Defense Grid: The Awakening
Reviewed by Rebecca Wigandt
Review Date Platform Genre Rating Production
2009-09-13 Xbox 360 Strategy E10 (Everyone 10+) Hidden Path Entertainment

My grandmother had a saying: save on the little things, so you can afford the big things. Of course, she also tied me to a laundry pole to keep me in the backyard when I was little, and kept a filet knife in her car to cut off people's fingers if they tried to, you know, reach in or clean her windows or something. What was I talking about again?

Oh, right. Remember Desktop Tower Defense? I came to that game a few months into the somewhat unpredictable craze it started, mostly to satisfy my head-scratching confusion at reviews that a Flash game more or less touted by everyone who played it as "a clever time waster at work" was getting comments like "possibly the best game of the year" or "a design masterpiece" by gaming critics who get paid a lot more money than I do.

And so the "tower defense" genre of Flash games was born, spawning literally thousands of doppelgangers. There was, yes, a very small handful of bigger-budget titles predating this explosion, but you can navigate to Wikipedia your damn self for precise historical inclusionism. DTD was what introduced most people to the genre for the simple reason that you could play it- or its many, many imitators- at work, the library, prison, oil rig, anywhere you had access to an average-to-below-average computer and needed to waste time in ways that could run in your browser without having to install anything.

I'm not denigrating this genre, either. Browser games, especially the venerable Flash species, are an honorable and vital tradition that has kept literally millions of Americans from throwing themselves out of windows, eating staples, or shotgunning staff meetings in shocked realization of the utter futility and emptiness of their ubiquitous desk job. Karl Marx said, "religion is the opiate of the people." Shanti said, "Television is the drug of the nation." Rebecca says, "Flash is the anaesthesia of the meaningless." I mean, come on, people, Castle Crashers? Who gives a crap about universal health care?

In any case, Defense Grid: The Awakening has hit the virtual XBLA shelf at a price that would make Grandma proud, at a scant ten beans, and includes The Borderlands expansion levels. DG was actually rolled out for the PC about a year ago for twice the price, and frankly, the product in general has me scratching my head about the whole genre again. No, it isn't lice this time.

While I'm going to, in my own good time, tell you a few reasons why Defense Grid is a pretty good game, I'm still baffled by its existence. The gameplay, as for every other tower defense game, is straightforward enough for my 7-year old ungoddaughter to go "duh!" at: nameless horde X moves from point A to point B, and you must place a bunch of static defenses between A and B to hopefully wipe out all of X. If too much of X reaches B, you lose. As you go along, X becomes more numerous and durable, requiring you to build more and effective defenses and develop strategies to cope with unique vulnerabilities or movement patterns of X. Like all addictive things, though, the principle is basic and repetitive and gives you lots of tiny but frequent reinforcers. The point is, you play Flash games when you're willing to settle for less- you don't have the time, resources, or undivided attention to play something intricate, high-powered, or intellectually demanding. You don't try and play Axis and Allies when you're going to get called to a meeting in ten minutes or when you know you have to get back to your TPS reports soon.

It's this incredible simplicity of form that makes Defense Grid baffling. It's like putting a supercharged V-8 engine in a floor waxer. It's like porting a Tic-Tac-Toe game for Windows 95 onto XBLA only adding in a backstory about alien invaders complete with cutscenes, a Smashmouth soundtrack, your choice of 3,500 premium downloadable fonts for the Xes, and Os shaped like skulls that moan "welcome to your doom" and launch the Windows 95 version as a minigame. And, of course, twelve Achievements ("The O's Have It: win 3,500 games as 'O.'" "The X's Have It: win 3,500 games as 'X.'" "Super Strike Team Alpha: Um... this Achievement is a secret. Unlock it to learn more. Yeah, that's the ticket."). So, in short, I'm not implying that Defense Grid isn't a decent game, or that it isn't a faithful example of the tower defense genre. It just feels like, I don't know, cashing in. Did you really need to put that much effort into a computerized board game? Couldn't that effort have been put towards finally finishing Duke Nukem Forever?

Defense Grid does actually add in a backstory about alien invaders (though there are, thankfully, no cutscenes), a soundtrack that the official site hypes enough to sell separately, 3D graphics (really 3D-like isometric) using the Gamebryo engine, and a handful of Achievements. Having only ever previously played Desktop Tower Defense and another similar one about pirates, it was impressive to see this simple concept in all this overwrought majesty. Like all the other games, you have a variety of tower types: standard guns, close area-effect flamethrowers, long-range single shot cannons, exclusively anti-air platforms, etc. Also cleaving to tradition, you have waves of large numbers of inexplicably unarmed foes that swarm across the map, each with varying degrees of toughness, mobility, or immunity to one or another of your tower types.

What Defense Grid does to make this a little more interesting, though, is to mix up some of these variables a bit, and it's this kind of creative take that makes the title stand out. First of all, the enemies aren't simply sweeping from one side of the map to another- they're moving towards your power plant to steal cores and run off with them. The entry and exit points aren't always the same, so you'll have to adjust your strategy accordingly. Airborne enemies follow their own flight path distinct from the ground-based units, and you're only able to engage them on their path to your core- once they reach it, they grab and vanish. You can zoom in to varying degrees to watch the carnage close-up, though the primary top-down view is the only one really practical for laying out your defenses.

There are challenges for each level of the game once you've beaten them in story mode- win using a limited number of towers, no upgrades, endless waves, etc. There's also a 'medal' system for beating each level of story mode within certain parameters, with the gold medal requiring you to win with no loss of power cores using the least number of towers possible.

For all my sarcasm, Defense Grid is arguably a good $10 worth of game- you can play through all its possible modes in a couple of days, and meeting the more advanced challenges requires a little creative engineering and strategic thought. That said, once you've 'cracked' a particular map, there's really not much replay value- there's a small number of optimal configurations for any given scenario, and other than placing down towers, there isn't much for you to do other than wait out the level and see if your defenses hold- after a certain point you're pretty much holding down the 'speed up' button and watching your maze run itself clockwork, which does have some certain satisfaction but can also feel like wasting time for wasting time's sake.

Defense Grid epitomizes the balance of quality and play value to price point in XBLA - relatively inexpensive titles with a simple, "clever" game mechanic that offers a few days' fun, but probably not anything you're going to be playing in a few months. It's a rainy day of alien-blasting fun, and you can save your pennies for the bigger fish on the gaming menu, just like Grandma said.

Special thanks to Susan Lusty and Hidden Path for providing a copy of this title.