We’ve witnessed creativity in the tower defence genre quite a bit now, from Anomaly: Warzone Earth’s destroying towers instead of building them, to Sanctum’s first-person-shooter approach. It therefore stands to reason that Excubitor’s shoot ‘em up combination would also succeed, and in many ways, it does.
The story is woven throughout in the form of mission briefings and bits of dialogue within levels. Everything is told in a matter-of-fact style, giving added weight to Excubitor’s atmosphere and enhancing the detailed in-game universe. In your first mission, you discover a large group of military drones attacking civilians and you are, naturally, the only pilot for the job. The rest of the game is then about discovering why the robots are going out of control, or whether they are actually obeying someone’s orders. It’s not the most engaging plotline out there, but I welcomed the sense of purpose it gave to each encounter.
Excubitor has everything set up in the form of a traditional tower defence, but with a big difference. Instead of looking over everything from afar, you’re at the heart of all the action. Piloting your trusty ship, the Hammerhead, you place turrets and gun down anyone that gets too close. A map in the top corner of the screen shows all the routes enemies can take to get to your base, with the entry points glowing red before they approach. I actually relied on this map to navigate and plan strategies because of how clearly everything was marked out on there. My eyes would then flick back to the action to dispatch of drones and interact with turrets whenever it was necessary.
The basics of the gameplay are very intuitive, but you’ll have to get good at controlling the Hammerhead before you find any satisfaction in blowing drones to pieces. Most of the problem comes from having to control the positioning of a blue target that dictates where your shots are fired, which is also your means of interaction with objects in the environment. I can’t help feeling the developers prioritized the wrong function here. The reticule is great for setting up turrets without being close to them, but really isn’t worth the severe targeting speed reduction. Of course, you can get better with practice, but that doesn’t stop it from feeling like a constant hindrance.
The awkward targeting wouldn’t be too bad if the amount of enemies you had to deal with wasn’t so cruel. Most levels have you fighting around 6 waves. It sounds small, but feels long considering how many bombard you in each attack. The fast drones always move in packs, take multiple hits, and are constantly attacking. The amount of times I felt like I’d gone through a huge barrage to look over and see I was only on wave 2 was really exhausting.
It’s a tower defence right, so why don’t I just deal with the offence with some solid defence? Well, the turrets don’t do enough damage to be of much help. The turrets you begin with are pretty weak, leaving the base open to attack, and you left to do all of the legwork. This all makes protecting your base rather frustrating. A loud grating noise goes off every time it’s hit, and this thing gets bombarded a lot. It also doesn’t stand up to much damage, so turrets being unable to handle the waves of incoming drones means you’re stuck hovering on top of it, rather than scoping out the territory.
Clever turret placement is the key to success. There’s a limited amount of spaces on each map and each turret requires a certain amount of energy. To get more, you have to place generators, but of course this means using a slot that now isn’t packing any heat. There’s not much time to formulate a plan, as the start of levels usually hit you with waves without giving time to think. It means the first try of a level ends up being a panic test, placing things anywhere and keeping fingers crossed that it holds enemies off until you get a better grasp of the environment.
Before you run away from Excubitor, remember that I started the review by saying it was mostly successful. The game has its blips, clearly, but most of these are simply a case of unbalanced numbers causing unnecessary difficulty. Less drones per wave, more damage dealt by turrets, or more health for the base would quickly even the odds. I’m therefore happy to announce that progression rewards you with more turrets and weapons to choose from, as well as some stat upgrades for the Hammerhead, providing that much needed edge to your strategy and power levels.
When it comes to weapons, the Hammerhead can have two equipped at a time, allowing for a bit of personal modification. One of my favourite combinations has to be the ice ray that freezes enemies, put together with fast reloading bombs. To add even more firepower you can upgrade different areas of the ship (Shield, Armor, Engines, and Weapons) with the points given for finishing each mission. A bonus is awarded for the 1st, 5th and 9th points put into each one, although I piled everything in the weapon module first, since it increased the all-important damage.
I must admit that I enjoyed Excubitor in the moments where all the elements pulled together. The core gameplay is solid, and strategizing which weapons and turrets are best for each stage is satisfying when it leads to victory. That being said, the positives never fully counterbalance the ever present gremlins. It’s a struggle to get through the first chapter with limited resources and power. Even if you do, the fiddly targeting and unbalanced numbers are a constant disadvantage that make you feel overwhelmed for most of your playthrough.
This review is based off a PC copy of the game, which we were provided with.
Excubitor has a sound concept, with the shooter and tower defence genres working really well together. So it’s a shame then that a lot of the details equate to heavy, inaccurate controls and a cruel difficulty level, limiting the amount of enjoyment that can be had.