I love tower defense titles. I have to admit that as the editor of GiN, I sometimes hoard tower defense games for review myself instead of sending them out to the reviewers. I think because in most strategy games, I tend to play defensively anyway, it makes me a natural fit for tower-defense. But like every other genre, they tend to get a little stale after a while. People know what they want, and although the bad guys change from orks to robots to evil toys, the basic gameplay remains the same. You’ve got your machine gun type tower, your splash damage tower, your tower that only hit air units and the one that slows down bad guys. Mix and match a bit, but generally everything stays the same, right?
Well, that’s what I thought before jumping into Space Run, a game that promised to change the way tower defense is played. And wow, if it does not do just that.
Space Run is created by indie developer Passtech Games. Even though it’s published by Focus Home Interactive, you can tell that this game was worked on by a small team. That is not a bad thing. The interface is clean and even little things like the voice acting are well done. Any negatives in terms of graphical flair or missing big budget niceties are more than made up by the risks taken to really change the genre.
You see, everything in Space Run is fluid. You are building defensive towers, but are placing them on a space ship that is traveling through dangerous territory. As such, you can be attacked from any direction. The game gives you a countdown as to when bad guys are coming so that you can put a tower in place to deal with them, but you have to be quick nonetheless.
In addition to offensive towers, you also have some defenses like shields that can absorb damage and protect your ship. Not only can towers get destroyed, but the ship itself can be damaged. If you lose a hex, then you won’t be able to place a tower on it anymore. Lose a hex in a valuable spot, like one that bridges a gap in the ship design, and you end up losing an entire section that was connected by it. If your command center hex is lost, you lose the mission.
You also have to worry about speed, since you are being paid for these cargo runs, which is why you are in pirate territory in the first place. You gain speed by buying engines, which makes your ship go faster. There is a graphic at the top of the screen that shows you where you are in terms of the run, and you have to race against time to arrive in order to pick up bonuses. The bonus lines move and always seem to be just ahead of you. Packing on more engines nudges your forward so that you can make it past the bonus line and land in time to pick up extra cash. Engines can be destroyed just like towers, and dip into your limited resources, so putting them on your ship is always a risk. And because engines can only face backwards, you have limited places to put them, and they have to be defended as well.
Cash is used to purchase tower upgrades, which you will need to take on bigger and more enemies in future runs. The game does a pretty good job of ramping up slowly enough that you can compensate for these more dangerous runs, but this is a pretty difficult title to play, especially if you want to grab the five star high scores and earn bonuses for speedy runs.
My initial joy at finding this game was tempered somewhat by what I consider a few notable gameplay flaws. The biggest problem is that the towers don’t move, and only a few of them even rotate slightly. That means that if you buy a laser tower looking forward and an enemy comes in slightly to the side, you have to sell that tower and then buy it again before placing it looking in the right direction. There is an early power you can buy that lets you manually reposition the basic laser towers without selling them first, but you still have to do that in the heat of combat which isn’t always easy. And most towers only fire in one direction.
The addition of a pause button would be a godsend here. Some levels just throw too much at you too quickly. Tower defense gamers are not really used to having to think that quickly on their feet, at least I’m not. Being able to pause and consider the strategic situation would elevate this title quite a bit in my eyes back to a true strategy title and away form the twitch gaming that it leans towards now.
Along those lines, I was highly disappointed that there are no planning stages, and the fact that money does not carry over each mission. You are supposed to own your ship, yet the configuration changes every level and you have no ability to change this. Some of the platform designs they stick you with are just not that conducive to defense. Also, your earned money does not carry over. So even if you have 50,000 credits in your bank account, you start each run with nothing and have to zap the swarm of little annoying enemies each level HAS to throw at you first so that you can earn credits to start building things out. Instead, I would like to be able to configure my ship, and get a good baseline of towers, engines and shields in place BEFORE starting a run. Otherwise every level has that same rushing around and trying to build up a defense under fire feel that makes this game much less about strategy and more about reacting. I want to be able to design a clever ship that puts engines in a protected cove supported by missiles. I want to shield my turrets at the front and boost their power with generators. I want to outwit the bad guys with strategy and tactics, like you can to some extent with most tower defense games. And in Space Run’s defense, you can do most of that (other than the ship designs) but have to do it on the fly, starting with no or minimal credits each and every time, and do it under fire without the ability to pause.
Some people may like this adrenaline-fueled type of gameplay. I just don’t think that most tower defense players will enjoy it all that much. The addition of a pause or think button, even if that power has to be bought, would be a nice little Band-Aid that helps cover up most of these flaws, but a fundamental redesign of the core concepts is likely needed to make this title a true classic in the tower defense genre.
I appreciate taking tower defense into a new area, and Space Run has no actual programming flaws or bugs that I discovered. It’s just that the core concept of what makes a tower defense title so fun are kind of lost here at the design level. I think a lot of people will enjoy this game, but the core audience of tower defense gamers probably won’t, and that could spell trouble for Space Run’s overall popularity and success. On the bright side, the game is on sale for about $15 from most download sites like Steam, so if you are looking for something different, it’s worth it to take the chance if you know what you are getting into.
Space Run deserves praise for trying something new despite a few odd design choices. It earns a respectable 3.5 GiN Gems and could probably pull in a higher score if a few fixes are implemented.