The Future of Tower Defense: Shooting, Role-Playing and Bacon

Shooting, Role-Playing and Bacon

There's no point to playing all of the different tower defense games available today. Most adhere to the original formula, so playing 2 or 3 really good ones (like those mentioned in my previous post) would be more efficient.

But the tower defense genre isn't going anywhere—the mechanics are and always will be great fun, though they really haven't been strong enough to stand on their own in the AAA game space. Luckily, many other genres (shooters, platformers, WRPGs, etc.) are experiencing stagnant phases right now, prompting some small, forward-thinking developers to integrate their love of tower defense into those more traditional genres. The result: some really fun and original work.

The outcomes have several commonalities:

  • All are rendered in impressive 3D (some using Unreal Engine 3),
  • They're multiplatform, bound by digital distribution, and
  • Are released at medium-indie prices (from $10 to $25).

Tower defense may not be AAA yet, but these new cross-bred games are a huge step up from the free Flash ones that dominate the genre today.

Last August, new developer Uber Entertainment released the first of the new tower defense games: Monday Night Combat. I adopted this awesome game early for $15 on XBLA (now available on Steam, as well). It fuses the 3rd person, squad-based combat and character classes of Team Fortress 2 with a tower defense level setup. It's like the TF2 TD mod, but better. Crossfire, its main multiplayer mode, pits two teams of six players against each other. The goal is to destroy the Moneyball located in the opposing team's base before the other team. Each base also features gates, which expels hordes of tower-defense-style robots, and nodes that allow players to erect and upgrade four types of towers. The keys to success?

  • Protecting your team's robots as they attack the Moneyball, and
  • Building an efficient system of towers to protect your Moneyball.

This makes Monday Night Combat (arguably) the first game to blend squad-based shooters, tower defense and tower offense into one package. It even has a hilarious, campy aesthetic well suited by its cartoony Unreal graphics. One of the loading screens features a piece of bacon and a shotgun shell high-fiving each other.

Uber's follow-up game Smash MNC spins their tower defense fusion into a different direction, bringing tower defense into the old school, top-down shooter genre, namely Smash TV. The game seems like a blatant ripoff of that aging classic, but features four-player co-op mode—a cross-platform multiplayer—and retains the humor from the original MNC, which is enough to make it a great experience.

Comical games are great, but if tower defense is to be taken seriously, it obviously needs to act serious sometimes. Sanctum, a poorly named FPS (first person shooter) by Coffee Stain Studios in Sweden incorporates tower defense in a more profound way. The player is an attractive heroine forced to defend her futuristic home from swarms of alien robot invaders. It plays out similarly to MNC, but it first-person and without the offensive elements. The player also has more flexibility in tower placement, including the ability to build blocks to add height to the towers. I haven't had a chance to play the game yet, but reviews have indicated that it's entertaining, but crippled by only offering three maps. A $15 game with good production and well-functioning co-op multiplayer will always stand a chance of succeeding. Especially since adding new content is a snap with digital distribution.

Possibly the most creative game featured on Steam is Anomaly: Warzone Earth by Polish developer 11 bit studios. It turns the tower defense formula on its head by focusing on tower offense. It's not the first tower offense game, but it is the first with a decent production budget. The player commands an army unit tasked with leading a convoy through alien-controlled Baghdad, doing as much damage as possible to the enemy while surviving intact. Instead of picking tower types, the player chooses the vehicles and the order of the convoy. The personnel ride in and control the convoy and must periodically venture out on foot to grab powerups like smoke screens and healing auras. Strategically finding and employing these powerups while keeping the convoy on track is frantic work, but should be pleasing to anyone who thinks traditional tower defense is too lax.

For you RPG players who thought the above sounded like warfare-shooter-ra-ra-ra macho nonsense, Q2 of 2011 is scheduled to bring a more lighthearted and old school take on fusion tower defense in Dungeon Defenders. The player takes the role of one of the following character classes:

  • Squire: fighter / warrior / big dude
  • Apprentice: mage / wizard / little dude (with big robe)
  • Huntress: archer / rogue / female (think Natalie Portman in Your Highness)
  • Monk: hybrid class / premature baldie

Using local drop-in/drop-out co-op mode, users play in teams of four, attempting to protect their power cores from legions of enemies. They can fend off the enemy themselves while building tower wherever they like. Each character class builds its own towers in addition to having its own attacks, so teamwork is essential. There's also a copious Diablo-like loot system that rewards obsessive dungeon defending with a slew of new RPG items. It's a promising tower defense, action-style RPG. Take a look at the trailers from last October:

Tower defense has the potential to survive and thrive, largely because it's such an accessible genre. But for one group of people, tower defense and video games in general have been inaccessible. We're talking blind folk, but they're about to get their chance thanks to an intrepid, anonymous developer named Aprone. He created an audio-based tower defense game on called Towers of War. You can download his beta, mods, updates and more right here. If you know a blind person who might be interested, or if you want to try it out yourself, check it out.

If this trend of tower defense propagation and integration keeps going, it won't be long until every gamer has been exposed in their genre of choice. Tower defense might not be its own genre anymore, but will live on as gameplay mechanic along the lines of inventory management, conversation systems or spellcasting. It will be incorporated into dozens of games over the years to come, making them deeper experiences without having to stand on its own strong, but limited merits.

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