Adding new features to an established genre of video game is a risk not unlike putting new ingredients on a hamburger. Nobody asked for avocado on their Whopper, but if you get it right it’ll be refreshing and surprising, and you might just want more. Defenders of the Last Colony is a twin-stick space shooter for PC and Xbox 360 with extra challenges carefully mixed in, and the current beta release hits many of the right notes. Here are some detailed impressions.
Any discussion of twin-stick shooters starts with Robotron and ends with Geometry Wars. The formula is very simple, in that you move with one joystick and shoot with the other. Being able to duck off to the side while you’re shooting enemies chasing behind you is one of the most powerful legacies left behind by the coin-operated arcade machine. Other unique controls included twisting paddle knobs on top of the joystick like you had in Ikari Warriors, or the complex thumb buttons and triggers of the original Tron game. But the twin sticks were most easily duplicated with home gaming equipment, and the advent of analog controllers meant more precision without sacrificing the simplicity (or the addictive nature) of the games. Twin stick shooters are easy to learn and remain reliably entertaining today.
Let’s get the few negative things out of the way first. It’s evident that the writing isn’t being done by a native English speaker, what with all the improper verb tenses and the odd sentence fragments, to say nothing of the story built entirely out of cliche. The music is one long boring Casio-synthesized string crescendo that wouldn’t be out of place at Walt Disney World’s Tomorrowland. Also, some of the graphical features are uninformative or distracting. Why do enemies sometimes change color when I hit them? Do one of the six text boxes in my heads-up display tell me? I can’t read anything anyway through all of the unnecessary flak explosions that are flashing everywhere for hours after somebody dies. There are also a couple of extra game modes that give you side-scrolling and static enemy shooter modes that are fun for exactly as much time as it takes to say “Gradius!” or “Galaga!” before you turn them off and go back to the main campaign mode.
But what a campaign mode it is. Defenders of the Last Colony borrows the best feature of Geometry Wars: Galaxies, by structuring play around different levels and different goals. The beta only provides two of these levels, but they successfully convey the variety of challenge that awaits you in the full game. The first level makes you collect resources to move on, which is strange because you’re spending very little time killing things. That worry goes away in the second level, where you have to split your attention between collecting that fuel and fighting off the enemies that threaten your mother ship. It’s a level of tactical thinking that’s not usually present in a twin-stick shooter, and at a certain point the option of having three other players on the same screen starts to make sense. Teamwork can make some of the challenges reasonable, if not any easier.
There’s a lot to like about the original design choices too. Each player’s ship is surrounded by a simple status indicator that shows shields remaining and resources collected. That feature neatly solves the problem of output display meant for multiple players, since everybody will naturally be looking at his or her own ship anyway. One type of ship can use materials to switch weapons, whereas the other can actually build stations and floating weapon platforms as you would in a real-time strategy game. There’s also a cleverly informative radar on top of your ship that indicates the position of the closest enemies, and with multiple players it’s possible to triangulate an off-screen target. That becomes important when the action is zoomed in close, and the camera points away from the mother ship that you’re spending so much time protecting.
Defenders of the Last Colony is a promising first effort from the Knitted Pixels development group. It strikes a competent balance between the familiar and the innovative.
© 2012 – 2013, The Indie Mine. All rights reserved.