There seem to have been a lot of tower defence games hitting Xbox Live Indie Games recently. Almost without exception, they have potential but are too flawed to be worth recommending. The Indie Mine has already looked at the well presented but otherwise unremarkable Union of Armstrong and the appealing but bug-riddled and barely functional Zombie Crossing. Now we have Spoids, and I wasn’t tremendously optimistic about its chances.
Well, I was wrong. Mostly.
Spoids is easily one of the most professional indie tower defence games I’ve played. It immediately makes a good impression with its outstanding presentation. Though it doesn’t go in for flashy cinematic sequences or pseudo-3D visuals, Spoids feels polished and professional from its opening moments, with a brief voiceover explaining that humanity’s colonised worlds are suddenly being assailed by an alien race dubbed ‘spoids’. It’s not a deep or detailed plot, but it serves its purpose as a justification for the tower defence format, and it’s used throughout to provide reasons for each mission, whether a colony begging for your help or a shady businessman offering to keep you funded in exchange for protection.
Voice acting is present throughout the game, and while this is generally something I’m indifferent to, here it works very well. The briefing for each mission comes in the form of a transmission from your next client, usually imploring you to hold off the spoid assault while they evacuate/retrieve their data/buy their groceries/walk their dog. This has no impact on the way the levels play out, but it’s a nice touch nonetheless, and I couldn’t help being a little less diligent when I was working to defend the shifty opportunist called Mosper while he boosted valuable gear from an abandoned facility.
Your clients also shout out suggestions or recriminations as you carry out your mission. Again this is a welcome touch of polish, and actually helps you notice if some spoids have slipped through the net. Your computer’s comments are far more practical, if less colourful. The types of spoids can be identified by their shape, but I generally can’t remember which ones are which, so having my digital advisor chime in “zoomers approaching” or “faders approaching” gives me a few valuable seconds’ warning to throw down a suitable turret.
This voice acting isn’t fantastic, but it’s leagues ahead of most indie games, and better than many mainstream titles. For the most part it’s at a Gears of War sort of standard – it’s not going to win anyone an Oscar, but it doesn’t feel like a high school drama class either. Some of the accents are a little on the hammy side, but no more so than the average Hollywood representation of non-Americans.
Tower defence games always see you placing turrets to defend against waves of enemies that vastly outnumber you, and Spoids sticks tightly to that formula. It doesn’t offer research options like Zombie Crossing, an ever-shifting attack route like Commander: World One or an open map with divertible assaults like Horn Swaggle Islands. This never feels like a weakness, though. Spoids avoids repetition by introducing a new mechanic, weapon or enemy type after every mission. Even the way this is done is appealing. The information is presented in an Intel directory that is reassuringly similar to Mass Effect’s Codex. This frequent use of the setting before, during and after missions prevents the game feeling like a series of disconnected stand-alone tasks.
Sadly, Spoids does have flaws. Only two as far as I’ve noticed, but one is puzzling and the other is problematic. Firstly, the game’s secondary play mode is hidden. If you perform well enough on a mission to earn a platinum medal you unlock ‘infinite wave’ mode, allowing you to fight off an unending army of spoids for as long as you can. This adds some welcome replayability after completing the main campaign, as you try to perfect your defensive strategy and beat your previous record. Confusingly, there’s no indication as to how to access this mode. It’s not listed in any of the menus or on the title screen, and if you select the mission again it has all the same briefings and objectives as before, including a finite length. In the end I had to ask the developers about it via Twitter, and they told me that if you play a mission for which you’ve unlocked infinite wave mode, it will happen automatically. That’s fine, but continuing to display a time limit for the mission when it doesn’t apply is very confusing, and surely easily remedied.
Secondly, and more importantly, the difficulty curve decided to take the elevator. With new enemies or turrets introduced every mission, the game wastes no time in becoming more complex and more demanding. By level six, you have to manage your turret purchases and placements almost perfectly or you won’t last more than a couple of minutes. Admittedly I’m a mediocre tower defence player at best, but my criticism isn’t that the game is hard – it’s that it shifted from manageably challenging to Battle of Thermopylae hard so suddenly that I got whiplash. Most levels required a few attempts, but I felt like I could see how to improve for the next time. Pretty soon, though, I was hanging on by the skin of my teeth, and then at level six my progress slammed to a halt like someone had erected a concrete wall with ‘no playing beyond this point’ chiselled into it. It took me literally hours of playing this one level over and over before I even got close to succeeding. I’m sure tower defence maestros could overcome this obstacle, but everyone I’ve spoken to had a similar problem at around the same point. This is quite late in the game – the sixth of eight levels – but the change is shockingly sudden. However able you are, the difficulty curve in Spoids is just very badly conceived.
In the end, I give Spoids a recommendation with slight reservations. It would be easy to recommend wholeheartedly on the basis of its professionalism, polish and overall good design if it wasn’t for the bone-shatteringly sharp increase in challenge. Spoids is a good game, and reasonably priced at 240 Microsoft points, but it’s certainly not a game for tower defence novices. By all means play and enjoy it, but be prepared to never finish it.
[This review is also posted at The Indie Mine.]