A few months ago, a fantastic little tower defense was released on Steam called Defense Grid: The Awakening by a somewhat unknown developer named Hidden Path. Anyone who played it likely noticed how much it seemed like it wanted to be on the Xbox Live Marketplace, from the generally easy-to-learn control setup to the fact that green A buttons and red B buttons were situated strategically around certain elements of the HUD. Now, The Awakening has finally landed on the XBLA, with a $10 price tag and a batch of new content. Did the adaptation work as well as Hidden Path hoped it would? In short, yes. In full...
Generally speaking, the tower defense genre made its debut as custom maps made by fans of games like Warcraft and Starcraft. The gameplay involves stopping waves of enemies from making it across a level, and there are really two main types of level. One has players building defensive structures on the sides of a set path, giving a limited amount of space and making the type of towers placed a major aspect of the game. The other type has the path changed by the placement of the towers, allowing for players to create a maze for the enemy horde. Defense Grid: The Awakening combines these two types of gameplay into one that’s more accessible and fun than either one on its own, and creates one of the best games in the genre.
Aliens have awoken, and are traveling through different, uh, levels, or something. The game follows a very loose story, which is present to give background to the enemies and areas. Enemies need to get from a starting area to a location where they can steal power nodes, and get back out. Once enemies are killed, any nodes they carried are dropped and slowly make their way back to the source. These can be scooped up by other passing enemies, allowing the aliens to run a relay race of sorts, dropping the baton so their brethren may continue their trek through the many different types of towers.
Where the maze creation comes into play is in the enemy AI, which will always choose the easiest clear path if there is one. If a player blocks off one exit from a platform, the enemies will take another, and they will never cross through a tower’s force field if there’s a possible path through the level. Because of the game’s fantastic level design, it’s easy to learn to create extremely long paths for the enemy to take, forcing them to travel a gauntlet of towers.
Presentation is better than average for a typical defense game, and the narration is oftentimes witty, if occasionally repetitive, and usually offers helpful advice. Enemy models are well differentiated from one another and the particle effects are top-notch, giving the game more polish than any other Tower Defense game. Compared to its competition, which is mostly Warcraft 3 custom maps and Nintendo DS titles, Defense Grid is absolutely the best looking game in its class.
For the most part, using the Xbox 360 controller in RTS gameplay hasn't worked great in this generation. Luckily, although it shares a camera with games like Red Alert, Defense Grid controls extremely well on consoles. Placing towers and navigating the map is simple, as is building and upgrading towers. Other aspects, such as leaderboards and a slew of game modes that can be played on nearly any level, stand out on the Xbox Live Arcade thanks to the competitive nature of the service. Being able to compare scores with friends should make the already addictive game even more interesting for high score fiends.
It's a big fish in an incredibly small pond, true, but that doesn't change the fact that Defense Grid: The Awakening is now the premier tower defense on consoles. It might grow repetitive, but with clever game design the developers were able to harness exactly what makes tower defense games so addictive. At the price of only $10, the game is a steal for the amount of content. The later of the 20 unique levels can grow frustratingly difficult, but the amount of replayability due to different challenges and scoreboards are more than enough to justify picking it up. It's half the price of the PC version and comes with a few extra maps after the original campaign is over, adding even more value where, in all honesty, none was needed.