Beginning work as a designer on Stardock’s Siege of Centauri, I found myself on a tower defense (TD) binge. I googled “Best tower defense games on Steam” and I ended up buying a bundle and starting with Defense Grid: The Awakening. My experience with it has been extremely positive, and I can see why it’s praised so highly. Defense Grid: The Awakening was released back in 2008 when standalone TD games were new rather than just being minigames inside of StarCraft, WarCraft 3 and perhaps tacky flash games. Defense Grid has the typical gameplay you would expect from a TD; place towers along various arenas to shoot creeps as they try and escape to the end. Instead of widely innovating the formula, Defense Grid offers a solid and classic TD experience. It’s easy to pick up, especially for those familiar with those ‘Craft TD minigames.
The core pillar of TD game design is the significant and meaningful variety of creeps, towers, and missions. Combine these parts well, and you end up with strategic depth and a fun challenge. Defense Grid nails these points, there are multiple different creep types with unique qualities such as swarmers, shields, sprinters, flying units, bosses and summoners. Some towers have weapon types that excel against particular creeps, such as the Inferno Towers having splash damage great for swarmers while the Gun and Cannon Towers are best for breaking shields. The rock-paper-scissors of creeps and towers is only a part of the puzzle, towers also have many different qualities. These include varied minimum and maximum ranges, slowing and damage-over-time debuffs, or additional power the longer it can charge up. Working out which towers to build and where is the fundamental challenge of Defense Grid, as it should be for any tower defense game. Players need to leverage the unique qualities of each tower to maximize their overall damage output. Short-range Inferno Towers should be placed on critical choke points while Tesla Towers that charge up do well at the end in case of leaks.
The challenge of tower placement is greatly enhanced by towers partially blocking the attack of others behind them. The efficiency reduction from tower blocking means you’re discouraged from putting all your eggs in one basket and focusing on a single kill zone. The predetermined build locations also make that difficult. Some, like the Laser Tower, can benefit from being blocked by rapidly switching targets and applying a damage-over-time burn, or the Meteor Tower with its high minimum range uses indirect fire and can’t be blocked. Elevation also plays a factor, a tower on a high ground position doesn’t get blocked which serves as a great location for the long-range direct-fire Cannon Towers. Players have to toss up between building additional towers or upgrading their existing ones. Towers can be upgraded twice, but timing is essential as upgrading put them out of action for a short duration. A lot of the game is trying to identify which towers are being the most effective and focusing on upgrading those or investing in those areas. Combine all of these little complexities, and you end up with a very challenging and fun game. Losing isn’t frustrating because there are so many different tower compositions and alternative placement strategies.
Despite its overall lack of innovation, the Energy Core mechanic is where Defense Grid is unique to its great benefit. The goal of most tower defense games is to prevent creeps getting from point A to B. Creeps in Defense Grid work a bit differently, they attempt to steal the Energy Cores placed somewhere in the arena, then escape with them back to the exit. When a creep carrying a Core is killed, the Core is dropped and slowly floats back. The Core can be intercepted and picked up by another creep that then heads straight for the exit. This transferring of Energy Cores between creeps increases tension as incremental leaks are more common, instead of the all-or-nothing leaks common in tower defense. The back and forwards creep paths adds extra strategy to the arena as there are often locations creeps will run through twice. The missions vary in build layout and creep behavior, some maps are more A to B instead of forwards and back, while others involve air units which have their own path. Some missions emphasize “walling” towers to block pathing of creeps while other missions omit it entirely. Each mission feels like a fresh new challenge, you can’t just default back to the same strategy each time.
The gameplay depth and variety in Defense Grid makes it an incredible game, but it’s also supplemented by an excellent interface, quality of life features and replay value. Each creep and tower type can come in three different strength levels which are denoted by a consistent color scheme of green, amber, and red. Despite towers changing their model to looks more powerful as they upgrade, the base of the tower also changes along these colors. The amount of action happening on screen means it can be hard to keep track of things, so the color scheme allows you to monitor the situation at a glance. This color scheme of power is also used for the incoming wave bar, showing you an icon to represent each creep type. Advanced notice of which creep type and how many are coming is a great feature because it gives players the information they need to build towers purposefully. Otherwise, players have to throw down towers blindly and hope they don’t suck against the next wave. Another great feature is selecting any creep or tower provides a nice popup with detailed information. Also present is fast forward to speed through downtime, and auto-checkpoints to revert back if you want to correct a small leak or your PC unexpectedly restarts. Ultimately, the interface is slick. I’m playing it on PC, but I imagine it works great on Xbox which it also released on.
Defense Grid has lots of missions to play through, and each has multiple modifiers that can be set for an extra challenge. There’s a detailed scoring system with leaderboards for each mission and its challenges, so there’s heaps to keep achievement hunters engaged. The only criticisms I have of Defense Grid is that the weapon sound effects are unexciting, they’re certainly not memorable like the Tesla Coil and Obelisk of Light from Command & Conquer. The towers and creeps also look generic; there’s nothing visually quirky and interesting about them. Despite that, the backgrounds of each mission are detailed and quite pretty. It ages well for a 10-year-old game, but unfortunately, that’s because the visual quality of strategy games has stagnated so much.
Defense Grid received a sequel in 2014 which kept the gameplay and tower design almost identical. From my short dabble into it Defense Grid 2 introduced a new Boost Tower, reworked the Tesla Tower and added a couple of nice quality of life features. I was quite happy to see Defense Grid 2 improve the art design of the towers, so they’re a bit more interesting. Overall, the visuals are an upgrade but it’s quite minor. I appreciate how similar the sequel is, I like the idea of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” Too many of my favorite franchises have released sequels that changed too much and overly innovated for no good reason. I haven’t played Defense Grid 2 as much, but for some reason, the missions haven’t hooked me the same way. Perhaps after releasing so many for Defense Grid: The Awakening there wasn’t many exciting ideas for new ones left. I also find the Boost Tower an annoying chore to try and use but then feel punished if I neglect it. Defense Grid 2 would be a great continuation if you exhausted the first game, but I’d recommend picking up Defense Grid: The Awakening over it.
Defense Grid: The Awakening is a fantastic tower defense game. It’s as traditional as tower defenses come, so it’s a perfect starting point for players new to the genre. Defense Grid: The Awakening combines a meaningful variety of creeps, towers, and missions to create a fun challenge with strategic diversity and depth. It’s presented in a slick interface with all the quality of life features you would want from the genre. It also benefits from lots of replay value via mission challenges and with a scoring system. Visually, it holds up well for a 10-year-old game, but its creeps and towers have a generic feeling to them.