Tag Archives: Tower Defense

Orc Slaying and Other Extreme Sports

Since I’ve been making a concerted effort to go through my Xbox 360 backlog I’ve been sneaking an Xbox Live Arcade title between every game or two. Having just completed Orcs Must Die! I figured I’d also go ahead and mention a couple others I put some time into recently.

Not pictured: imminent painful death.
“Not pictured: imminent painful death.”

First, I ended up buying and giving Trials HD a whirl. For those unfamiliar with the series (who are you?!) the game is kind of like a modern day Excitebike, only using an amped up physics engine and courses designed by total fucking sadists. You play an anonymous motocross rider negotiating various obstacles (that aren’t necessarily based in reality) as quickly and smoothly as possible. It’s not really a “race” in the traditional sense but you’re always racing against the clock to beat pre-defined goals. There’s also a nice feature that lets you easily compare your scores against your XBL friends’. I knew this game had a reputation for being brutally difficult but that it was also built from the ground up on that premise, making restarts and retries convenient and forgiving. It definitely delivers there, instilling a “just one more try!” attitude on even the least addictive personalities. Personally, while I feel like I could play this game forever, attempting to gold medal every race, unlock all of the achievements, etc. I honestly have too many games on my backlog to justify subjecting myself to the kind of frustration that started rearing its head once I got into the “hard” and “extreme” rated levels for too long. Yeah, I shamefully put this one down before completing it. If I had bought it when it came out I might have finished it but I just can’t force myself through it right now.

Promance? Nope.
“Promance? Nope.”

Speaking of which, I also ended up picking up Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD during a XBLA sale at some point. Thinking of the first three Tony Hawk games causes an almost instant nostalgic flashback to my college years, with just about every one of my punk rock, wanna-be skater friends that owned a Playstation or Dreamcast at the time totally addicted to the series. I owned the barely adequate Nintendo 64 port of the first game myself and was totally addicted to it despite its shortcomings. How does it feel to go back? Eh, kind of shitty actually. The game looks pretty good and, at first play, controls more or less like what I remembered the series playing like. Unfortunately those positive impressions didn’t last long as I began to notice that the controls didn’t quite make the translation to the new HD engine which itself “feels” totally different and is chalk full of some now rather infamous physics bugs. Most offensively, the classic THPS soundtrack has been totally gutted. Licensing issues, most likely, but it still changes the experience drastically. While I wouldn’t necessarily tell any fans of the original to totally steer clear of this remake I’d definitely suggest giving the demo a shot first. Personally, after clearing about half of the levels I’ve decided to put it down.

Finally, an XBLA game I couldn’t even start to put down early was Orcs Must Die! Holy shit, I love this game! I’ve talked very fondly about both Toy Soldiers and Defense Grid on this blog in the past so it probably comes as no surprise that I’m raving about yet another highly polished tower defense game. Orcs Must Die! probably more closely resembles Toy Soldiers, as it gives the player the ability to participate in the action themselves rather than just hover above the battlefield like some kind of micromanagement obsessed deity. Actually, this game goes even further with the third person action component being a much more fleshed out and indeed, important part of the game. Some of my strategies actually centered on my reinforcing one or two paths with traps while guarding the other with my character’s selection of weapons and spells.

Step into my web, little orcs...
“Step into my web, little orcs…”

Let me back up for a second and explain the premise a little better – you play as a sarcastic apprentice “war mage” who has been tasked with guarding the magical portals from one world, apparently occupied by all manner of nasty orcs and other stereotypical fantasy monsters, to your own. These portals are all inside of dungeon-like fortresses, some of them fairly elaborate, though unlike a lot of tower defense games their layouts never really get *too* complicated. As per usual, your enemies come in various “waves” of different combinations of enemies with breaks in between in which you can use the money you’ve earned by killing enemies from previous waves to shore up your defenses. In this game your “towers” actually consist of various types of dungeon traps – spiked floor panels and wall dart launchers to kill your enemies, swinging maces and crushing ceiling tiles to maim them, and sliding walls and springing floor panels to send them hilariously flailing off of ledges and into lava pools. There’s even placeable archer and paladin NPCs to help guard your paths. Unlike some tower defenses games, you can also place them just about anywhere they’ll fit. The traps and other defenses are rolled out to you steadily as you progress, which means back tracking in the campaign can be helpful to improve your score, and there’s even an optional (and ultimately very useful) skill tree system that gets introduced a little further into the campaign.

