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Defenders of Ardania Preview (PC)

My first thought when I heard the name Defenders of Ardania was “oh god no, not another expansion to Gothic 4”, but fortunately it’s one letter higher. I then noticed that it was a strategy game from Paradox Interactive and I cringed. I count myself a hardcore gamer, but Paradox’s strategy titles are way above hardcore. Fortunately Defenders of Ardania is instead their attempt to calm their reputation down a bit with a nice tower-defence game. What could be hardcore about that?
 

The trusty spearmen travel in groups, so they're hard to pick off
You begin the game with Sean Connery shouting instructions at you. Yes, it’s not just a random Scottish person, it’s clearly someone impersonating him. He even says “there can be only one” during the tutorial. However despite the story’s leanings into Magicka-style parody it never really becomes more than gumph. It tries so hard, but is really just background noise to the action. I certainly can’t remember any of it, but luckily it’s not important.

Defenders of Ardania itself is quite literally a tower defence game, complete with actual towers for defence, but with a twist. Your opponent is also defending, and you both have the ability to send out attacking units and use special magic attacks. Both sides are basically equal, you just have to be quick on the draw, watch for your opponent’s weaknesses (no air defence? Send in the flying dwarves!), use magic spells effectively and have a good mix of units. The objective is to get your units to your opponent’s castle and eventually destroy it. Basically it’s a mix of tower defence and real-time strategy, which is sort of a neat idea.

The goal might be (usually) simple but the execution of it certainly isn’t. You don’t just get a big open chessboard which you can throw towers and units at and hope they work, there are only a few paths to your opponent’s base and you’ve got a strict tower limit of 10. You have to place them strategically or it’ll be a very short match. It’s very well blocking the quick path to your castle, but you’ll be blocking your own units too. Furthermore creating a long twisting path of death for the enemy will often mean that your men will be running the same gauntlet. Fortunately the game makes sure there’s always at least one path open.

You have to think in much the same way with units. Towers are only really effective on certain types of unit, so if your opponent’s well defended against individual Soldier units send in a small cluster of Spearmen for example. Some units are fast, some are slow, some can attack enemies and others can attack towers. It’s all about getting a good mix of units out there, while keeping your towers upgraded and fixed, responding to threats and watching your economy. Oh, and throwing the odd magic spell to either defend or attack now and again helps too. There’s XP for units to think about as well, and getting the highest level gives you access to a near-unstoppable Hero.
 
It seems they got the same guy who did those Evony ads to do their artwork...
Unfortunately right now I have to say that the controls are utterly terrible. No lag or anything, they are just needlessly complicated. Right now with the exception of camera movements there’s not any mouse control – yes, a PC strategy game without any mouse control! And just because that wasn’t ridiculous enough, there’s no joypad support and the game is instead controlled by using seemingly every single button on the keyboard.

To send out units you press Q to open the unit menu, left and right arrow keys to move along the list, Spacebar to select the unit which becomes part of your unit group (and can be 5-6 units strong), then finally Shift to send them out. It’s really difficult to do all that smoothly in the heat of battle, so I desperately hope the controls are getting massively revamped between now and the game’s release.

The rest of the game can become quite addictive once you’ve got into the swing of things. Matches can also go on for quite a long time as you battle back and forth, slowly wearing your enemy down, although the current lack of any mid-level save system really grates and is another thing I really hope Most Wanted put in before December. It’s no fun being an inch from victory when you realise it’s two in the morning and you have to work tomorrow. Consequently some might not want to put the time into the multiplayer.

While you only play as one side in the single-player campaign there’s a selection of different sides in multiplayer, and I was very pleased to see that each had radically different setups in terms of abilities, units and towers. While the default side only has one flying unit for example another might have several, leading to an increased focus on air defence but leaving yourself open to ground assault. All units and towers are unique, and I’m glad that Most Wanted have put the effort in to making each side feel completely separate. It would’ve been so easy for them to simply re-skin the units, so that’s a big thumbs-up from me there.

Sadly my time with the multiplayer component was limited, but when I at last faced off against someone I so vastly outmatched them that it was over far too quickly. Face someone of equal skill though and I shudder to think of the devious tricks you both would have to pull in the name of strategy. I was quite proud of the moment I sold one of my own towers and nuked a key one of his to give my mass of units a clear path to his castle, then building that tower again before his units could do the same. You really have to use sneaky tactics to get ahead.
 
It's not as complicated as it looks, honest!

The release date for Defenders of Ardania is slightly up in the air right now, Amazon calling end of November with Paradox saying early December. When it does come out it’s down for PC, 360, PS3 and iPad. If you fancy a strategic tower-defence game with a focus on long drawn-out and devious multiplayer battles, I really can’t think of a better example… or indeed, any other examples period. You can’t keep playing Plants Vs Zombies after all, can you?

Most Anticipated Feature: Trying out the multiplayer against an equally competent opponent should be Chess-beating in its tactical deviousness.

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