Developer: Double Fine Productions / Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: 1200 MS Points / ESRB: Teen [Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, Use of Tobacco, Violence]
First, developer Double Fine receives many (deserved) free passes for commercial missteps from the press because a) we generally don’t care about sales, and b) head honcho Tim Schafer is a cool guy, funny as hell, and was responsible (wholly or in part) for the greatness of Monkey Island, Full Throttle, and Grim Fandango. He made Psychonauts, which was a) fabulous, b) supported by a budding publisher, daring to tread where the ‘big boys’ had wimped out, and c) a commercial disappointment that contributed to said publisher’s significant contraction.
EA thought lightning couldn’t strike thrice (I’m throwing in the brilliant but retail-shy Grim Fandango for LucasArts in this mix, alongside Psychonauts) and backed Brutal Legend. We chortled through its hilarious cut scenes, reveled in its style, and ultimately failed to understand an odd RTS-but-in-it’s-not-really gameplay. Didn’t sell, either.
That level of performance could be a death knell for many developers, but such is the faith in Schafer’s innate creative talent, another chance would arise…but this time with a new approach. Stifled by elongated development cycles that meant, for a small studio, working three years on a single project, Schafer hit on the notion of allowing his team’s creative juices to flow in a contest that could lead to four downloadable games. Costume Quest (about 75% Metacritic average), Stacking (84% Metacritic average), and now Trenched (which means there should be one more to come, since the Sesame Street game is a project for Warner Bros., but Monkey Island creator, Ron Gilbert, is involved in “some” Double Fine project…) have all garnered critical success. And Trenched is likely to build on those two previous scores, which may lead to sales (those tough-to-measure ones in the digital space that nobody seems too willing to reveal) and more of these downloadable games.
That’s all long-winded, but it’s also vital to why you should care about Trenched. Like the previous Double Fine games it’s dripping with artistic style, but better even than the earlier two downloadable games, it’s also ripe with gripping gameplay you might think you’ve played before, but really, you haven’t.
World War I. Know anything about it? It was the Great War. And while historians might shudder if you suggested you didn’t know its history, brutality, and the sacrifice of its combatants, that naivete will likely help you here. Actually, throw out any researched knowledge of the conflict, as the story in Trenched is not so much ripped from history as it is molded in its own odd vein, then tangentially attached to a historical conflict you may have heard about as you dozed through history class.
It boils down to the world in an early industrial state, but with casualty of war Frank Woodruff left without legs. So a crazy mechanized device would still allow him to wage war, right? Right. That’s your excuse for jumping into a primitive mech and racing around a battlefield in what’s simply a tower defense game played from a third- and first-person perspective. A bit bad guy throwing “Tubes” at you holds the attention of your core antagonist, but really you care about your ship, the USS McKinley, since if it is destroyed, it’s game over.
What if, say, you took the sublimely brilliant Plants vs. Zombies and made it an action game where you’re on that battlefield, defending your home? ZOMG. Genius. Well, it’s genius in the hands of developers who understand style and aim to generate a balance that those PopCap guys have perfected across a variety of platforms.
Fundamentally, on the battlefield, you control your mech protecting a ship, airfield, or base, and deploy defenses, engage your own weapons, and hold off wave after wave of increasingly pain-in-the-ass aliens. Kill aliens, collect their resource scrap, build better weapons and defenses, fight off the next wave.
Sounds simple, but hell if it isn’t challenging given the depth of options infused into the system. You can outfit your mech with six different weapon classes, each required to defeat increasingly bad and pain-in-the-ass enemies. You change chassis to support the weapons required for each wave and you discover new static turret emplacements to deploy on the battlefield as your strategic brain takes charge against an enemy emerging from several spawn points, all charging towards your location.
Imagine any tower defense game you’ve played, but now put you in a single machine able to reach each location, but limited in its effectiveness by the resources available. Every defeated enemy unloads scrap that you run over in order to build the “towers” of the tower defense strategy. But, naturally, it never seems like it’s enough…or even close to what you really need to mount a sterling defense.
