“Are we the West? Are we anything anymore? Is there a West if there isn’t an opposite force in the Soviet Union to define us?”
—Stephen Colbert, June 30, 2011
When I was young, the concepts of good and bad were easy to understand. These words carried none of the heaviness and uncertainty that I would later come to assign them: “Bad” meant enriching oneself at the expense of innocents or threatening to destroy the very planet on which we live; “Good” meant placing oneself in opposition to those who would pursue such goals. There was something appealing about this restricted morality, and it’s a part of what makes the tower defense genre such a winning formula: when the roles of aggressor and defender are so rigidly defined, there is no need for an intricate narrative—bad guys are coming to lay waste to your base, and you’d best do what you can to fight them off.
The storyline of Double Fine’s XBL tower-D/shooting gallery hybrid Trenched is appropriately unobtrusive—a mysterious sonic event called “The Broadcast” has claimed the lives of military personnel and created a pair of super-geniuses in disabled codebreaker Frank Woodruff and his wildly mustachioed colleague Vladimir Farnsworth. Woodruff puts his newfound mechanical genius to work creating a pair of mechanical legs called a “mobile trench”; Farnsworth goes full Boris Badenov (accent and all), creating an army of glowing robo-critters slangily referred to as “tubes” and hell-bent on ushering in a new era of
But who cares about petty details? Woodruff sounds fairly certain of his place on the moral high ground (he is defending, after all), and a legion of inbound and possibly communist robot attackers seems like a fine reason break out the big guns. As a member of Woodruff’s elite mobile trench brigade, you strut around a battlefield in giant metal pants and shoot cannons at Farnsworth’s electrified monstrosities, which explode in a satisfying array of sparks and convenient building materials. These victories are brief—each shattered tube gives way to more, and even with up to four be-trenched warriors in the fray, there is more than enough glory to go around.
To help shoulder the burden, trenches are outfitted with stationary units called “emplacements,” fully automated turrets that, once deployed, take aim at whichever enemies they’ve been specialized to take down. While traditional tower defense games treat turrets as the primary (and often exclusive) weapons of war, Trenched’s turrets are secondary tools, best used to patch the shortcomings of a mobile trench’s equipped firepower.
Although the emplacements are the main ties that bind Trenched to the tower defense tradition, they are also the strangest things about the game. If one accepts that the central objective of gameplay involves roaming the battlefield and taking out enemies with a trench’s mounted weapons (to be sure, this is where most player efforts are directed), then the emplacements actually thwart the player in this activity—even while assisting in the overall goal of tube-destruction. As necessary as they are for mission success, the size of the battlefield and relatively small scope of viewable area mean that the effects of thrown emplacements often occur off-screen, evidenced only by the collectible materials (“scrap”) that enemies leave behind. As a result, it’s often hard to gauge the efficacy of one’s emplacement choices, or even know when they have been destroyed and need replacing.
The multiplayer element of Trenched creates a similar problem. Unlike four-player co-op predecessor Left 4 Dead, the sense of cooperation among fighters is overwhelmed by an implicit sense of competition—every tube smashed by someone else is a tube you didn’t get to smash. This is a fine quality to have in a multiplayer shooter, pushing each player to destroy as much as possible and generally netting higher success rates for any given mission. Still, the presence of three additional players, each mowing down his or her own share of tubes (compounded by a battlefield full of tube-killing turrets), carries the potential result of creating a target drought. Several of my own multiplayer sessions devolved into every-man-for-himself sprints toward the spawning beds, with each player babysitting geographically separate areas of a given level—essentially every bit as isolating an experience as the otherwise-identical single player missions.
These small gripes aside, Trenched’s multiplayer is by no means an unwelcome addition. The game’s “Radio Room” matchmaking system creates a seamless meld between the multi- and single-player lobbies, both of which place pilots and their trenches on the deck of a waiting aircraft carrier. One of the greatest challenges of the single-player modes is the familiar problem of inventory management: It’s rarely possible—particularly in later levels—to pack everything one needs for battle onto one trench. Multiplayer games deal with this challenge in an effective and exhilarating way, at least when steps are taken to properly diversify one’s army prior to battle.
It is somewhat ironic that the alignments of Trenched’s opposing factions are so clearly defined, because the game falls decidedly into a rich middle ground just about everywhere else. The emplacements may hold the gameplay somewhat captive, but without them, the game itself would risk teetering into an unremarkable (if beautifully rendered and well-implemented) third-person shooter. Trenched excels by redefining videogame formulas even as it recycles them—tower defense is re-imagined as an active and exciting experience, meanwhile proving that a shooter need not be limited to whatever happens to be in one’s crosshairs. These opposites give Trenched its unique identity, but neither manages to fully claim the title for its own. Drawn together by an XBLA-appropriate price point, satisfying aesthetic, and breezily accessible gameplay, Trenched is a fun and casual gaming experience and a welcome addition to Double Fine’s growing legacy of imaginative and well-executed original titles.
So mount up, soldier, and don’t worry so much about why. Those tubes are coming your way, and they aren’t going to destroy themselves.
Trenched was developed by Double Fine and published by Microsoft. It is available digitally via the Xbox Live Arcade.
Dan Apczynski lives in San Francisco, California, where he is the education editor for Acoustic Guitar magazine and editor of the videogame culture blog Gamer Melodico. Find him on Twitter @DanApczynski.