Defense Grid: The Awakening
You know what wouldn't really improve this experience? Raspberries!

Bottom Line: 20 dollars for a handjob is excessive when you can get it for free at home.

I'm a tool. While not all people who love tower defense games are tools, all tools love tower defense games, and I love tower defense games like a hammer loves the rough grasp of cro magnon Playgirl Calendar material. If I'm a good hammer, maybe some day I can become a real person with my *own* hammer.

This is a dream I have.

When RTSes began their epic trek from strategy to action, in the devious elf-owned times before the release of Starcraft, even at the dawn of the industry, I wanted to play tower defense. I just didn't know it. Dune II, widely regarded as a game for the personal computer (which I agree with), was an exercise in creating a Roman Legion dug in position with layers of deadly 4 pixel high 'heavy infantry' and boxlike tanks creating basket shaped kill zones to intercept the inevitable, and unending stream of enemy combatants straggling toward my base in an attempt to wreck my wedding cake. I knew, intellectually, that if I simply ordered my army to move in the direction from which these mysterious attackers came, I'd probably find the charming workshop where their man-sized circular saw blades were attached to their multilimbed doom tractors, and put an end to their christmas presents once and for all. But I was constitutionally incapable of doing anything except A) Building guns, B) arranging guns in rows so we can get a two-layer effect with a nice picket fence running down the middle, and C) waiting for the entire planet to run out of spice.

In this scenario, there were levels of failure from which you might recover--a half eaten base was not the end of OCD, it was just the irritating attempts of friends, loved ones, and psychiatric professionals to make you see reason, which you could then happily brush aside; 5 times with the left hand, twice with the right, then put the brush down, pick it up again, and repeat, only in reverse. Concomitantly, there was no such thing as 'success', there was only the long hard road satisfied by the blood of your enemies, as exemplified in the stuttering flow of their spawn, due to the surface population of spice being depleted, and the reliance on new spice blows rupturing inside the scrotal demenses of the map (in which, it's fair to say, you, and your opponent were testicles, locked in mortal torsional combat, to the detriment of some larger body).

As I say, I had a ball doing all this, and in the time since, RTSes have become increasingly averse to this kind of perverse behavior on my part--requiring, as they do, the fighting game like emphasis on fine tuned and constant movements, and player-fired events or special powers, which make the use of the term 'strategy' in RTS suspect. I think it's high time we referred to it as RTsomethingelseentirely (to groin a faze), in honor of the Korean demons who strike us with flails whenever we attempt to set up our beloved sand castles of nested tanks.

Warcraft had a map where the only way to stem the tide of the new RTS design and funnel it into a good old fashioned builde-ye-owne charnel house was to turn off every relevant feature of the design (as far as building units which might be capable of destroying your towers) and create a situation where the remaining, enabled, aspects had no choice but to suffer your ministrations (endless snaking terrain with conspicuously placed bluffs allowing for the creation of towers). We're talking about a crippled old gladiator which then chopped off its own head in order to entertain you. Bra-vo. I say, one more like him, and pass me a parrot tongue.

But the meme caught in someone's craw, if, indeed, the level itself hadn't been a craw with a meme stuck in it to begin with, which spawned a race of craws born with a meme attached already. The lovingly crafted lookalikes revolved, from monkeys, to unicorns, around the idea that some kind of maximization routine of resources must take place to stave off an inevitable defeat--for instance, when someone inserted their erect member into your defenseless townsfolk.

Defense Grid is the natural conclusion of these efforts. Whereas, in many games, it is enough to offer 2-4 types of towers that form a triad of slowing down/blowing up/and mowing down stragglers, Defense Grid offers a maximizer's fapulation of 8 or so options. Whereas most tower defense games either offer enemy paths which are clearly marked and or cross an empty space which you fill with obstacles, Defense Grid offers a combination of restrictive build sites, custom formed terrain, and the challenge of developing your own endlessly backtracking walls on a limited budget.

I'm trying to say, despite being mentally handicapped, there is a point past which even I will go 'whoa... hey buddy... that seems a little obsessive'. I don't believe myself to be engaged in some kind of poor-man's calculation about the best possible way for Neo to end the war with the machines. If I *ever* thought about it, I kind of assumed I was involved in a type of game which was not explicit; The war for peace of mind.

Starting any given game is an exercise in certainty. The enemy will be there, waiting. In some cases you will know precisely how many and what to expect from them. Executing on defeating them (expedient execution) could often be automated in some sense, once you understand the parameters of your own behavior (summary execution). For instance, once you memorize how the game plays, you could play something else, or maybe get a hobby. Or a life. Miserable Toad.

But usually, instead, we play the games and judge ourselves against a new yardstick of failure where some kind of abstract, or perhaps very concrete measurement of perfection is our goal, rather than simply negotiating the issue. Speed running is one approach. High scores exemplify another.

In games like Defense Grid, we awaken, I certainly hope, to the idea that, if these people took their shit to the next logical conclusion, we'd be playing an actual RTS, rather than building a model railroad in reverse, where our job, rather than to watch the HO scale choo choo round the track until we depart our minds, is to make sure that train, filled with typhoid carriers and explosive fetii carrying Zombie syndrome, barely makes it 20 yards out of the station before it is overturned, on fire, and caught in some kind of time distortion effect.

