By: Armaan Khan
When I first found out about Defenders of Ardania, I got excited for two reasons. One: it’s set in the Majesty universe. Two: it’s being developed by the same team that worked on Nexus: The Jupiter Incident. These two facts suggested that Defenders of Ardania was going to be a fun, lighthearted strategy game that would keep me coming back for more. After spending a few hours with the beta, and I’m happy to say that is exactly what I got.
What You’d Expect, And Then Some
Gameplay consists of your standard tower defense antics, with a few RTS-inspired twists. You begin a match in one corner of the map, with up to three other players occupying the remaining corners and a little maze connecting everyone in between. You’re expected to build towers throughout the maze in order to defend against enemy forces who will relentlessly assault your castle until it is destroyed. All the expected tower tropes are here: there’s one that attacks rapidly but only does damage to a single opponent, one that fires slowly but also does splash damage, one that targets flying creatures, one that slows enemies down but doesn’t do any damage… you get the idea; you’ve probably played this a million times by now.
Unlike most tower defense games, however, you can’t just build anywhere you want. Every tower must be within seven tiles of another, which means you have to expand outward from your castle, RTS-style, and can’t take control of key positions right at the start of a match. Additionally, there’s a strict limit to how many towers you can build, so you have to select type and placement very carefully. Throw in the presence of resource tiles — which, if you have a tower on it, will dramatically increase the rate that you regenerate the mana needed to construct and upgrade towers, cast spells, and build units — and you’ve got a formula for tense, frantic start-of-match action, the likes of which I have never experienced in a TD title before. You’ll scramble to build cheap towers so you can quickly expand and claim valuable resource tiles, then tear those down to free up room to build towers that will actually provide a useful defense against enemy incursions.
Did you notice me say “build units” back there? That’s the other major twist Defenders of Ardania introduces to the genre. Unlike other TD games, you can’t simply build some towers, sit back, and wait for your enemies to exhaust themselves against your unassailable position. You have to construct waves of units to go out and destroy the opposing castle, which won’t be easy because that castle will have defensive towers built around it as well, waiting to shred anyone who comes by. Since every tower is effective against certain unit types and ineffective against others, and you can only have a limited number of them, each match becomes an adrenaline-pumping situation where your strategy is constantly in flux as you build units that exploit gaps in your enemy’s defense, while simultaneously modifying your defense in response to what’s being sent your way.
It’s Lonely Out Here
Well, theoretically the matches should be like that. Competing against the computer in single-player action provided glimpses of the exciting potential described above, but AI always gets tired and predictable after a while, so I hopped online to check out what the multiplayer would be like. Sadly, I couldn’t find anyone to play against, so I can’t comment on how well the experience will hold up, but I remain optimistic. All the elements for a fantastic experience are there, it’s just a question of whether or not it all comes together properly.
The number of game types and options available for multiplayer seems a bit light though, especially considering the developers have said that their primary focus is on the multiplayer gameplay. You’ve got Free-for-All, 2-on-2, and Team Survival modes, which can be played either publicly or privately, with or without a time limit. There are about 20 maps to choose from, but they’re the same maps you play in the single-player campaign. You’d think a multiplayer-focused game would have lots more modes and customization options, as well as dedicated maps, but I’m playing a beta, so there might be more in the works, though I couldn’t say for sure.
What I can say for sure is that the single-player is a blast. You’ll play through a linear, story-based campaign which features some hilarious dialogue and excellent voice acting. The story itself is just a thinly veiled excuse to go from mission to mission, but that’s not a bad thing in this case, because the gameplay is king here. Some levels feel like a puzzle, where you need to figure out the “trick” to win, but others provide a wonderfully dynamic strategic challenge, requiring you to change both offensive and defensive strategies on the fly in order to succeed and survive. The difficulty level of each mission is set in stone, however, so if you have a hard time winning, you’ll have no choice but to keep trying again and again until you do, or just give up and play something else.
The enemy AI is actually quite responsive, even at this early stage, and will continually knock down and throw up towers according to the units you are sending out into the field. I actually got a perverse satisfaction in seeing this, because there were times, especially as I approached victory, where it looked like the AI was scrambling around in a panicked attempt to regain control of the situation. That made winning all the more satisfying. The partner AI on maps where you are part of a team is similarly strong, managing to hold out on its own and not becoming a liability over time, which is a refreshing change of pace.
The single-player mode doesn’t end with the campaign, either. You can play any unlocked level in Skirmish mode, which allows you to either play the level as designed for the campaign, play it with limited resources, or play it in survival mode against an endless horde of enemies. All told, it’s a surprising amount of content considering single-player is not the focus.
Fish Out of Water
Now that I’ve told you all the good bits, it’s time for some hard-hitting criticism. Defenders of Ardania is being released for every platform under the sun, including consoles, and it shows. The control system and interface is tailor-made for gamepad play, with keyboard/mouse controls feeling like an awkward add-on.
As a PC gamer, you’d expect a modern strategy game to be primarily mouse-driven, with lots of keyboard shortcuts, but Defenders of Ardania does not live up to that expectation. The mouse is used to pan around the map, while everything else is exclusively keyboard-driven, and not in a very intuitive way, either. You can’t left-click to select something, for example, you have to press [Space] instead. If you want to build a wave of units, you have to press [Q], then scroll left and right with [A] and [D] to highlight the unit that you want, then press [Space] to add it to the wave. When the wave is ready you press [L.Shift] to send it out into the field. It’s an unnecessarily slow and cumbersome interface that doesn’t take advantage of the wonderfully responsive control system that makes the PC unique, and I’m hoping it gets fixed for the final release.
Also, if you’re the kind of person who likes to tweak graphics settings, you won’t find much here. You can reduce the overall graphical detail, but that’s it. There’s an option to change screen resolution, but it’s non-functional in the beta. Some more settings to adjust the game for a smooth experience would definitely be welcome.
Even with its flaws, Defenders of Ardania proved to be fun and addicting. Every time I booted it up to double-check something for this preview, I ended up playing a level or two. If Most Wanted can fix the control scheme to be more PC-friendly (and maybe throw in a few more graphics options), it could turn out to be a fantastic game. Even if they don’t, it’ll still be a great game, though harder to recommend to the PC crowd.
Defenders of Ardania launches at the $14.99 price point on December 8th.
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