After the success of Stacking, Tim Schafer and his team at Double Fine Productions set about creating another original title. So they made Trenched, a fusion of Schafer's witty humour and traditional tower defence gameplay. The project lead, Brad Muir, has been quoted as saying "It's about working together, getting loot, customising your Trenches, and going out killing TV monsters together". We all yearn for creativity, and through digital platforms like Xbox Live, that's exactly what you're getting from Double Fine. Although that creativity hasn't always served them well, Brutal Legend we're looking directly at you. Thankfully, Trenched fares better in mixing up genres, but still suffers from a problem often found in similar tower defence games - and that's variety. Is it really worth the asking price of 1200 Microsoft Points (AU$20)? Overall, yes because of its high production values. As digital distribution grows, particularly on home consoles, a game like Trenched is a great example to showcase just how valuable the system really is.
Surprisingly, the core of Trenched has very little in common with trenches, not in the literal sense anyway. Defending your objective by digging a pit is so mundane, why not build huge mechanised robots with guns sticking out of almost every joint? It's a much more effective solution if you want to win the war against...TV monsters. Trenched provides enormous depth with these suits of terror, allowing you to alter weapons, frames, legs, colours and even your pilot/driver. Prior to commencing a mission, you can walk around a boat (a hub of sorts) and change your 'Mobile Trench' to fit your preferred style of play. Light and fast with rapid fire guns, big and heavy with rockets flying everywhere; the choice is entirely yours and these options complement the fully fledged co-operative gameplay. Hours of fun can be had fiddling around with the bit and bobs of your new toy; Trenched is a mightily impressive package, and more comprehensive than the majority of physical releases.
Tower defence mightn't have the widest fan-base, so if you're unfamiliar with how the genre operates, Trenched will guide you through the basic steps. Essentially, you're fighting waves of increasingly bizarre enemies, starting off with sluggish standard creatures and eventually progressing up to Schafer's equivalent of snipers and giants. As you get closer to the final wave, you'll have a mix of different enemies charging towards you from all directions and the action becomes frantic, so you'll need more than a Trench to defend your objective. Further customisation can be found in the way every player can equip specific emplacement weapons, and these will be upgraded as your rank improves. You'll start off with basic shotgun turrets, but several more can also be used; and they're not just guns, special equipment can slow down and confuse enemies. Another important part of Trenched's gameplay is the idea of resource management, whereby you must collect scrap left behind by dead enemies to fund your infrastructure, in turn giving you a better chance of achieving a gold medal in the final evaluation.
All of the above has been streamlined and polished with Schafer's unmistakable charm. Trenched is a competent action game, held together with a tight, accessible control scheme and tremendous depth. Those traits alone make Trenched a valuable asset for any Xbox 360 owner, but its flaws are clearly visible on a surface level. The game looks gorgeous and the art direction is distinctive; unfortunately, the levels themselves are sorely underwhelming. Enemies are vibrant, bouncing out of the screen with beautiful colour, but the bland locations are nowhere near varied enough. The post-Great War scenario is a natural reason for this, after all, war is never pretty. It's just a shame to see the talents of Double Fine not reaching their maximum potential, and the monotone levels severely hinder the strides made in creating a deep, rewarding tower defence game.
Stories and Tim Schafer normally go hand in hand, but the grip on a narrative for Trenched is strikingly weak. That's not to say the humour isn't good...because it's extremely good from the moment you begin. Character descriptions can be quite hilarious and your commander's dialogue is priceless. The problem is with the story's arch, and the way in which the plot struggles to move forward. Frank Woodruff and Vladamir Farnsworth are good and evil, the latter is in a state of dementia and the former is a stereotypical gung-ho American patriot. The alternate take on history is a promising one and the writing is of high quality, but the links between missions are strained. Granted, tower defence games aren't reliant on storytelling to push them along. The excellent gameplay takes care of that, it's just disappointing to find Schafer's words undermined by slack branching. Finally (and this is more of a technical issue), while playing online with nearby friends, lag is common. Trenched is still playable regardless of the occasional jumpy frames, but it's frustrating nevertheless, especially when playing solo is comparatively dull.
Trenched is yet another great effort from Double Fine Productions, a studio that appears to be finding its comfort zone. Above all else, the gameplay stands out as a brilliant slab of strategic action without ever losing the laughs. Where Brutal Legend failed in its struggle between adventure and forced real-time strategy elements, Trenched succeeds in balancing the best parts of typical shooters and tower defence mechanics. With that said, it's a flawed experiment; largely as a result of stagnation within its drab world, but you're still getting a really solid experience without the need to abandon the arse groove of your couch. Despite it not being a classic Schafer product, the gameplay is enjoyable; and sometimes that's all you need in this world, a bit of fun. Trenched has bundles of the stuff.