Defense Grid 2 Review

By Jonathan Barnes, 4 years ago
I feel bad for my wife.

My loving, non-gaming spouse generally puts up with this hobby and graciously eschews watching her TV shows to allow me the use of the "nice TV" to review games when they come across my desk. That being said, most of the time I enjoy playing and evaluating these games, but there are rare games when that enjoyment simply isn't there, and I genuinely feel bad that I've monopolized the living room. Defense Grid 2 is one of these games, but that doesn't mean it's bad... it means I'm just not the best at playing it.


As a Tower Defense game, trial-and-error is the only way to succeed in Defense Grid 2. In a quest to protect each level's Power Cores, you're required to place defense towers around the map to destroy or impede the progress of the oncoming horde of aliens. With a variety of enemy units, it's important to know that some towers work well against certain aliens and poorly against others. Towers cost varying amounts of resources and those resources are only earned by defeating enemies or earning interest on previously-earned resources. Figuring out which towers to place where and when is the key (really the only) skill needed in these type of games. Once that skill is mastered, Tower Defense games become a pleasant challenge and certain gamers can even reach a zen state as hordes of enemies crash against their meticulously placed defenses like waves breaking against a cliff. It's a beautiful symphony of destruction when it works and a disaster of epic proportions when it doesn't.

Many gamers will come to Defense Grid 2 off of the basis of Hidden Path's earlier title, Defense Grid: The Awakening which was one of Xbox LIVE's "Games with Gold" titles back in July 2013. As I sat down to review DG2 I thought that the experience garnered in my completion of DG: The Awakening would set me up well to succeed in this sequel, but, alas, I was wrong.

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The first few levels are innocuous enough as you're tasked with protecting each level's power cores. Placing towers in selectable locations was an easy breeze in the beginning, as you're only granted the game's first few towers which are relatively straightforward and easy to understand. Similarly, the enemies are complicitly homogenous and more than willing to march dutifully to their demise. It's around the sixth mission that things fly off the rails, however, and the difficulty spikes drastically. Without much warning the game rapidly introduces a bevy of new towers (which will be familiar to those who played DG: The Awakening, but otherwise are void of much introduction or explanation of use) and new alien types. Having blasted through the first handful of maps with zero problems (and Gold Medals all around) only to encounter a map that befuddled me for over ninety minutes became a source of head-throbbing frustration as every permutation of tower placements and timing seemed to be wrong and constant failure resulted.

While DG2 does offer a modicum of output and feedback into helping you plan out a strategy, that information is presented in a font that is, if we're being generous, half as big as it should be. For reference, my 42" LED TV is about ten feet from my couch and I had to lean forward and strain my eyes to even have a prayer of reading the small text about alien details and weaknesses. Combine that with the near constant flow of oncoming enemies, the management of precious resources, and controlling the pathways - all in real time, mind you - and you've got a recipe for frustration.

"I hate this game," I said to my wife, who gave me a look that was equal parts "you're ridiculous" and "you're ridiculous". That look gradually morphed from apathy to sympathy as my outbursts mimicked the game's story and dialogue which were also on repeat as I rewound (a very handy feature, easily accessed by the LB button) or restarted the level multiple times. After a full evening of pure frustration, I resigned and kicked the difficulty down from "Normal" to "Easy".

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Fortunately/Unfortunately, moving the difficulty down proved to be the elixir to the "fun" dilemma. While this Faustian bargain definitely made the experience more approachable and fun, it also eliminated any need for strategy as my previously overwhelmed defenses were now easily able to turn back the tide and I moved forward through the rest of the game without so much as losing a single core. This creates something of a dilemma: "Easy" may be too easy (even for beginners) and "Normal" may be too hard (even for those experienced with the game's predecessor) and there doesn't seem to be much of a way to ascend the learning curve between difficulties.

The game's story is an easy throwaway when compared to the actual gameplay. Rather than DG: The Awakening's single AI spouting increasingly ridiculous nonsense as you place towers, DG2 has upped the game with multiple personalities, all chiming in with their own brands of non-sequitur. Each level is also prefaced by a screen of text which shines a light on some of the plot and remains mysterious (but not necessarily engaging) until the final levels. It's nice that Hidden Path put some effort into crafting a story, but it's highly disposable.

For a game that lacks mind-blowing graphics and design on a new piece of hardware, DG2 certainly has its fair share of technical hiccups as well. Frame rates drop to stuttering levels when enemies and towers clash in large battles and the game has a penchant for freezing every now and then. Furthermore, I noticed some incredibly distracting color flashes when attempting to examine aliens at times. Since tower defense games rarely require fast twitch reflexes, these faux pas don't necessarily break the experience, but do create a fair share of headaches.

Prologue Start

Hidden Path has also taken the bold step of introducing multiplayer to the series and offers three different varieties. "DG Fighter" is a PvP match where both players take on the same map. The big twist is that aliens killed on your opponent's map teleport onto yours, meaning that your meticulously placed defenses could be rendered useless if your opponent is faster, more efficient, and has a different tactic. After several rounds of this competition (and getting my butt handed to me each time), I realized that (like the single player) there wasn't much in the way of guidance as to HOW to improve and become more competitive. Since you never see your opponent's screen and their defensive placements, its hard to determine how to combat their strategies. The other two multiplayer modes offer the chance to partner up with an online buddy to work together on the same map at the same time. "Co-Op Doubles" challenges both players to share resources and work together on the same map using the same squares while "DG Coordinated Defense" splits the available squares between partners (you can only build on your own square) and metes out resources based on how many kills the towers you place rack up. As one can expect with such a niche title, the player base is rather sparse and I found myself waiting over half an hour to be paired up in a "DG Coordinated Defense" match, which is rather sad considering there are two achievements ("Brothers in Arms" and "Go Team!" tied to that particular game type. On the plus side, you can engage in the game's campaign (and grind out some of those more long-term achievements) while waiting to be paired up in the multiplayer.

Speaking of achievements, as noted in our Achievement Preview Spotlight, there are a ton of achievements in DG2, sixty-five in total. These achievements have a great balance of ones that you'll naturally unlock through the course of play (like building 100 Gun towers and killing 10,000 aliens) and ones that you'll really have to work hard/grind for (like earning 100 Gold Medals). The dirty achievement secret to games like Defense Grid is that success is easily replicable and once our community finds solutions to the tougher achievements, they are easy to reproduce for guides and videos. The only thing that should stop completionists from giving this game a whirl would be the handful of multiplayer achievements that require either a robust community or a bit of session work.

Difficulty spikes, technical hiccups, and learning curve frustrations aside, one can't help but see the appeal of Defense Grid 2. When enemies are crashing against well-placed defenses and resources (along with your score) start piling skyward, it imbues a feeling of amazing power. In a marketplace that's devoid of Tower Defense titles, Hidden Path has crafted an experience that has the potential to challenge and the replayability to keep gamers coming back for more. With robust leaderboards, an ambitious multiplayer aspect, and different modifiers and variations to each level, there is enough here to keep fans busy for quite some time. Add in the achievements that will slowly nourish your gamerscore to encourage repeated sessions, and you've got a game that is an easy recommendation for strategy gamers, but worth a pass for those needing more action.

The reviewer spent approximately fourteen hours playing the game, completed the campaign, played several matches of the multiplayer, and popped 54 of the game's achievements. This review is based on the Xbox One version of this game which was provided courtesy of the developer.
Jonathan Barnes
Written by Jonathan Barnes
Jonathan has been a news/views contributor since 2010. When he's not writing reviews, features, and opinion pieces, he spends his days working as an informal science educator and his nights as an international man of mystery.