Double Fine has infused depth in this scenario with a scary number of upgradeable parts, people, chassis, and weapons, throwing in faux achievements that reward you for kills this way, that way, and with the other weapon. Which all seems like a lot of replay unlocking potential, but is actually a fairly superficial encouragement to replay missions until you earn the gold stars that can release the most powerful (and immediately useful) weapons and turrets.
As a single player wading through the campaign, what appears to be a variety of options geared to your personal preference is, in fact, a relatively narrow framework that you must follow (using the weapon you just unlocked NOW) because every successively difficult wave of aliens uses all its aerial, waterborne, scuttling, exploding, bulldozing minions to ensure that if you leave the tiniest chink in your armor, you’re likely to be hosed. And by hosed, I mean embarrassed on the battlefield by a stupidly effusive villain that, I believe, was catching a pigeon, catching a pigeon, the last time I saw him (bonus points for getting the reference).
What’s clear as you struggle through the campaign on your lonesome is that this game is really, at its heart, designed for cooperative multiplayer. You outfit your mech for Breaker-smashing and flak cannon-raising aerial threats while your partner arms for the rapid-fire assaults and close combat takedowns. Find the right balance and you may breeze through a few missions, but eventually even two players will struggle against overwhelming odds that can, for a while, appear truly impassable.
I assume the difficulty curve built-in here is expecting you to replay several missions several times, thus earning progressive unlocks among the litany of recorded achievements. Those unlocked weapons or upgrades may tip the balance, but it’s a very, very tightly wound progression that absolutely requires that you’ve committed to the fiction and the core gameplay design to ensure you’ll progress and not just move on to the next downloadable game.
What we’ve seen is evolving strategy, with players communicating theories on loadouts and tactics that may sound nuts, but at least they have gamers thinking. The rewards for winning remain tethered to your campaign progression, which means the game feels like it will attain a logical conclusion when you can’t eke out any more value, stats, or upgrades for each mission you retry.
But getting to that point is still a fascinating progression as you change out marines and mechs, and outfit your team for what you perceive to be the oncoming threats. I’ve heard arguments about the right approach to a particular challenge against a possible short-sighted setup. Oddly, maybe inexplicably, Trenched appears to inflame passions among teammates. I put that down to the sheer breadth of options and upgrades, like those who have earned the most think they know the key strategies while those that have refined a particular tactic are dead set against veering from that path.
The fundamental strategy required to be successful in Trenched is keep playing and keep unlocking weapons, then balance your teammates to cover every method of attack. Simple, at its core.
As is the case with each Double Fine entry, Trenched sports a distinctive visual style that wraps cartoon villains around a World War I backdrop. It reminded me of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, without the suckage of the movie, but maintaining the cool of the comic. Each level is simple enough in evolving routes that each wave of enemies can take as they try to take out your ship or airport, or whatever you’re defending. In between levels each screen screams with the style that constantly reminds you of the setting while still making a deep, complex layer of menus feel accessible. The voiceovers of the main characters are suitably exaggerated, and the in-game effects are solid for a downloadable game.
Maybe it’s time we stopped suggesting that downloadable games were being held to different standards than full-priced brick-and-mortar retail fare. There’s absolutely no doubt that Trenched offers a deep and entertaining action and strategy experience, built on a familiar premise, molded into an amazingly unique perspective. It’s clearly designed to have four players get together, talk strategy, a little bullshit, maybe throw in some faux 1914-18 perceived accents, and get to battling those scallywag aliens hell-bent on dismantling your glorious world. Alone, it’s possibly a frustrating strategic challenge in the later missions, but bring friends along using simple drop-in controls, and it opens up a wealth of replayability. One of the best downloadable games of the year, and we’re not just saying that because Tim Schafer and Double Fine deserve those free passes. This is the genuine simple, fun, expertly crafted gaming article.