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On 07/10/2011 at 10:53 PM by Jason Ross
Tower defense, mechs, television, and cigars. What else could a man want?
Trenched is a great title any fan of tower defense or mech combat games will likely enjoy. I'd absolutely recommend it to a broader audience, should they be willing to overlook a few glitches in the game's multiplayer at the time of press.
Ever picked up an enchanting book which starts off strong with a variety of colorful characters, an interesting plot, and a great setting, making for an engrossing experience that seems to be heading somewhere grand? Ever felt that sort of emptiness inside your gut when that same book just moves in circles, and no early plot elements are fleshed out, where the characters never express their true personality, and event after event feels the same? That's Double Fine's Trenched. An unbelievably well-shaped game with great characters, solid gameplay, and an original setting. Where does Trenched take it? Sadly, practically nowhere, leaving an emptiness inside that was expecting much, much more.
Trenched begins with two disabled US military men listening to enemy radio broadcasts around the time of WWI, hoping to catch a glimmer of useful intelligence for the sake of their fellow soldiers. While listening, a strange broadcast signal kills all who hear it, aside from Frank Woodruff and Vladamir Farnsworth, who, for some reason, become much more intelligent and resourceful than ever before. Woodruff invents a method to give injured soldiers new legs and a new chance to go back on the field safely: mobile trenches, essentially open-air mechs with barbed-wire and sandbags to protect their pilots. Farnsworth, alternatively, created a method to bring the world to those who don't want to face dangers outside: “monovisions,” called “tubes” with disdain in Trench, are his creation. Vlad reshaped the idea of TVs, which then become twisted into walking, destructive creatures that broadcast only one channel of whatever Vlad chooses.
It sounds very enticing. A hint of sci-fi mystery, an idea of a greater threat with the killer broadcast looming, a Dr. Light and Dr. Wily set of characters. Where does Trench take its premise? Without spoiling the story, the plot doesn't really take off from there. Woodruff's platoon went from location to location inside three vastly unique lands, tracking Farnworth's and the monovision signal along the way, launching a handful of counter-attacks all the while. On the way, Farnsworth really only gives one-liners in the middle of the missions, and even then, only to introduce a new unit with a new purpose. The colorful characters never really interact. They rarely talk back and forth, they never joke, they don't bicker. The best Trenched offers in this regard is some slight recollection of Vlad and Frank's past from Frank's own memory. Essentially, what began as a parallel (with more character) of Mega Man's two doctors becomes nothing more than that. These interesting characters were transformed into one-dimensional launching boards to advance the player's generic (albeit manly) character into each mission.
Similarly, many customization options feel squandered as well. Trenched starts as a great mech/tower defense hybrid game with solid controls and a variety of weapons. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent the variety of weapons was basically kept to six categories, each of which progressed fairly linearly. What does this mean? It just means there aren't a lot of machine guns with special features and bonuses out there, but rather the best two machine guns are the only two worth using by the end of the game, and everything before them is completely inferior. It seemed like two weapons out of each type were useful at the end, and whatever special bonus might be on a lower-tier weapon was mostly worthless. Even more, despite different rarity colorings on each gun, not even the higher-tier weapons left much of a satisfying feeling of reward. Worse, the game's towers, called emplacements, used a forward path for progression. The next best emplacement was simply the same as the emplacement before it, but dealt more damage per shot in each case. Emplacements weren't even given a chance at the bonuses a few weapons received. In many cases, I wanted to see the opportunity to stumble upon what could be a rare piece of loot that would completely change the way I approached each stage in order to take advantage of it, but instead, I'd just find a bland upgrade to the same weapons I was using in many of the earlier stages, and the end result was a lot less vibrant of an experience than I felt Trenched could have been.
Trenched does afford players three different choices in how they wish to approach the game; the method works somewhat well, but at points in singleplayer and multiplayer it feels a little clunky. The engineer class of trench lets players slot in four emplacement choices, and allows them to place down the towers at 80% of the normal price at the cost of mounted weapon slots. Assault trenches pay 120% of the emplacement cost, but are typically given six slots to place up to six weapons, though more powerful weapons take more slots. The standard trench chassis sits in-between the two extremes, typically with three slots for trenches and four or five slots for weapons. Unfortunately, emplacements come in three different flavors, and even for the engineering chassis there's not a wide variety of selection to let players have free reign over which emplacements they can equip. Additionally, to place emplacements players must pay scrap, an item dropped by the monovisions all over the map, typically after an individual tube's defeat. It's possible for some trenches to place down an expensive collection-based emplacement, but even if a trench can slot in this type of emplacement, it's expensive, and the money would likely be better spent elsewhere. Additionally, there seems to be a few balance issues in multiplayer, where the assault chassis have much more killing power than engineering chassis, mostly because scrap is distributed evenly and there are several enemies that attack a player's emplacements. A more balanced distribution of scrap to the emplacement-based trenches, or an option to donate scrap would probably fix this imbalance, but unless a patch upgrades this, don't be surprised to see most people online use the assault type of trench.
Speaking of online, Trenched seemed to be riddled with some odd online glitches. Upon playing online, people will either be transported onto your ship or you'll be transported onto theirs. From here, players can choose a stage from any of the list from the player who's progressed the farthest. If a player has cleared a stage online, the stage counts as cleared in single-player, as well. Oddly enough, I encountered a glitch that made me appear entirely as someone else. My gamertag would be replaced with theirs on the player list, and if I managed to enter a stage, my trench would be outfitted in whatever manner theirs was. After returning from the mission, this would remain to be the case. Even upon exiting the game and returning, while my gamertag would be set right, my trench and character would be wearing whatever weapons and costumes I was stuck with before. Often, when this glitch began, it would be impossible to begin a mission. Essentially, while this problem didn't hamper online play a majority of the time, it happened frequently enough that it's a serious issue that needs to be patched out as soon as possible.
There are 15 stages in Trenched, not counting the tutorial. In many cases, a new type of enemy is introduced part way through, and this type of enemy becomes the focus of the stage. Each of the 12 traditional stages reward players with medals depending on how much health the base(s) of the stage maintain once the level is over, with bronze for completion, silver for 50% health, and gold for 80%. Unfortunately, because of the weapon progression, early stages become very simple in the late game. In fact, at this point in time, the only stage that gives me any trouble in single-player is the second to last!
At the end of each third of Trenched, there are boss fights where the trenches get to stop playing defense and instead finally assault a gigantic Farnsworth creation. These stages serve as fun and simple distractions from the main game, but again, with high-end trenches, the fights become brief, and earning a gold medal, which is awarded based on time, can be a simple matter. Shockingly, there's no survival, endless, or just downright brutal stages in Trenched, for either single or multiplayer. The absence of something that takes deeper strategy is very unexpected for a title with tower defense roots, and is in large part of why the game left me with an empty feeling upon completion.
Trenched is a title with fantastic gameplay, spirited characters, and a genuinely fun setting. However, with a glimpse of all this, I wanted much more than what Double Fine offered. Maybe I'm being greedy, but I certainly feel like Trenched could have been a much more complete title, despite offering about ten hours of gameplay. With its multiplayer glitches, lack of developing characters and difficulty, along with a few balance issues, I'm left to say Trenched is just an above average title. That's right. Trenched is a great game, even with all these issues, but without them, it could have become something incredible.