Tower defence games are all the rage at the moment. It’s like zombies in mainstream pop culture, every week brings a fresh wave of them. I’m quite a fan of tower defence, have been ever since that secret Warcraft 3 level that first brought the genre to my attention. Defenders of Ardania is a game firmly on this bandwagon with me, and alongside most other games publishers around at the moment.
Here’s the protocol – you must release a game that involves defending a tower. Said tower must be defended from waves of enemies. Said enemies approach along a fixed path or paths. Said paths can be defended by the construction of automated defence towers along them, which fire a variety of missiles to deal with the enemies. The enemies get stronger over time, but you can upgrade your defence towers to be more effective. You do this by spending your currency, which is earned at a fixed rate and also supplemented by the death of your foes. So as long as you build an effective defence, it will earn enough to stay effective. Fall off this curve, and the bad guys will inevitably break through and muller your base.
Defenders of Ardania is set in the same world as Majesty 2, a game I reviewed last year. Enough people bought and enjoyed that game, an RTS with a quirky command system where you had to bribe your units to get them to do your bidding, that I suppose there’s some merit in setting this interesting Tower Defence game in the same world. It also clearly saves the designers a lot of time and hassle – the graphics, particularly the backgrounds, look to be lifted straight out of the Majesty 2 stable. No bad thing, those are good looking games. The level design wanders neatly through a good variety of jungles, mountainous regions, deserts and forests, and there’s always something pretty to look at. The sound is okay too, standard if inoffensive stirring fantasy epic overtures romping away in the background as you play. And the Sean Connery impersonator who introduces all the levels in Majesty 2 is back as well, familiar and cheering as he delivers his gentle fantasy piss-take intros.
The other big thing a tower defence game needs these days is a twist. It needs to develop new and interesting mechanics just to stand out in the crowd. Hence we have like Orcs Must Die giving you a sort of FPS version along with cartoony violence, or Rock of Ages with its head-to-head stone rolling mechanic (a game so wildly different it’s barely even recognisable as tower defence), or that one with the aliens where you control the attacking creeps rather than the turrets, or those ones on Steam where it’s multiplayer co-op. There are literally too many for me to enumerate them all.
Defenders of Ardania has the twist that you must both attack and defend at once. So must your opponent, so the paths that your units follow is a grid system which you’re also both struggling for control of in order to build your turrets in the sweet spots. Some spots give you extra income, others extra range. Some turrets and units can attacks and destroy enemy towers, others can wipe out incoming enemy units. You have spells to heal buildings or wipe out attackers, a system of upgrades for units, towers and global abilities and a choice of three teams to pick from. And you can even tweak the paths your units take so that they follow a route of your choice rather than traipsing merrily into the nearest thicket of spear towers.
This is an admirable and quite impressive set of ideas, one that could turn tower defence into an almost chess-like strategic battle with elements of RTS integrated. For my money, it falls way short of what it could achieve. The UI is dense and pretty unintuitive, so you need to click on your home base to open the menu from which you select attackers, for example. This isn’t as convenient as I’d like when I’m also trying to simultaneously juggle tower building and upgrades from a different set of menus. Having the ‘release wave’ controls built into an obvious menu at the bottom, like the hotkey bars in WOW and such, would make a huge difference. Against the computer, which can multitask with smooth efficiency, it’s quite a struggle to get on top of everything. You can’t see anyone’s health points without pressing certain buttons to get an overlay – fine, that reduces the info on screen, but it’s quite important info. How much health your units and your opponents have is really key to doing well in a TD game, this should be much easier info to get.
The levels also look terribly crowded. Pretty, but busy – it’s like Where’s Wally meets Kingdom Rush. Kingdom Rush, by the way, is an excellent browser-based TD game that you can play for free on sites like Kongregate. It’s an excellent example of why a good tower defence game doesn’t really need a bunch of whistles and bells to make it fun. It’s simple yet tricky, lovely to look at without being confusing and full of tactical choices which have swift and easy-to-follow effects on the game. Everything in Defenders of Ardania feels rather murky to me because it’s so hard to see what’s going on. Zoom out and you lose focus on what units are where and how well they’re doing. Zoom in and it’s hard to retain global control, it’s still hard to see how the units are doing, and you can focus instead on how robotic and dull their animations are. Flaming boulders and arrows crash and thud into these lively little sprites, and they march on with barely a spout of blood. It’s surprisingly utilitarian, given how shiny it looks from a distance.
Playing the campaign, which slowly leads you into the game like a good story-based tutorial should, is pretty tedious. The game is quite slow paced; there may well be a way of speeding it up, but I either couldn’t find it in the tangled control panel or the campaign hadn’t introduced me to that function yet. The plot I think you could easily guess – a terrible evil from the past of the kingdom has arisen and only you can muster the blah to blah the blahblah and blah the blah of blah. There are honest to god monkeys generating this shit at a typewriter, I swear to god. Badly paid hack monkeys who are lifting it wholesale from Tolkein ripoffs.
Multiplayer might be better than the relentless tides an AI can effortlessly swamp you with. I did try, the kindly developers having sent a pack of game keys so that I could get my friends hooked. Sadly, repeated attempts to set up an online game just got the same error message, that the game lobby no longer existed. Checking the forums shows this is a major issue, and the fix involves faffing about with your Steam config files to get the right ports talking to each other. Whatever that means, IP routing is just so much gobbledegook to me. It’s sort of irrelevant, though. What both of us had already experienced of the game didn’t really make us want to persevere or sort out whatever glitch we were experiencing. We actually went and played a few rounds of Dawn of War instead, old-school Soulstorm, in which relentless waves of AI utterly crushed us repeatedly over the next two hours. I guess we didn’t really miss much.
Overall? A wasted opportunity, I reckon, with similar flaws to Majesty 2 in some ways. Interesting ideas well presented but ultimately lacking in solid gameplay. Pity – there’s clearly a lot of intelligence in the design team here, I like their style and their approach. But the core game on top of these ideas just doesn’t quite cut the mustard, especially when there are so many other really good tower defence games worth playing. Orks Must Die and Kingdom Rush are my current favourites, I’d pick the former if you want to spend money and the latter if you don’t. And look, Majesty 2 wasn’t without flaws either. Bluntly, I’m surprised that this equally flawed game was a good use of development time. Is it something the fans were really clamouring for, or just a convenient way to make a buck from an older game engine? I think everyone can do better, both the creators and anyone thinking of getting it.