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PAX East 2014 Preview: Defense Grid 2

Tucked away at PAX East was a booth for Defense Grid 2, a sequel to the well-loved Defense Grid: The Awakening which to me defined the tower defense genre with its tight action, wit and customizable experience. Despite being a terrific game and a solid seller the first title did not put its developer Hidden Path in a position to fund a sequel and they did not want to go the traditional publisher route. That left Kickstarter, which they approached it in an interesting way: If they got a certain amount they would release an expansion to the original game, while if they achieved their top goal a sequel would be released.
They missed their top goal, but a mystery backer topped up their funding and work was started. They released their expansion last year and then eventually reached out to 505 games for publishing support and are well on their way to releasing the full sequel later this year.
click to view larger imageI had played a great deal of Defense Grid: The Awakening on PC and noticed when I got to the booth that they had an Xbox One version playable as well so I took that for a spin. The point of the Defense Grid series is to fight off hordes of monsters that are trying to steal your power cores. The action takes place on set maps with multiple paths and you have the ability to direct the monsters by placing towers at blocking points. You win if no more monsters are left and you still have cores; you get a perfect game if none are stolen. One of the neat things about the series is that the monsters have to walk back with the cores to steal them, so you have a chance on the return path to finish the hordes off, but cores return to base slowly so care is needed.
Off the bat I could see there were some subtle differences that will improve playability.  First off, the top of the screen has a host of information such as what monsters are queued; the core, shield and resource numbers; and a graph showing your progress and mapping any previous attempts. The monsters now have a health bar, which makes a big difference when gauging how you are doing. Hidden Path also eliminated flying creatures as they were too chaotic and could easily ruin a perfect run; this allowed the developer to come up with many more interesting monster variants. Finally, they added a lot of dynamic content within the maps – towers that move and land masses that rise and fall, for example – which changes the battlefield.
click to view larger imageControl was easy on the Xbox One, with the left stick controlling general movement and the right stick intuitively zooming with up and down movements and shifting viewing angles with left and right. The bumpers are used to speed and slow down the monster movement, and placement/upgrades is controlled with the A button. It worked pretty well, movement was responsive and the system was very lenient when you were hovering on a build point – it would build in the most likely spot.
Despite the controls being a little different I was pulled in right away and enjoyed a round of the new title (winning a perfect match, I may add). The game in its current state did not have any of the story elements in place, but I was assured that the charming AI narrator from the first game (Jim Ward) would be back along with a number of new characters. The company’s goal is to refine and deepen the story and the tidbits I was given have me excited to play through the game’s main story mode.
While the core gameplay of Defense Grid has been tweaked more than revolutionized, the sequel will offer additional modes that will lengthen the life and enjoyment of the title. It will be released across multiple platforms (PS4, Xbox One and PC), but the PC version will have a leg up with Mod support. Tools will be provided with the full version for people to create their own themed maps and voiceovers. This could be a really cool way to get some iconic scenes or scenarios as well as plenty of unique content into Defense Grid 2.
click to view larger imageI was told the game will also have two-player co-op and competitive MP modes. Players can work with or against other players to evolve strategies. Co-op mode allows a player to work with a friend to build towers and defend power cores. Competitive mode allows players to compete and modify each other’s gameplay experience while interacting. That last competitive mode is the one I am really looking forward to as it was described as similar to the old multiplayer Tetris on the Gameboy – as you eliminate monsters on your side, some spawn to the other player.
Defense Grid 2 is shaping up really well on all platforms, but having checked out both the PC and Next Gen console versions I can say that the PC version has a clear edge. The textures were crisper and better shaded, and movement is far more intuitive on a mouse and keyboard than with a controller. This is not to say that the Xbox One and PS4 versions are bad, they just don’t quite measure up to the PC version. With some time left before release we could see the gulf shrink, but if you have a choice go for the PC version first.
Being a big fan of the original I was looking forward to Defense Grid 2 and my anticipation level has just risen further now that I have tried out the game first-hand.  The gameplay tweaks, expanded storyline and solid multiplayer additions make this the one Tower Defense game to look out for when it is released this Fall for Xbox One, PS4, and PC/Linux/Mac.

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