The folks at Double Fine Productions sure love to tinker with tried and true genre staples, adding their own unique brand of humor and creative gameplay elements at the same time. They’ve previously put their colourful stamp on such genres as real-time strategy, hack n’ slash action and the trusty old platforming construct. With their stylized approach and penchant for wisecracking characters the likes of whom we’ve never seen (or heard from) before in video games, they’ve won over quite a few fans in the industry and general community. That’s why the release of their latest project, Trenched, is such a big deal for those who follow gaming.
I assume that when you think of the name Trenched, what pops into your head is a military warfare game set in muddy trenches, during one of the World Wars. You’re partially correct on that one, but there’s oh so much more to it than just that basic premise and structure. You see – this game is actually a mix between the ever popular tower defense and third-person shooter genres, creating an action-packed concoction that mixes very well together. A game that is different from most of the other products out there in its category, providing a new and more intense experience than a lot of its competition.
In its opening cinematic, the game describes the dire situation that has befallen the world. Its world is at war, though it’s never explained which war exactly it is. Two injured soldiers are tasked with sitting in a radio broadcast room, listening for enemy frequencies, when a strange broadcast blows through the airwaves. It stuns them and alters their lives forever. While both men are made much more intelligence by the strange digital frequency, it ends up turning one into a heroic genius, while the other is transformed into a mad scientist. The saintly one goes on to claim fame by designing large, powerful mech suits for injured soldiers to use on the battlefield, while the other plans his strategy to one day make the world his own backyard.
Taking place decades ago, Trenched pits players against an onslaught of evil tubes – as in old televisions and related components. You’re not shooting archaic idiot boxes, but they make up the components that created your enemies; mid to large-sized metallic robots, which resemble different types of bugs, dogs and monsters. Some are electrified with force-fields, one type can fly, and some others are capable of blowing you to smithereens. Of course, as per the usual, they’re the creation of a madman who’s bound and bent that he’s going to take over the world using violent force and maniacal methods. You get the fun chore of being the downer that rains on his parade, by your lonesome self or with three friends.
As we know, the average tower defense game is slow-paced, methodical and requires a lot of strategy. You normally have to plan out where to place turrets, slow-down rays and the like, in order to stop invading waves of bugs or aliens. This time around however, you’re much more involved in the process, taking control of one of those personalized (and customizable) mechanical robot suits.
These robots not only have the capability to maneuver around the large battlefields that lay in ruin; in fact, they’re weapons of mass destruction. Carrying up to six different weapons (dependent on the chassis you choose) and containing the ability to turn enemy scrap metal into turrets, mortars and other emplacements, they’re quite a force to be reckoned with. Just be glad that you’re the one who gets to use them, as opposed to the enemy on the other side. Your basic weapons range from machine guns and sniper rifles to broadcasting satellites and artillery launchers.
Keeping with the genre’s standard structure and design a bit, Double Fine has enemies coming at you in waves. Sometimes they’ll come from one direction and other times, they’ll come from a completely different avenue. It all depends on where their portals are placed but, don’t worry, you do get a bit of a heads-up. Missions essentially boil down to protecting something, whether it’s a boat, power plant or a bomb. If you let enough enemies get at it, they’re sure to blow the aforementioned hot property up with one of their powerful weapons, so the key is to set up your emplacements in a way that they’ll be hampered, attacked and hopefully removed from the equation. Players are tasked with being the last line of defense, powering their way through the mechanical onslaught, using those aforementioned constructs to their advantage.
Its fifteen stage campaign follows American soldiers as they try to find out where the mad scientist’s transmissions (broadcast through a floating set of old tube televisions) is coming from. The journey takes them from the comfortable confines of Europe to the exotic worlds of Africa and the Pacific, each area giving the game a new look and introducing stronger enemies. Each of the three areas has its own set of four missions plus a boss fight, creating a formulaic progression structure that sees you return to a boat in-between missions to purchase items, customize your mech and choose your next destination.
However, one thing that can’t be said is that the three locations play differently. Other than the different designs each map (or grid, as is the case with a couple of the stages) take on, they all play pretty much the same. There aren’t any damaging environmental effects pertaining to a specific continent which is a bit disappointing. However, you do have to be on the lookout for some powerful electrical storms brought down by the maniac himself. They can be quite damaging, especially during a boss battle, of which there are three – all of which leave a bit to be desired but aren’t too bad.
