The Good: Interesting mix of tower defense elements The Bad: That ultimately don’t mesh together all that well. The Ugly: Endless multiplayer games.
There are so many different game elements mixed into Defenders of Ardania, that I can’t decide if I’m surprised or not that they don’t work all that well together. Regardless, they don’t, and the result is a combination of repetitive drudgery and the creeping feeling that this game probably sounded like a pretty good idea on paper.
On the very uppermost layer, DoA is a tower defense game. You have a castle that you want to protect, and the enemy sends waves of monsters to try and destroy it. The enemies come in a number of flavors – slow with heavy armor, fast with light armor, flying, etc. You build a number of different types of towers – slow shooting high damage, fast shooting low damage, area effect, etc – to try and kill them before they reach your castle. The path the enemy takes is not all that well defined on most levels, but they can’t walk through your towers (or walls, you can also build walls) so you can use them to restrict the possible enemy paths and force them against your towers. Enemy troops gain experience (somehow by dying on the way to your castle), so subsequent waves consist of higher level and tougher monsters. You respond by upgrading and building more towers. And if that were all there was to DoA, it would be just a common tower defense, but it’s not.
The second layer of DoA consists of a reverse tower defense. At the same time the enemy is trying to invade your castle, you’re trying to invade theirs. You have a number of different troops available to you, and you can build up waves that will march some path towards that goal. The enemy likewise can build towers to try and stop you, and your troops also gain experience, so subsequent waves that you construct are tougher, as are his defenses. The overall goal of DoA, then, is to destroy the enemy castle before they destroy yours.
Still a pretty simple game, but wait, there’s more.
The third level of DoA is something like an RTS in that you build towers and hire troops with cash, which you earn through killing enemy troops and occupying (building towers on) certain squares on the battlefield (some rate of cash also dribbles in all on its own). The number of towers you can have at one time is limited as is the buildable real estate, so you can’t create an endless gauntlet of death for the enemy – you have to use some strategy in your construction. Likewise the number of troops you can have at any one time is limited, so your waves need to be constructed with some care. You can also use cash to buy upgrades, like cheaper troops, more devastating towers, or faster cash gathering. There are also a very limited number of spells you can buy with cash such as repairing your castle or destroying an enemy tower. Finally, if a unit type has gained enough experience, a hero unit of that type becomes available which you can hire and send out as part of a wave like any other unit (but only one at a time). The hero units are simply highly buffed up versions of the regulars units.
So why does it all fall apart?
Three reasons really: there is an infinite amount of cash, the average unit does very little damage to the castle, and you have a castle-repairing spell. Subsequently, given the intensifying nature of the enemy waves, the best way to start any given level is as a turtle. Throw down towers and fuss with their placement and type until you have an ironclad defense. There’s no rush to attacking the enemy castle – it’s not going anywhere – and there will always be money later in the game to buy troops to attack it. Additionally, the castle has 500 hit points, while the average unit does maybe 10 points of damage. Fifty or sixty or more units have to get through your defenses (and yours through theirs) to destroy a castle, and creating and sending 50 troops takes a long time in game time. You earn hundreds if not thousands of dollars in that time, and can almost completely tear down and rebuild your defenses if they’re not working for you. If you happen to get into trouble, which is really hard to do, you can just repair the castle. You could survive this way forever without even attacking the enemy. So then, once you’ve got your defenses all set up, you start building troops. From an economic standpoint they’re pretty cheap. You can build a wave of 40 or 50 of them easily. So what if only a few survive? I’ll make more. The enemy AI is very slow to adapt its defenses, so typically you can find a unit type the will survive in high numbers and do real damage. The AI also doesn’t use the castle repair spell much, so even if you are only nickel and diming his castle down, you will eventually get the job done. Yay, victory.
Perhaps, I thought to myself, this is all a problem with the AI, and a person will be more interesting to play. So I found a friend and we skirmished. That was a disaster. We never actually had anyone win. Two hours into a game, we’re sending waves, we’re repairing our castle and towers, and we’re not getting frigging anywhere. Attempts at rushing my friend, getting away from the turtle mentality, simply throws your weak, inexperienced troops against his beginner defenses, and all you accomplish is funding his tower building. Sure, maybe you get some small licks in on his castle, but he can repair it right up. Not that that will make you lose, because when he starts to send troops out against your towers it will be the same story in reverse. It’s a war of attrition, except because money is infinite there is no actual attrition. Get it?
So what could they have done better? Well, giving you a limited amount of money would have changed things considerably and brought a great deal more strategy to the front. Getting rid of the castle repair spell would also have been a step in the right direction. Perhaps making the hero units something more special and more singular (the way the game plays now, when a hero unit dies you can hire another one immediately) would have made them more valuable and strategic. It also would have been more interesting if your troops and their troops fought on the way to their respective targets (I seem to recall a Warcraft 3 mod which was called Three Valleys, or something like that, which had your units and enemy units fight), but for the most part they ignore one another.
All of this is too bad, because clearly, beyond the game mechanics which are shoddy, some quality work went into DoA. You have several different tower and unit types, though probably nothing really groundbreaking in the annals of tower defense games. The graphics are nice and the voice work is good, there are fine sound effects and music, and the single player campaign has a serviceable plot about the humans beating back an undead invasion and investigating its origins. Though I must confess that why you still have a castle to defend when you march towards the enemy stronghold, as if you are bringing the castle with you, is beyond me – it would have made far more sense to have you protect a camp or a wilderness fort.
So I’m (perhaps disappointed isn’t the word because I come into tower defense games expecting so little) confused as to how the designers saw these elements coming together and didn’t comprehend the problems they would cause in actual game play. I also have to confess a long-held desire to see a game that is like tower defense only reversed, where you get to be the invader. DoA has that, and I’m left contemplating that old axiom about getting what you wish for.
This review is based on the PC version of Defenders of Ardania provided by Paradox Interactive.