No good shots showing the UI, unfortunately.
“No good shots showing the UI, unfortunately.”

I ended up working my way through the entire War Mage campaign (normal difficulty) with 4 or 5 skull ratings on every map. I highly considered going back and chasing 5 skull ratings on every map, or playing through the campaign on a higher difficulty, but again, too many games too little time. It’s a shame that the sequel never got released on Xbox 360 but I MOST DEFINITELY plan to pick up Orcs Must Die! 2 on Steam. Robot is also apparently working on Orcs Must Die! Unchained now which turns the whole thing into some kind of weird, Team Fortress 2 inspired 5 vs 5 competitive game. Intriguing!

Per usual, Xbox 360 screenshots stolen from wherever possible.

Flashpoint Defense

I’ve been absolutely pining to play ArmA again lately – perhaps finally dedicating myself to an organized team with regular play schedules, even. For now I’ve been sticking to watching a ton of ArmA 2 related videos on YouTube. I’ve found them to be a great source of background noise and entertainment while at work, especially some of the better channels like Dslyecxi’s fantastic ShackTac stuff.

Additionally, I’ve decided to scratch the itch by replaying the original Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis and Resistance campaigns (using the PC re-release version, ArmA: Cold War Assault.) This is actually the first time I’ve played through the whole game on PC – most of my quality time with the original OFP was actually done with the Xbox “Elite” version, which was pretty much identical apart from some (barely) improved sound work, models, and textures and some enhanced graphical effects here and there. It even had a more or else intact editor and the same rad online co-op action as the PC version.

Ahh, we were so innocent in those early missions...
“Ahh, we were so innocent in those early missions…”

The PC version has aged pretty badly in some respects – barren looking landscapes thanks to a lack of ground-cover, the annoying, choppy radio chatter (A staple of the engine, which seems god awful when you first hear it but after getting used to it and even starting to rely on its information, is rather useful) and the ridiculous soldier models and animations. Regardless, the landscapes are still massive, the vehicle models are still quite serviceable, and the immersion of the soldier simulator-inspired action is still hard to beat in “Tactical FPS” circles once it clicks with you. I’m actually enjoying myself though I really don’t remember some of these missions be so brutally fucking difficult. Ugh!

Oh, and coincidentally, I also came across this excellent OFP retrospective after I started replaying it. Fun read.

M60 versus T80. Seems fair...
“M60 versus T80. Seems fair…”

Will I get around to dedicating myself to ArmA 2? That’s hard to say. I plan on playing through ArmA and ArmA 2’s various official campaigns first and then… well, by then ArmA 3 should be officially released. That’ll be perfect timing to hop on that bandwagon, although I might need to build an entirely new gaming rig to play it smoothly. 🙁

On the console front I just wrapped up playing through Defense Grid: The Awakening’s main single player campaign on XBLA. If you’ve never heard of it, Defense Grid is a fantastic sci-fi tower defense game. You probably have though – the PC version was quite popular years ago on Steam. Regardless of which version you go with I’d say it’s a “must play” if you’re a fan of the genre – it’s excellently executed on all fronts. Good graphics and sound, challenging and varied maps, and absolutely refined, classic tower defense gameplay. I’ve said it before, but I love a well-done tower defense game and I had a hard time putting this one down for long. I’ve still got plenty more of them on my backlog but I’m pretty sure I’ll be returning to Defense Grid to play the Portal themed “You Monster” DLC campaign at some point in the future.

The more towers the merrier!
“The more towers the merrier!”

Next on the 360 will be yet more exploration of my backlog. I’ve been feeling like a World War II shooter lately so I think it’s finally time to give Call of Duty: World at War’s campaign a spin, despite how much I’ve grown to hate Call of Duty’s single player gameplay in recent years. Wish me luck with making it through that one without pulling out my fucking hair…

Back to the Trenches!

I decided to hit up an XBLA game for a change – there are plenty of Arcade games that I want to play but it’s already challenging enough to manage my backlog of physical titles which often leads to me forgetting all about these excellent downloadable games. Still, every now and then I choose to hop into one. This time it is Toy Soldiers by Signal Studios.

Tower defense games are oddly hit and miss for me – when they’re done just right they totally click with me in a very satisfying, addictive way and when they’re not I usually can’t even be bothered to try feigning interest in them enough for a second try. Toy Soldiers is definitely in the former category. It takes the classic, simple tower defense gameplay, gives it an awesome World War I come toys theme, and adds in the ability to control towers and other units (tanks and planes) by hand to up their effectiveness and/or your score. It’s a very simple concept but executed almost perfectly with an awesome presentation and a healthy layer of polish.