Trenched is a fun game to play through. It’s different, relatively creative (though not as far out as most previous Double Fine projects), chaotic and engaging. However, it’s also short, coming in at approximately four hours or so in length. There is some productive replay value though it’s basically limited to the pursuit of unlockable items (earned for completing challenges), and an attempted run at a gold medal on each mission (earned by limiting damage towards that which you are protecting, to 20%). Additionally, its mission designs unfortunately aren’t as creative as its premise, which means that you’re not going to remember a particular stage for years to come, or keep revisiting the game to play it. The ability to replay missions with unlocked items does give incentive to go back though.
Though the entire experience is pretty engaging overall, it suffers from some inherent repetition that comes with the territory. It’s action packed and frenetic enough to make that relatively easy to overlook, though it’s there. You’re taking out wave after wave of enemies, so there’s bound to be a bit of tedium there at times – it’s to be expected. You can’t really fault the game for being like that, especially since it’s not boring because of it and it’s nowhere near a game breaking issue. Just be warned that you’re doing similar tasks from the first second to the last, with some evolution in the form of new weapon types, powerful unlocked emplacements and even more dangerous baddies to contend with.
In order to maximize your experience, it’s recommended that you play through the game with a few friends over XBOX Live. This is the type of game that thrives on cooperative multiplayer, allowing gamers to set up strategies, cripple enemies at choke points and work together as a well-rounded team. During online play sessions, it’s evident that the experience was built with an emphasis on trying to get its consumers to play in groups, which feels natural. Despite this, the development team needs to do some trouble-shooting and put out a patch that will fix the online aspect, which suffers from lag. It’s there and is hard to miss, but don’t skip this one just because you read that term. It’s not debilitating and certainly doesn’t ruin the experience, though it does hamper it a bit.
While lag is certainly a somewhat frustrating issue, there was one other problem that I had with the multiplayer mechanics in Trenched. This complaint has to do with the matchmaking system itself, which is more annoying than helpful at times. In order to connect to an online game, you must visit the radio broadcast ‘room’ on the game’s ship hub, where the options consist of inviting a friend, bringing your party in or searching for others online.
If you choose the latter option, it will randomly look for people, which is normally fine. However, all four players are put on the same boat to upgrade, salute each other or run around, and each one has the option to change the mission. That means that, when people enter random games, they’re usually interested in changing the mission to the one that suits them, instead of the host having absolute control. This can result in some annoying moments, to say the least.
Presentation-wise, it’s a hit. It’s well-crafted visually, using decent-looking motion comics and some artistic period-based magazine covers to tell most of its story. Its gameplay visuals are detailed and colourful, though a bit dark at times. It runs well (in single player, at least), without any issues and has some really nice looking ‘character’ models in the form of mechs that are pretty rich in detail. Whenever you change chassis, weapons, paint jobs or anything else on your robot, it makes a huge difference in the looks department, sometimes even changing the height or size of your metallic monster. Unfortunately, the enemy designs aren’t as varied or interesting, at times leaving something to be desired.
With Double Fine behind the wheel, it’s not a surprise that this is a well-written game. Purposefully cheesy at times, its dialogue is pretty witty with a couple really funny one-liners. Its storyline is a tad underdeveloped as it progresses from mission to mission without enough explanation, but the two main scientist characters make up for it. They’re both quite interesting and memorable – especially the mad scientist who’s lines are by far the best in the game. As is his personality, wit and delivery. The voice actors do a good job which leaves very little, if nothing at all, to complain about. They fit the period, premise and campy atmosphere of the game well, which is nice.
Though Trenched may not be perfect, it’s certainly well-worth checking out the next time you’re searching for something above-average to play on XBOX Live Arcade. It’s engaging, entertaining and witty, though not without its faults. A patch could make a big difference within its online mode, so hopefully the development team is hard at work on one to fix the lag. It’s just too bad that they ended up deciding to go with the matchmaking system they employed, as it negatively affects the experience, making it best to play with friends who are interested in going from start to finish with you.
Having said all that, it’s one of the better new releases available on the service and deserves a try. It may be a bit brief, but it’s definitely cool and a tad unusual. The aforementioned issues are overshadowed by its high production values, decent polish and interesting mechanics. Tower defense fans will really enjoy this new change of pace, while those who may have been previously turned off by the formulaic and methodical genre should find that Trenched is an enjoyable dip into that strategic pool.
Trenched was released on June 22, 2011, for XBOX Live Arcade. It’s available for 1200 Microsoft Points.