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Trenched review: Let's mech love

I wouldn't blame you if your reaction to the announcement of Trenched, Double Fine's downloadable tower defense title, was entirely non-plussed and even a bit disappointed. "Wow, how original." After all, this sub-genre of strategy games is approaching -- or has already reached! -- full saturation. I would blame you, though, if you didn't give it a chance, because it's honestly a desperately needed breath of fresh air in the genre.

It's not just that Double Fine's trademark wit and humor is evident in every facet of the game's design; Trenched a seriously polished and surprisingly deep game, too.%Gallery-118276% Trenched is charming in its own special way. The story and setup are only as grand as they need to be: There's a war going on between the good guys, led by a man in an iron lung, and the bad guys, led by Mr. Iron Lung's former friend: now a mad scientist obsessed with a mysterious broadcast, and producer behind an army of technological monstrosities. Players assume the role of a soldier piloting a Trench, the game's name for a walking tank or mech, into battle. There's a walking aircraft Trench carrier, buckets of machismo and some very inventive weaponry to play around with.

The core tower-defending mechanics are actually fairly simple from the game's outset: Enemies emerge from predefined spawn points on the map and (mostly) march down set paths towards the building the player's been tasked with defending. So, in that respect, it's a matter of stomping around in your Trench and preventing them from getting past. But that's just the most basic overview -- it gets way more interesting.

Customizing your Trench is one of the most satisfying and deep aspects of the game.

Like pretty much all tower defense games, there are numerous emplacements to set down in the aforementioned paths which are absolutely essential to stopping the oncoming enemy threat. In this case, they're fired from the aforementioned walking carrier onto the battlefield, landing like artillery rounds and drilling into the ground before emerging from their shells. Also in keeping with the genre, it's possible to upgrade them to be more effective. This is done using scrap metal collected from destroyed enemies using an electromagnet on your Trench. This becomes the "currency" used to purchase emplacements and upgrade them.

The emplacements start out pretty low-key -- shotguns, flak cannons and the like. Then disruptors, a genre staple, enter the picture. They slow down enemies so the projectile turrets can land more hits on them. Next up is the mortar launcher, followed by some more interesting fare, like an emplacement that repairs nearby Trenches and one that's expressly designed to collect scrap. The thing is, they're not all available at once -- it's up to the player to customize their Trench based on the mission briefing they get before battle.

Customizing your Trench is one of the most satisfying and deep aspects of Trenched. In addition to the myriad emplacements that can be unlocked during the course of the campaign, there are the weapons on the Trench itself, as well as its core parts. By either procuring them as loot during battle or using the "spoils of war" to buy them, it's possible to reconfigure your Trench to serve various roles, from assault to engineering to artillery. The number of available weapon slots vary by chassis, as do the types of emplacements the Trench can carry. Some missions might call for an artillery loadout -- in my personal setup, an artillery cannon, grenade launcher and tripod legs that can lock down to increase reload speed. Others might require a Trench with rapid-fire weaponry and a broadcast array used to fry the circuitry of all nearby enemies.

There are countless loadouts based on personal preference, plus new paint schemes and, to top it off, gear to deck your Marine pilot out in, from classy to comical.

Here's the thing: this customization (well, apart from the visual tweaks to your character) all serves a purpose, because the game's battle scenarios, playing out across several continents, are just as varied as the Trench loadouts themselves. There are even boss battles where players will need to put their every skill to the test fighting a main enemy while fending off dozens of smaller ones and using their Trench's mobility to avoid incoming fire.

It's great fun, but it's even better with friends. Apart a small amount of (hopefully easily patched) lag I experienced during the course of playing the game for this review, the multiplayer component of Trenched is top-notch. It is online only, however, as there's no option for local split-screen play. That aside, there's something really neat about gathering on the deck of the carrier with three buddies, discussing the coming mission and what role you'll each play in it -- then customizing your Trenches to match. Teamwork in battle is paramount in this game. Scrap collected is shared, but each player can then spend their cache as they see fit without it draining funds from other players. This leads to frantic scrap collecting in-between enemy waves, then a constant back-and-forth during combat about who can deploy which emplacement and where. It's very challenging, but also extremely engaging.

Making it better is a unique system that tracks the individual progress of the last three people you played with and levels up your "regiment" goals (X number of artillery kills, etc.) even when you're not online. Meeting the goals rewards cash and other unlocks, making this otherwise extraneous feature an incredibly compelling rewards system.

Like Costume Quest and Stacked before it, Trenched is one of those downloadable games that almost makes you feel like you're getting away with robbery for paying $15 for it rather than full retail price. This is obviously not a quickie release; top to bottom, it's polished and slathered with personality. It has quickly become my current favorite multiplayer experience on Live and is definitely my favorite tower defense game to date. My only wish is for more missions, parts and weapons, but the core experience is robust enough to come highly recommended. It's another win for Double Fine in downloadable games.



This review is based on final code for Trenched provided by Double Fine.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.