a tower most effective at announcing its demise. There’s a large array of aliens and through the course of a twenty-level campaign new aliens are added every level or two, so tactics have to be rethought often.
The towers themselves won’t be new to anyone familiar with the genre either, but they’re all valuable and can all be upgraded to increase their effectiveness. Command towers that increase revenue and temporal towers that slow the pace of aliens add an additional level of tactical reasoning, as space to build towers is often limited.
Although level design is of a generally solid standard, later levels often suffer from convoluted design and detract from the immediacy of earlier levels. Multiple paths weaving above and below platforms and other pathways tend to confuse rather than enhance the game and whilst they do augment the difficulty, more often than not they prove frustrating rather than stimulating.
And occasionally towers aren’t quite as reliable as you’d expect, infrequently targeting less prominent aliens rather than those carrying cores. It’s not a regular occurrence, but an anger-provoking one when it does happen.
But Defense Grid’s affirmations as ‘best of the genre’ are born from a balance between towers and adversaries. They’re perfectly in tune, never making you feel as though there’s an alien too powerful for the towers available, nor that the aliens too weak to offer an appropriate challenge. It’s a safe assumption to make that achieving gold medal status on all levels will demand astute tactics and an abundance of time.
But the game has an answer for that too, an issue that plagues the majority of tower defense games: failing during the final moments, forcing the player to restart an entire level. With an automated checkpoint system every few waves, you can jump back to any checkpoint at any point. For those who want the full challenge, this isn’t compulsory and checkpoints are only reverted to at the player’s request. It’s a thoughtful inclusion that elevates Defense Grid one step above the rest in an inundated genre; trial and error is rarely required.
Besides a lengthy campaign, the Borderlands expansion pack (also released on PC) has been included, although it’s only four levels in length. More substantially however, each campaign level has additional game modes and challenges varying from battling tougher aliens to completing the same levels with only basic towers or a limited pool of resources. Probably the best of these is the Poison Core mode, essentially reversing tower defence tactics from building as many powerful towers as possible to playing with as few as possible to maximise your final score.
Additions like this only further fortify Defense Grid as the pinnacle of a genre in which quality is often hard to uncover; where aspects like graphics and story are often overlooked in place of function.
Defense Grid has both. Functioning as a near-perfect tower defence game that offers a judicious balanced experience with a wealth of towers and aliens to keep the campaign and proceeding challenges interesting. But even better, what it flaunts in substance it equals in style and at 800 points if tower defence is your passion, Defense Grid is your passion.