I loaded Defenders of Ardania up this afternoon with the intention of finally beating the penultimate mission and going on to complete the campaign. Instead I made it as far as the main menu, hearing the cheery but vacuous looping orchestral music, before thinking “fuck this” and alt-tabbing out. I’ve made a cup of tea, gone up a couple of levels in The Old Republic, caught up on my invoices, chomped my way through a packet of Fox’s Crunch Creams, made another cup of tea, and now, with no other reasonable avenue of procrastination, I’ve started writing this review.
Defenders of Ardania is such a chore to play that I’m avoiding it by doing the part of this gig that’s supposed to be work. (I’m aware that my definition of “work” is a stretch at best, but still.)
Cards on the table, I don’t like Tower Defence games. There are exceptions: the all-consuming Plants vs. Zombies (which doesn’t really count), and I’ve enjoyed what neglectfully little time I’ve spent with Orcs Must Die. But even the really good examples of the genre, Desktop Tower Defense and Defense Grid, are games I appreciate more than I enjoy playing.
I’m too impatient for the maze creation required by the purest incarnations. Show me a blank arena to fill with a winding path of towers and I’ll despair at the amount of work required to get to the point where I’ve irrevocably messed everything up. Conversely, those games with a fixed path tend to fall into the trap of requiring an exact set-up. And if I can’t be bothered with filling a blank space, I’m certainly not going to attempt the trial-and-error of a defined one.
However, Defenders of Arcadia Ardania (by appearance the Most Generic Game In Existence – medieval fantasy tower defence against ‘The Undead’) actually does a number of things that, initially at least, filled me with optimism. It’s a symmetrical battle between you and your opponent. Multiple paths lead between two bases, with squares marking out where towers can be placed. You’re free to block and open paths at will – as long as at least one route remains for you and your enemy’s units – expanding your territory as you place towers, so widening your potential for strategic obstacle placement.
The result comes halfway between the two regular extremes, in which you’re in a race to place towers and filter incoming troops, while simultaneously sending waves of forces, upgrading defences, buying bonuses and casting time-delayed spells. The reason such a promising system doesn’t work has little to do with my usual prejudices. Instead it’s the inherent flaws within Ardania’s set-up – and the attempts made to restrain it – which create problems that (whether you like tower defence or not) keep it from being any good.
The most frequently aggravating obstacle is the limit to the number of towers you can place at any time. Usually ten, rising as high as fifteen on the larger maps, it always kicks in just before you’re able to implement an interesting strategy. I’d set up my basic defence, grab a couple of resource points, and notice a cluster of tower-placement squares in between. “Hmm,” I’d think, “maybe I could filter units into a slalom of fire turrets, slowed by one of the pulsing unit-slowing tower things. That would be a great strategy.” It would! But I couldn’t. Every single time I was short of remaining towers, and it was never worth dismantling the core defence for a more interesting experimental plan.
Yet even with that limit in place, sending your units through an opponent’s defence is no fun at all. For the first half of the game I’d set up my towers, buy a couple of upgrades and then sit for the rest of the level on the unit screen, sending out waves (also restricted by a unit cap) and waiting for them to die against the AIs towers so I could send out more. After that I realised I was being stupid, and could spam one particular unit at the start of each level, winning in a couple of minutes. It was cheap and boring, but so was doing it properly and my way was quicker.
There’s much more that can be said about the game, both mechanically and critically. Like the interface, which seems designed around touch screen devices and, as a result, is unintuitive on PC. Or the Hero units, that only appear after grinding out waves of a particular troop type. Or the atrocious and never-ending start of level conversations, starring a man whose Scottish accent is so bad it makes Sean Connery’s sound natural.
Or even the multiplayer, completely deserted despite the game being only a few weeks old. As a result, I’ve not tested it, but the only two options I can see playing out are extremes of the single player problems: stalemates made even worse by a competent opponent (which the AI isn’t), or complete destruction of a newbie who hasn’t yet learnt to start spamming soldiers early.
None of it matters though, because the implementation of the core concept is rotten. And what really frustrates me is it’s a waste of such a promising idea. From the start Defenders of Albania Ardania tries to contain and shackle that idea to the one immutable law of tower defence, that seems to pervade whatever gimmick any individual game might contain: you must strive for perfection.
Fuck perfection. In a game about opponents meeting on an equal footing, that only leads to intractable stalemates. Instead of restraining the player with tower limits and unit limits, it could have gone the other way: messy, frantic, fast and exciting. Let a side cover the map with towers and have it still not be enough. Pour a constant stream of creeps out of each base automatically, overwhelming both sides. Give a player hero units to deploy, punishing the enemy for even thinking he can come out of this unscathed. Create a war that can only be won by losing it slower than the other guy.
Less of this, every few minutes:
More of this, ALL THE TIME:
I’m playing backseat developer now, which is A Bad Thing, but the waste of potential genuinely annoys me. Because I don’t hate tower defence, not really; I just hate that moment when a single creep makes it through my path of towers and I feel the compulsion to restart and to do better. My own nature as a gamer reacts badly to the DNA of the genre and the result is always me quitting out of frustration. Defenders of Ardania had the seed of an idea that could have changed that. But instead of realising beautiful carnage, it hid behind a maze of mediocrity and a fully upgraded tower of tedium.