Recently tower defence games have had a renaissance on pretty much every format. Stand-out titles including Dungeon Defenders, Defense Grid and of course Plants vs Zombies. Defenders of Ardania (DoA from here on in) fits into this genre like an ugly sister's foot in Cinderella's glass slipper.
In each level of the campaign mode you, the player, have a base at one end of a map. At the other end is an enemy castle (or in some cases multiple castles) that spawn creeps, wave after wave of the blighters who trudge or fly mercilessly across the playing area towards your wide-open gates. There is no option to build a moat or a good iron-studded door so, this tactical option unavailable, you need to spend gold to build a variety of towers to shoot arrows, fireballs and so on to stop the nasties getting to your home. As well as the basic options there are anti-air varieties, ones that slow the enemies down and towers that boost the resources from each enemy you destroy. Once you've built the towers you can use your resources to upgrade them, a standard for these sorts of games but here this ability is only unlocked several levels in, creating a learning curve so shallow it's patronising.
In DoA you can't place towers wherever you like – the maps only permit you to place them at specific points and only nearby towers you’ve already constructed. Some levels are very linear and the creeps move along paths defined by natural features such as rocks and trees. Other levels are more open but the options for tower placements are still limited. There is a degree of competition with the AI for tower spots but the computer was so sluggish it wasn’t really any competition at all. Compared to other tower defence games this feels restrictive as the classic tactics of the genre are not possible: for instance you can't create mazes for the creeps to run through, or 'juggle' creeps by opening and closing different ends of a maze you've built.
As a new-wave tower defence game the twist is that you can also send troops out of your castle to trudge towards your enemy's stronghold – and your enemies will build towers to defend against them. There are a range of troops that you can put on the offensive: for example you've got pikemen, tank-like dwarves and tower-bashing wizards. Sending a troop type into battle levels it up and if you keep at it with a certain class you can unlock a 'hero', a pumped version who is less likely to die and more likely to get to the enemy castle and damage it. You can set a rally point to direct troops through certain parts of the map or set 'bounties' on enemy creeps or towers to direct attacks towards them. The latter does not seem to be particularly effective. Weirdly, only some of your troop types attack the creeps coming from your enemy's base which results in the two armies walking past each other most of the time without fighting, which is just silly.
As well as troops and towers you have global upgrades and magic spells. The upgrades can increase the rate of resource collection, make your troops and towers cheaper and increase the number of troops you can have on the battlefield at any one time. The spells can do things like destroy enemy towers or heal your castle and they can be cast multiple times with a recharge period in between. The 'heal castle' spell is so powerful it makes the game easy and when the AI uses it it is incredibly annoying.
So, the levels start, you build a few towers quickly to grab the tiles that boost resources, set up some basic defences then start chucking troops out. The mission objectives in DoA tend to be to destroy a castle at the other side of the playing area whilst holding out – rather than just surviving for a set amount of time as in classic tower defence titles. That's the pattern that is repeated almost without fail throughout every level. It gets boring quickly. DoA can be played at x2 speed so you don't have to spend a long time in delaying the inevitable. The challenge of the game seems to lie in selecting the right combination of ground forces to send forth which in practice means the harder levels are a matter of trial and error and ultimately dissatisfying. The whole game can be finished in a few hours.
The mixed focus on offence and defence creates an identity crisis in the gameplay. The options for laying towers out and the tower types to choose between are not interesting enough for the defence aspect to stand out. This is an important point as a lot of the fun of tower defence is trying different layouts of towers to achieve maximum effect. Here, that just isn't possible. The offence side is equally frustrating as sending wave after wave of enemies against enemy towers – i.e. pretending to be the computer - is not that fun. The feeling that lingers is that this has been done before and done better. Failing a level does not create the urge to try to succeed.
As well as the single player there is a multiplayer that lets you play in an all-vs-all, 2-v-2 or a sort of 'horde' mode. As in the single player you build towers and send out troops. Unlike against the computer, a human opponent is quicker to fill gaps you create when you destroy a tower so there are fewer opportunities to sneak troops through. The game grinds on and on, potentially infinitely as each player can use the heal castle spell. There is no tension, no excitement and no challenge. Plus, no one is playing - two 10 minute searches on two separate occasions revealed no active games. The only opportunity is to play, it seems, is with Xbox live friends who also have the game.
Defenders of Ardania looks a lot like other 3D fantasy real time strategy games, Warcraft III specifically, and there's nothing that makes it stand out from the crowd. To give it some credit, some of the backgrounds to the levels are fairly attractive with gleaming rivers in the early part of the game, jungles and undead wastes in the latter – the colours are bright and easy on the eye.
The human/dwarf/elf alliance that you play as in the campaign is generic: big stone towers with ballistas or catapults on top and the little warriors running around in between. The other factions, undead and animals, have their own range of creeps and towers which are more interesting than yours but as above, nothing that hasn't been seen in games many times over. The undead have purple crackly-electric towers and lasers (zombie lasers - huh?); the animals have towers that are like trees and whack at your soldiers with their branches.
The game has a stirring soundtrack straight out of tales of ye olden days which is actually quite good. As this plays in the background the crossbows twang, the catapults thump and animals and warriors grunt as they fight. Outside of the sounds of the core game DoA is narrated by the worst Sean Connery impersonator on Earth which is probably (hopefully) tongue-in-cheek and is funny for about thirty seconds. Other characters are true to type – a northern (British English) Dwarf, a Wizard with Received Pronunciation and an airily-spoken Elf warrior-princess. This is an irritating paint-by-numbers set of characters.
As should be probably clear by now, DoA is set in a medieval, Lord of the Rings-esque world and it has a clichéd 'rise of the undead' story. Act one sees you discover the mysterious zombie uprising. Act two sees you gain the support of the wizards and the elves. Act three sees you take the fight to the undead. Listening to various characters set the scenario for each level through their 'amusing' conversations with one another can thankfully be skipped to take you straight to the action.
All in all this game is a disappointment and presents nothing new. Tower defence is about tactics, timing and strategy. Good tower defence games are heart-pumping races to get the right material in place on a tight budget, each level requiring the players to place the towers just so to keep alive. DoA fails in its own right as a tower defence game because of the limitations in tower placement and lack of overall excitement. Neither does it work as a 'tower attack' game because your troops are slow and similar.
A further detraction to the gameplay is that this sort of game is not best suited to a joystick. Whilst it works fine on the Xbox it would be far more intuitive on a touchscreen or with a mouse. Having to scroll through multiple menus with the d-pad, rather than being able to select a tower or troop type with a keystroke or finger-tap is clumsy and occasionally frustrating when you need to make an order quickly.
It feels like the creators were trying to do something different – playing with a new sort of mechanic, adding on a story and making levels that have various designs and routes through them. This is let down by sluggish and dull gameplay and a thoroughly ripped-off story and design. The market in tower defence games is so rich there is no real need to play this game, even though the mechanics are different to others. Defenders of Ardania is forgettable and I can’t see it taking up valuable hard drive space on many consoles for long.
The acronym is DoA and that about sums it