Version tested: Xbox 360
"The enemy crushed my legs, but he couldn't crush my spirit," says a grizzled war veteran at the start of Double Fine's latest downloadable game, Trenched.
This determination is applicable to Double Fine as well, after its metal-themed fantasy epic Brutal Legend was a financial failure. It didn't help that the game was portrayed as an action-adventure title in ads, at trade shows and even in a public demo. When it was finally released as a real-time strategy hybrid, the results were so baffling that its designer Tim Schafer had to write a public letter explaining how to play it properly.
Upon hearing the announcement that Trenched would return to that well for another action/RTS mash-up, one would be forgiven for being sceptical. However, what didn't kill them only made them stronger; Double Fine has learned from its past mistakes to cement its own unique spin on a popular genre.
This isn't immediately apparent, as the studio's penchant for memorable characters and interesting stories is curiously absent. Shortly after World War I, two crippled veterans are privy to a broadcast that imbues each with supernatural intelligence. One decides to use his newfound knowledge to help mankind by building giant piloted mechs; the other decides he'll rule the world by building giant robots. What could be a compelling tale of the futility of war ends up murky and hard to follow.
You play as a soldier of your choice in a state-of-the-art mech known as a trench. At first glance, Trenched could easily be mistaken for a third-person mech combat game, but that's only half of it. The rest is a riff on real-time strategy and its more casual cousin, tower defence. The goal of each level is to protect a base from oncoming waves of enemies. This is done through a combination of shooting them yourself and deploying stationary emplacements to do the rest.
These turrets come in three types: light weapons for shotguns and machine guns, heavy weapons for mortars and mines, and support for dampening generators that slow down enemies or repair cranes to heal damaged trenches. Constructing these costs scrap metal, which must be collected by chiselling it off enemy forces in combat.
It sounds simple, but you can only equip so much when you go into battle, and customising your vehicle for individual missions is key. While your trench has numerous slots for weapons and emplacements, they're not all accessible at once. Various chassis contain different layouts dictating what you can equip. Some grant you access to several weapon slots at the expense of limited emplacements, while others strip you of your firearms to focus on cultivating the battlefield with traps.
It takes a lot of experimentation to find a layout that works, but there are untold strategies for success. The amount of possible trench configurations is dizzying, allowing you to craft the game to your personal play style. Whether you choose to take a more hands-on approach or leave the fighting to your turrets, the game is well balanced and rarely does one side overshadow the other.
Throughout, you gain experience for everything you do, from collecting scrap to machine gun kills to downing enemies using specific types of emplacements. You're even given small doses of experience when your regiment (i.e. those you recently played with) make progress. Larger foes drop boxes of loot and even unsuccessful attempts grant XP, so even when you fail a 15-minute stage, chances are you'll be better equipped next time.
Initially it can be intimidating, but Trenched's tutorial is user-friendly. New units are explained as they're introduced and recommendations are made regarding what equipment you should bring into battle. Sometimes their instructions can be misleading; I failed one stage several times by equipping the recommended sniper rifle when machine guns worked much better. I'd like to think this is commentary on man's blind willingness to listen to machines rather than think for himself, but I somehow doubt that was the intent.
Early levels can drag and lack challenge, but things ramp up significantly by the second act. Enemies start coming from all angles, breaks between waves get shorter, and your emplacements crumble under the might of the opposing army. Frantically pumping robot armies full of lead as they haemorrhage scrap, which you use to upgrade nearby turrets, fully realises the dream of being a mech commander. There are even a few boss battles where the object is offense rather than defence, a welcome change of pace.
Trenched takes on a more grandiose feel in online multiplayer (regrettably, there's no local split-screen) where up to four players can tackle any mission in co-op. This adds a whole new dynamic, since each player can specialise in specific skills to complement the others.
The other difference is that running out of health in single-player only temporarily incapacitates you, while multiplayer marines must revive each other. If all players are down, it's game over. Difficulty is adjusted to compensate for the number of players, but in general it feels easier to spread your manpower around. Having multiple players reduces how much scrap each person gets, so spawning emplacements takes a backseat to good old shooting.
Either way is a hoot, though I can't help but feel single-player got the short shrift, as the game feels like it was designed for co-op. Getting booted back to a lobby between rounds is par for the course in multiplayer, but it's irritating that this still happens even when playing solo. You also can't skip cut-scenes, which makes sense in multiplayer as everyone has to be on the same page, but not being able to fast forward past these in single-player can grate.
Elsewhere, the action-figure men and barren brown landscapes lack the whimsical detail of Double Fine's Stacking and Costume Quest, though Trenched still bears the studio's mark, if only subtly. Descriptions of each marine include sweet tidbits ranging from "loves to sleep with his wife" to "doesn't remember his grandchildren's names." You can even dress them up in tiki masks and top hats or make them give a Vulcan salute. None of this has any significance, but it lends the game a charm otherwise lacking in the story and visuals.
Eschewing the studio's usual focus on world-building and memorable characters in favour of finely tuned multiplayer, Trenched represents a departure for Double Fine. Those smitten with Schafer and co.'s usual shenanigans may be disappointed to see Trenched's narrative sidelined, while not being able to skip cut-scenes or conveniently restart missions in single-player is irksome. But this is a satisfying genre crossover that follows through on what Brutal Legend attempted. I'd chalk that up as a victory.
8 / 10