It's pretty and you can justify doing it once. It is difficult to justify doing it more than once, especially in light of the grim reality that you often 'win' a round not by developing some kind of perfect arrangement, but by plunking down as many long range turrets on buildable ground you can afford, and upgrading them as quickly as possible. There is often way too much shit going on to keep track of it all, and the best and only solution is to close your eyes, lean back, and sissy slap the aliens into submission.

As far as charm goes, the game has some. There is a pretty decent James Mason impersonator/robot computer/former scientist who absolutely will not shut up, but pretty much always has something encouraging to say about how good lasers are at burning things, or which turret would help in this situation, if you could afford it, which you can't, because resources are constrained. He also, in what might be a nod to Portal, attempts to get you in touch with his humanity by mentioning raspberries.

Now, when GLaDOS mentions cake, she taps into a universal human emotion; the emotion we feel when someone mentions cake. In french it is known as 'La Nummers'. Raspberries, on the other hand, if you were to drag them into a dark hole somewhere, and beat them with a leather gloved fist until they cried mercy and revealed their complicit cooperation in 9/11, would not evoke sympathy from most people. For fuck's sake, they're just raspberries. There are at least a dozen kinds of berries I can think of right now, excluding dingle berries, which are as good or better. What's the matter, they couldn't pick apples? Or oranges? Had to be unique and pick a fruit that most people either can't identify in a blind taste-test with black berries or lingen berries, or, and this is worse, wouldn't care to? There's something off about it. Which is similar to everything about the narrative, such as it is. The presentation seems to imply that there is something about the aliens which means they aren't alien, or else that, somehow, it is the fault of the protagonist's creators that they're under attack. What's odd is the unknown unknowns (just in general, but in this case, also specifically, which, heretofore, was an unknown known). If it's awkward enough, then any oddity in the substance of it is impossible to distinguish from a problem in the performance or the quality of the concept.

'Would you kindly?'

In any case, you would be equally well served in terms of a 'game' to 'play' by playing desktop tower defense on one of its many challenge modes until your inevitable demise, or playing Supreme commander against aggressive AIs with no intention of destroying their increasingly berserk attempts to destroy your base. Though, with super weapons and nukes, this can become a matter of inevitability. I mean, seriously. What's all this aggression about, man? Whatever happened to building a wall out of tires around your oil derrick, topping each corner with a flame thrower, and telling the steroid case and his gang, the Situational Homosexuals to explore alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar? I don't need the aggravation and the uncertainty. What I want is to devise a means of keeping those damn kids off my lawn, and I don't want to have to buy a dog, because then I have to worry about the kids hurting the dog. Plus he poops on the lawn.

If my only option to prevent people from taking something I love is to destroy it, then my love life will suffer.

Also; prison.

But the score, here, is lackluster to say the least, and while I instinctively knew it was right to give it a meager reward for its efforts in giving me a baguette at the circus, I wasn't sure how to articulate it until a kind person tried in vain to reach me.

The production values on this thing are amazing, considering, but the gameplay is on the order of one armed solitaire in a dark closet. I have designed more sophisticated methods of stemming the tide in my pants when I was on a road trip than this game demands. Nobody who doesn't like TD will like this, and many who like TD will say 'DTD is betterzorz' or, for that matter, pixeljunk monsters is better (again with a zorz).

You can go to the store, know you're buying toilet paper, get the stuff on sale, and then remark, at home, as you see the worrying pink tinge to your final wipe 'jesus christ... this shit is a little rough, don't you think?' and not be somehow in OUTER SPACE with SPACE PEOPLE, because... and this is the point...

even when toilet paper is cheap...

it shouldn't draw blood.

now imagine that it's overpriced toilet paper! The issue isn't that it costs money, or that it is a tower defense game *and* it costs money. In a sense, design is free. Certainly, while your artists are working on hammering out 8 turrets with 3 upgraded forms and something like a dozen 'aliens', as well as many pretty levels with pretty textures and pretty lighting, that's time for a 3rd party, who is otherwise unengaged, to sit back, take a good long look at what they're making, and determine that it is unacceptible that something should come so far in some ways, and fall so short in others.

There is a programmer somewhere who made an effort to figure out how to code the AI so that it could determine if a path existed through the towers, and, if not, permit the enemy to travel through them. It seems like there is room with that kind of setup to create an enemy that can assault towers, or else, to create an enemy that can navigate through a more free-flowing environment. However, regardless of all that, the ultimate 'tower defense' game is one of defending a castle with a more considered RTS like Stronghold or any of a number of other games who's names escape me at the moment.

I'm going to paraphrase Yahtzee, first and only model for, in regard to popcap games. When you are a struggling fledgling company, making casual games is a great way to make some money to fund future projects. But once you've made your money, you're supposed to start making triple A titles with huge budgets that barely recoup their production costs. If you don't, then you crush the dreams of every other fledgling company trying to make *their* next casual game to get a start in the market--with superior time and resources, the mediocre can become magnificent (see Blizzard, Everything). DefGrid is clearly a real game--well beyond the stage at which a 'mere' tower defense game would be a rational choice. It's not like this is some throw away xbox live experiment or DS cartridge where the difference between behemoth studio and private endeavor is difficult to judge--this is sparta, by which I mean, this is the PC. World of Goo makes sense, and is remarkably more sophisticated at the same price point.

Tower defense, ultimately, is not a game genre. It is a subset of a subset of what a real game might be, and makes for a fun time waster. In precisely the same way that solitaire is alot like the inventory management aspect of diablo II without all the rest of the killing monsters, picking spells, and cooperating with other people.

1.5 stars

second piece for submission to action button net.

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