While Iron Brigade lacks the trademark pizzazz of past Double Fine titles, its well-crafted combination of tower defense and mech combat mechanics more than make up for any narrative shortcomings. With other players in tow, it's a genuinely brilliant experience.
- Satisfying third-person mech combat enlivens the generally stale tower defense genre.
- Plenty of loot and customization options give the player myriad options in battle.
- Multiplayer combat is remarkably frenetic and the definitive way to play.
- The atmosphere and general charm you'd expect from a Double Fine game is regrettably absent.
- The difficulty level curves up a bit too quickly around the middle of the game.
- No local multiplayer.
In many ways, Trenched doesn’t much seem like a Double Fine game at all. Tim Schafer’s group tends to employ locales, settings, and themes that are as undeniably charming as they are unique. These accoutrements mask what might otherwise be crippling faults in gameplay: the imprecise platforming of Psychonauts, the overly simplistic puzzles of Stacking, the strange RTS/Rhythm combinations of Brutal Legend.
As I began to play Trenched, the dark fears that had been gestating since those very first trailers came roaring to life. The opening sequences were bland and uninspired. The world was full of macho-man clichés, instead of the Double Fine sparkle I'd come to expect. The Tower Defense portions were nothing new, and the mech weapons felt weak and slow . . .
. . . And then I called some friends.
Towers n’ Trenches
I would hesitate to call Trenched a true Tower Defense title. Tower Defense games force you to rely on turrets and devices, strategically placed around the battlefield, to hold off the incoming waves of enemies. Here, your turrets (called "Emplacements") are merely support; unless fully upgraded, rarely can your autonomous devices hold off an enemy wave on their own.
No, you'll be blowing up your enemies with mech combat proper. And as disappointed as I was with the initial offerings, increased offensive capabilities flood in at a dizzying pace. Rarely will the completion of a mission offer any fewer than three new options for combat customization: sprinting legs, long-range sniper cannons, microwave zappers, you name it.
Moreover, by modifying the base chassis of the mech, you can tailor your style of gameplay more towards the mech combat (heavy, lumbering mechs outfitted with the most massive of weapons) or towards the tower defense elements (nimble, smaller mechs with tons of Emplacements and bonuses). The loot collecting and customization, which extends even to armor paint jobs and the eccentric fashion choices of its pilot, are some of Trenched's largest strengths.
Even so, Trenched would merely fall into the “competent” category were it not for the addition of a fantastic cooperative multiplayer component. Joining ranks with up to three friends exponentially adds to the chaos and sense of urgency as multiplied waves of enemies crash down upon you. Players tend naturally to gravitate toward certain roles: one player places, upgrades, and maintains encampments, one player loads up on heavy artillery weaponry, another thins out waves using sniper rounds…with some good friends and a healthy dose of voice chat, Trenched immediately becomes one of the best cooperative experiences in the past several years.
A true shame, then, that the game in no way supports local splitscreen multiplayer. Some of us still have friends in real life, Double Fine.
Tales n’ Tubes
The story of Trenched lands in some kind of strange, alternate version of a post-World War I Earth. Two men are subjected to “The Broadcast”, which bestows upon them an enhanced intelligence: one decided to construct the lumbering robots known as Mobile Trenches, and the other decided to spread a corrupted version of said Broadcast by creating his own personal army: the Monovision, known more simply as “The Tubes”.
Though some of Double Fine’s humor and wit occasionally peek through the grime of war and bullets, the narrative feels largely undeveloped and unimportant. Missions are merely handed out in linear fashion, separated by a bit of quality voice acting and the mech customization menus.
It’s worth noting that without friends, the campaign hits a very steep difficulty spike around the middle of the game. Players have to be willing to experiment with numerous loadouts and combat strategies to plow through to Trenched’s finale, and it’s quite common to play a mission three or four times before understanding how best to combat the specific mix of Tubes in play.
The campaign lasts around 7-8 hours, but throws enough wrinkles and gimmicks at the player to keep it varied throughout. Occasionally, the game will abandon the tower defense mechanics entirely in favor of more traditional boss battles, which are suitably impressive. Moreover, replay value is extended by the addition of a simple medal system for excellent performance on any particular mission. There’s quite a bit of content here, certainly exceeding the XBLA norm.
If you’re a fan of either tower defense or third-person action, Trenched is well worth the 1200 MSP price point . . . but, if you’re a fan of playing with friends, it’s worth a whole lot more.