Features & News

Hands On: Defenders of Ardania

October 31, 2011, Author: James Sheppard

Tower defense games over the years have degenerated into an overworked, repetitive and innovation-deficient genre. Every now and then, however, a gem like Defense Grid: The Awakening comes along, with its fascinating style and sublimely well-tuned game mechanics. As my personal stand-out favourite of the category so far, its quality and innovation was definitely the exception rather than the rule.

I’ve had an extensive hands-on preview with Defenders of Ardania, a new IP in the genre possessing the kind of game title you want to bellow out in the manliest, most epic-sounding voice possible. The question is, can it compete with the likes of Defense Grid, or is it no better than the mindless grunts that march ceaselessly towards your castle?

What instantly sets Defenders of Ardania apart from the pack is that it’s tower defense with a difference; essentially it’s just as much ‘tower attack’. Instead of solely protecting your castle from an opponent, the gameplay is symmetric and focuses just as much on sending your own army out as it does on placing towers to defend from the enemy’s.

Through the fire and flames...

The preview code I tested took me through the campaign, with a generic fantasy premise of a magical world being overrun by the undead. As with many games these days, this acted essentially as an extended tutorial, slowly introducing the player to the different features at their disposal. Unfortunately, this was actually a little too slow for my liking; it arguably takes too long to allow you to play with the best toys. As the levels progress it also forgets its purpose, regularly failing to mention and explain new features that are available.

There is, in fact, a long shopping list of design flaws that the devs at Paradox Interactive need to address before release. Some glaring balance issues rear their ugly heads as you play, like the fact that sometimes unit cost and usefulness don’t always correlate.

More worryingly, one mission I sampled was dreadfully thought-out, to the point of being defective. You’re challenged with defending a point in the centre of the map for three minutes in a row; an RTS-like objective that is almost impossible thanks to limited defense towers and unit A.I. that blindly follows a straight path to the end of the level. Only through very aggressive tower point control, and a whole lot of luck, was I finally able to put the mission behind me.

Ya pillocks; you could just walk straight through the middle, ya'know?

The game’s units have an interesting levelling system, whereby repeated deployment of the same unit levels it up through experience points and eventually unlocks a ‘hero’ unit. This raises problems, however; cost rises with level, so you may find a previously affordable unit now more powerful but too expensive. The system also encourages unit spam of the same variety, which could make for less interesting battles.

As far as presentation goes, the graphics are perfectly serviceable; as is the delightfully grandiose (if a little repetitive) music soundtrack. The dialogue of your advisers and enemies, on the other hand, is appallingly cheesy and amateurish. The control scheme shows obvious signs of a console port; instead of acting like a regular cursor the mouse scrolls the camera around the level, with the player having to resort to memorising hotkeys in order to access many important functions.

The Xbox 360 controller is fully supported as standard (surprise surprise), although as it currently stands there’s no indication of controller mapping, so I had to work out the slightly bizarre button layout myself. Due to the aforementioned mouse input problems, however, I found it an easier and more comfortable way to play.

Essentially, Defenders of Ardania is a collection of interesting ideas that, sadly, all feel too loosely synergised and inadequate in their implementation. One of the game’s prize features, the ability to attack as well as defend, is in fact from where many of the problems stem. In some ways, I almost wish it just did regular tower defense, but did it really well.

Three's a crowd... four's a clusterfuck

Then again, I admire the effort to stand out from the crowd and innovate in a desperately samey genre. The gameplay lends itself to a myriad of strategic choices almost to the level of a true RTS, with decisions based on prioritising attacking, defending, upgrading or teching up, ideally creating an effective balance between them. In all honesty, it’s the skirmish mode (of which I have been unable to try) that I have the highest hopes for. With the selection of three different playable races, the numerous tactical decisions involved and the frantic chaos that will no doubt ensue, I imagine the game will lend itself wonderfully to multiplayer.

Like a pet dog with a hare lip, cleft palette and only three legs, Defenders of Ardania is something that I can’t help but like, despite its many imperfections. The unfinished code I sampled oozes with potential, so Paradox have plenty of chance to pull it out of the bag by release day and claim the crown that has proudly adorned Defense Grid for years.