As a casual player of Tower Defense (TD) and Real-Time Strategy (RTS) games, I was very attracted to the first game I’d encountered which melded the two. Games which sit squarely in the TD genre have grown stale for me, and while I enjoyed Starcraft and some of its brethren, I never felt any interest in getting very good at them. The exacting standards of high-level play seemed very much like work, so some light RTS elements grafted onto the more casual TD genre seemed likely to address my concerns with both. Though it shows the promise of the concept, Defenders of Ardania’s gameplay feels awkward rather than organic. This dramatically reduces its approachability in the later stages of the single-player campaign; I yielded to frustration and didn’t finish.
Most Wanted Interactive’s Defenders of Ardania embodies the obvious-in-retrospect idea–wedding independently common models of active military operations and static defense. The basic idea is very intuitive and easy to grasp even for those with little experience in either genre. Towers with various specialties, upgrades to the towers, upgrades to one’s resource collection and discounts on purchases, spells for direct effects and a reasonable variety of units constitute the roster of ways to spend your resource (mana). These are introduced gradually and accessed through a quite manageable, if unremarkable, interface. Unit types gain experience; once they level up, their abilities improve substantially, but their cost increases, as well. At the highest level, a Hero unit is unlocked–only one of each hero can be on the battlefield at a time (though they can enter again once gone), and they are markedly superior to their underlings. Unlocks and experience do not persist from one mission to the next.
Visually, the game does everything right when it’s not moving. Even the generic medieval European elements are visually appealing and colorful, while the non-civilized factions get some really interesting designs that help them feel unique. For example, the nature faction has a basic tower that doesn’t use projectiles like the other factions’ towers, which play the same role. Instead, it boasts a large spike reminiscent of one of the plants from the hellish levels of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Perhaps appropriately for impaling, this doesn’t feel like watching little red numbers appear over your troops–it’s more visceral. There are little touches like this all over, which is why it’s such a shame that the game stutters badly when things get complicated.
Ardania’s audio is mixed. I quite liked the score, which reminded me of the work of Basil Poledouris (of Conan the Barbarian and The Hunt for Red October fame). The effects were adequate–on rare occasions mildly annoying, but generally effective. It’s difficult to distinguish whether my annoyance at the voiceovers comes from the acting or the writing, because the writing struck me as so poorly suited to the game that I’m not sure any acting could have sounded reasonable. Fellow Internet users, I must confess that I find your incessant resort to memes and allusions as a substitute for wit loathsome. Sadly, the infection has spread, and we have actors tasked with trying to sound medieval and vacuously modern simultaneously. I feel pity.
Happily, bad voiceovers do little to ruin my experience of a game. Where Defenders of Ardania has real problems is in the patterns that emerge from the disparate elements. Most notably, when played by a casual player like myself, each map takes a very long time. I appreciate the ability to keep things slow enough to consider decisions, but with only one level of difficulty for each map and only two time scales (even the quicker of which is slow), the game just seems to force players to be very patient.
This problem is most serious in the multiplayer. In my first attempt, I tried something new that failed spectacularly and allowed my opponent to grab so much real estate that I couldn’t get a real foothold. Since the undead faction is less effective at destroying others’ towers, I was pretty effectively out of the game, but it took my opponent over twenty minutes to finish me off. I couldn’t find an option to concede, and prefer not to quit out of an online game in progress out of respect for my opponents, so I was stuck. This sort of experience will turn casual players off in a hurry, and my inability to find a game at all in the next ten minutes of searching suggests that the title may not attract a large enough audience to develop a self-sustaining group of skilled players.
Finally, I will devote a paragraph to pedantry: a ballista is basically a mounted, oversized crossbow, exactly like what tops the “spear thrower” towers. What sits atop the “ballista” tower is not a ballista, but a catapult. I honestly don’t know whether this is common knowledge bafflingly absent from the development team or evidence that I needed more of a life as an adolescent.
Every important piece of Defenders of Ardania is individually well done. The factions are similar enough to feel balanced, while different enough to maintain distinct identities. The models are attractive; their designs innovative enough to avoid an entirely generic feel, and even the levels in which they appear are interesting. The interface is accessible and the basic mechanics intuitive. I suspect that hard-core RTS fans, or those willing to put in the effort to become excellent at this game, will really appreciate it. I recommend it to fans of the genre who enjoy really exploring the games they play and tuning their strategies. That recommendation must include the acknowledgement that I am not such a player, and expect most potential purchasers are also more casual. Paradox Interactive has a reputation for significant balancing in later updates, and if the high cost of patching on the 360 (many thanks to Tim Schafer for adding that fact to common knowledge among gamers) doesn’t prevent it, I will be excited to see if they manage to pick up the endgame and make the title friendlier to a variety of skill levels.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.