It was only a matter of time before Paradox Interactive, purveyors of fine strategic sims and all manner of arcane beardyness, rolled up their sleeves and dug into the murky quagmire of tower defence games. Defenders Of Ardania will be hitting the shelves this December... but will it offer enough of a strategic edge to elevate it above the likes of Defense Grid and Revenge Of The Titans?
On the face of things, Defenders Of Ardania subscribes to a familiar if fairly tired formula. Units trudge towards your base along preset grid-based paths, along which you can deploy a range of towers to kill, wound or otherwise slow their advance. Each of the three factions - Humans, Undead and the forces of Mother Nature - have eight similar fortifications at their disposal, and they can be upgraded, sold and used to block off certain avenues of attack at leisure. Placing towers also allows players to colonise more of the map and extend further into enemy territory. However, beyond the medieval art design that draws upon the deep Majesty universe for inspiration, it's pretty much business as usual.
Except for the fact that you can also create waves of your own to pummel the enemy base. In effect, you get both sides of the tower defence coin.
Each race has a choice of eight units that need to be queued up and deployed in waves. Regardless of which faction you select, you'll have access to cheap and cheerful 'swarmers,' powerful tanks and fragile 'sprinters' who all fulfil different combat roles. Fliers, heroes and other esoteric units are much more expensive to build, but compensate for their price tag with the ability to damage incoming troops or attack enemy towers. Standard units simply run past (or, indeed, through) each other - meaning that you'll need to constantly trade the need for ready funds with the ability to push them back with pricey marauders of your own.
Defenders Of Ardania also features a few familiar RTS conventions. You can set rally points to make your units avoid tricky areas or concentrate their assault on poorly-defended zones. Setting 'bounties' on towers or units effectively designates high priority targets that award extra coin and XP when taken down. 'High Ground' and 'Resource Zone' grid tiles reward early advances with extra tower range and gold production, which will doubtlessly become the focus of major engagements. Armchair generals might bemoan the lack of direct unit control as well as the incredibly limited selection of units, but it works well enough.
Finally, players have a limited arsenal of spells at their disposal - which run the gamut from direct offensive strikes to defensive/healing abilities. They're incredibly powerful yet prohibitively expensive, relegating them to being emergency gambits as opposed to a constant source of pain. Juggling your resources and attention between towers, troops and magic proves to be a frenetic and uniquely fast-paced affair.
The GUI is fairly hit and miss, which likely comes down to the fact that Defenders Of Ardania is being designed for iPad and Xbox Live Arcade as well as the PC. It's incredibly streamlined and accessible (perfect for that luscious touchscreen or console controller), but on the PC, it forces you to switch from mouse controls to keyboard-only prompts after entering a menu. Having to abandon your mouse in favour of arrow keys and the space bar can become incredibly tiresome, and for the life of me, I can't understand why the mouse can't be used in these selections. Owning a macro-supported gaming mouse will probably pay dividends here - but there's plenty of time to sort this out.
Multiplayer is by far the most entertaining part of the package, though it's worth noting that the three factions all behave very similarly and have a fairly equal selection of units/strategies at this stage. This cookie-cutter approach certainly provides balance (and some incredibly rewarding matches), but it also serves to encourage some long and miserable stalemates between veteran players. When you get four players involved, however, it's a hectic and thoroughly stressful experience that more than deserves the entry fee by itself... especially when you can choose to hop between different sides in the same conflict! Here's hoping that a few tweaks to the formula will perk things up a bit.
Graphically, Defenders Of Ardania is very pretty indeed - for a tower defence title at least. The striking colour palette and detailed textures make for an exceptionally attractive little game that will run on a wide variety of machines.
In short, tower defence fans and stategy gurus may well be in for a genre-mashing treat when Defenders Of Ardania releases this December. We'll be keeping a close eye on it.