Surveying the (toy) carnage.
“Surveying the (toy) carnage.”

The World War I theme doesn’t get visited in video games (or much else) very often and, if you think about it, the static trench warfare that is typically associated with it is right at home with the tower defense genre. You have troops attacking in waves, trying to reach objectives, and you can place certain defenses such as barbed wire, machine gun nests, mortars, and artillery in their way to hopefully wipe them out before they get there. Right on! As usual, the more enemies you kill the more money you make and the more money you have the more you can upgrade your defenses which you’ll need to do as enemy waves get more and more difficult. That’s it in a nutshell.

The fact that you’re actually supposed to be playing with toys takes little away from the game – units are animated and are fairly realistic. In fact I often found myself forgetting that the sun was actually a gigantic desk lamp and that my tank had a huge winding key sticking out of the back of it and finding myself immersed in the gritty battlefield. Still, having the units break into pieces and vanishing instead of turning the toy-box into a horrid gore-fest is actually a pretty smart way to get around any ratings concerns. Using toys also gives the developers license to more or less do whatever they want. How about we fight a massive uber-tank this time? What if flying saucers show up instead of tri-planes? Again, pure genius.

About to fuck up some toy horses... and probably my own guys.
“About to fuck up some toy horses… and probably my own guys.”

The maps are pretty varied and are often quite challenging, sometimes involving a bit of trial and error though if you play conservatively enough with your cash flow you can often adapt to surprises in the enemy waves. In some of the trickier scenarios finding just the right balance between managing your turrets and controlling a turrets or units is key to a successful defense. There aren’t many types of turrets and units available at first glance but each turret can be upgraded and not all upgrades are of the simple “+1 damage” variety. For instance, I sometimes preferred a level 2 anti-infantry gun for tracking and killing off cavalry quickly versus a level 3 which is basically a small canon, and thus fires and tracks a little less quickly despite doing a lot more damage over a wider area.

I ended up playing through the campaign on normal difficulty as well as playing through the campaign+ mode (which thankfully mixed up the maps from the normal campaign a lot more than I was anticipating) and both DLC campaigns including “Invasion!” which added all kinds of flipped out new enemy units and culminated in you fighting a giant robot. AWESOME! Sadly I didn’t get around to try multiplayer but I can easily imagine it being a ton of fun. I can’t wait to get my hands on Toy Soldiers: Cold War now though I’ll likely wait a while before leaping into that one.

Digging waaaay back into the physical backlog I also played through The Darkness by Starbreeze Studios. Being a fan of The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay on the original Xbox and thinking the concept looked cool I’d been wanting to play this one for quite awhile. Unfortunately I came out on the other side mostly disappointed.

Viva la aim assist!
“Viva la aim assist!”

First, the game in case you’ve never heard of it or more likely have forgotten about it by now: It’s a first person shooter where you play a mobster who gets possessed by The Darkness, some kind of wacky demonic presence that wants nothing more than to kill mofos and eat their hearts. Doesn’t everybody? The Darkness grants you some powers and abilities in additional to the normal FPS running and gunning you’re used to which should help aid you in hunting down the mob boss who is trying to rub you out. Additionally, it thrives in the darkness (go figure!) so sneaking around in the shadows and shooting out lights becomes a major factor in the gameplay as well. The other big gameplay twist is that you’re mostly running around in a small but semi-open world city (complete with side missions!) rather than the usual level based structure we see in FPS games. You’ll also make a few trips to a twisted, dark re-imagining of World War 1. Yes, another World War 1 game… err, sort of!

The game looks and sounds great, I particularly love the use of the first person view, though overall it feels very last gen at times – maybe this is because of it being very early in this generation or maybe it’s a Starbreeze thing. I don’t really know. The sound is pretty excellent overall – good voice acting, for instance. I was concerned about Mike Patton being the voice of The Darkness since I’m a big fan and was worried that such a bizarre role would somehow come across poorly but I should have had more faith in him as he hits a home run with his performance here. Really, the only thing I found difficult to live with was its controls: maybe I’ve been spoiled by some of the newer shooters out there but they’re a bit on the clunky side in The Darkness which is definitely not what you want in a console FPS. Still, thanks to a heavy dose of auto-aim they’re serviceable enough.

