Review: Defense Grid: The Awakening

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It seems like ‘tower defense’ – also known as TD – games have finally arrived … again. They were made famous by the 1990 arcade game Rampart, which has since been released on several home arcades and most recently on the PlayStation Network. The popularity led to a proliferation of commercial and independent TD games, as well as many gamer produced TD modules for games such as Starcraft. More recently they seem to have become the fodder of Flash game sites, but this year they are back with a vengeance! I noted as I started Defense Grid: The Awakening that I had recently played Lock’s Quest on the DS as well as TapDefense for the iPhone. Clearly TD games have made a commercial resurgence, and guess what – Defense Grid: The Awakening is the best of the lot!

Apparently every alien race in the universe woke up this morning with a single thought: they had to steal your cores! Actually, the backstory for the game involves you as part of a society that has been at peace for more than a millennium suddenly under attack by alien races. Fortunately just as the attack commences you are able to restart the defensive grid, which was put into hibernation with the mind of a former operator downloaded into the system.

Here is the game in a nutshell: on each map you will start with a certain amount of resources to build and upgrade towers. You are given a bit of time before the waves of enemies begin their assault. At that point there isn’t much you can do but watch the scenario play out. As you destroy enemies you gain additional resources. The map ends when either all enemy waves have been repelled or all of your cores have been captured.

So what is it that makes this game better than the countless other similar ones available for free on Flash gaming web sites? Three things: design, balance, and graphics.

I know that I regularly preach that graphics don’t matter, and they don’t. But Defense Grid: The Awakening looks really good – the graphics are excellent for a small budget release, and I will never complain about a game that looks great when everything else is already excellent. The overall presentation is excellent – the game and levels load quickly; voices, sounds and visual effects are excellent and immersive; the controls and user interface are generally very well done. The only complaint I have is that from the very beginning the system response when trying to buy/upgrade can feel very random at times.

But the two most important things that make this game a must-have for PC gamers are the design and balance. The design is all about how much time and skill was put into coming up with maps and areas that will keep you challenged and thinking, yet allow you to fairly win. Defense Grid: The Awakening lays out your options slowly starting from the first map, with a single tower type against a single enemy type. As you progress you will gain access to ten tower types as well as a multitude of upgrades, and of course also have to deal with all fifteen enemy races, each with different strengths and weaknesses and strategies.

Balance is extremely tricky in any game, but especially in a resource-constrained genre such as tower defense. Defense Grid: The Awakening doesn’t make things easy: resources are scarce, towers and upgrades get increasingly expensive, and the enemies and maps get much tougher as you progress. You can also unlock special challenge maps that will really test your skills … or in my case, remind you of your lack of skills!

Steam has become a great place to find small gems for budget prices – games like Hinterland and Defense Grid: The Awakening would never succeed competing for shelf space with the big budget console and PC games, but they get a nice audience as a budget download. That is a very good thing – a game like this would previously have failed miserably commercially, but now many gamers who wouldn’t generally consider buying a tower defense game will be able to give this a shot. That is a big win for everyone – I am excited to see what this talented team does next!

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Pros:
+ Looks great
+ Excellent strategic control
+ Excellent balancing
+ Budget Price

Cons:
– Finicky controls during purchase / upgrade

Game Info:
Platform: PC
Publisher: Hidden Path Entertainment
Developer: Hidden Path Entertainment
Release Date: 12/08/08
Genre: Strategy, Role-Playing Game
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!