That leads me to The Darkness powers themselves. I was actually pretty surprised by how little your possession by The Darkness actually gives you. Looking at them all on paper it seems like a nice selection of abilities to augment your character but their execution was a bit rough around the edges, both in terms of using the powers and of how some of the special mechanics they introduced were used in the game. In other words, so close but yet so far…

The Darkness knows how to party!
“The Darkness knows how to party!”

The “Darkness Vision” which was supposed to be kind of a nightvision+ kind of sucked. The “darklings” you can summon to help fight with you were barely useful and died or otherwise vanished way too quickly. The “Creeping Dark” power seemed awesome but was needed perhaps too little and could sometimes be a little disorientating to use. The “Demon Arm” power also seemed to be required a little too infrequently and mostly served me as a way to quickly (err, usually) take out lights without wasting all of my ammo. The guns seemed nice but also seemed to deplete your darkness too quickly to be useful. Finally, the last power you get, the vortex, was almost an “I win” button but even that was perhaps a little too iffy to target and, on top of that, a bit too sensitive to range. I found myself occasionally landing it just a bit too far and having it sitting there seemingly close to my enemies as they stood their attacking me, unaffected.

Keeping track of your darkness power levels was kind of head scratching to me at first. The game frequently referred to having to stay out of the light and in the darkness to fuel your Darkness powers, and referenced how certain abilities drain your Darkness at different rates, but this Darkness power is never represented anywhere in game that I ever noticed. Having a meter on screen or SOMETHING would have gone a long way into making my darkness powers feel more useful as well making the whole “staying out of the light” and “hunting for hearts to eat” thing a bit more urgent and fun. I’m guessing this was done in the name of having a minimal UI (your health also goes unrepresented and guns and ammo display can be a little sketchy as well) but to me, in this case, it largely detracted from the experience.

The open world structure is kind of pointless. It worked well in the Riddick but in this game it didn’t really serve to help immerse me in the environment at all. Instead, it just felt tedious having to travel around everywhere, back and forth to the same bite sized hunks of map, loading screens in between. Perhaps a real, seamless open world and/or better navigational aids could have helped this a bit but ultimately I just didn’t think it fit well with the story.

You'd think with this much firepower a single schlub with a gun wouldn't be owning me.
“You’d think with this much firepower a single schlub with a gun wouldn’t be owning me.”

Finally, the story. I understand that The Darkness was based on a comic book series and perhaps I’d have some better appreciation for it if I had ever read any of it, but as it was, it didn’t do much for me. There seemed like so many missed opportunities to take it into more interesting places. For instance, your character, Jackie, hardly has any sort of reaction to being possessed. Really? You’d think suddenly having an evil demonic entity sprouting out of your body and speaking directly into your brain might elicit SOME kind of reaction. Nah, not so much. I mean, you could tell an entire series of stories based JUST on him dealing with this shit! Instead Jackie hardly has any sort of reaction to anything! There have definitely been times when the silent protagonist thing has worked just fine in video games but The Darkness is pretty ham-fisted with the whole thing. One minute he’s blabbing about meatballs or making some vapid comment about riding on the subway in a loading scene and the next he seems entirely unfazed by having his entire life, and even his entire concept of reality, turned upside down. Come on, guys…

The death cut scenes and the loading scenes were interesting touches and add a little more flavor though the loading scenes in particular often felt bizarrely out of place and were where the worst of the horrible Italian-American cliches came in. Honestly, Jackie didn’t really need any help feeling like a one-dimensional moron, but whatever. Despite my issues with some of these scenes, and I don’t say this a lot, I think the whole presentation, both in terms of the story and of the flawed open world structure I mentioned earlier, would have worked so much better if the game were more linear with more cut-scenes or at least more focused on the narrative. As it is it just doesn’t feel well executed to me.

Technically it is fine, and even conceptually it’s quite solid, I just feel like they designers missed a lot of opportunities to capitalize on what could have been a much more exciting game with more unique and cool mechanics and a much more engrossing story. It came close to being something really special and I’m quite curious to see if the developers of The Darkness 2 will be able to succeed where Starbreeze couldn’t. Not a bad game overall but probably not really worth revisiting if you missed it originally. All of that said, the very last cut-scene was surprisingly touching and having the credits roll on to a Tomahawk song was awesome!

As usual, Xbox 360 screenshots mercilessly looted from teh interwebz. Yarr!