After the less-than-outstanding release of Brutal Legend, Double Fine wasn’t exactly doing awesome. Brutal Legend was going to be the “next big game,” proving to the world that Tim Schafer and his team of fun-loving developers could make games that are charming and enjoyable to play. Unfortunately, the game’s long development drama and surprise shift to action-adventure/RTS left many feeling the cold.
During downtime in development of Brutal Legend, the staff worked on ideas for new games. Costume Quest and Stacking were two of these games born from this period of creativity, and Trenched is the latest to emerge. A cousin to Brutal Legend, Trenched takes on two different gameplay genres—tower defense and third person shooting—and tries to make it work. Unlike Brutal Legend, Trenched feels much more successful.
Imagine all war technology stops at trench warfare when a signal from space grants two crippled war veterans super-human intelligence. One, Frank Woodrof, uses his intelligence to create mobile “trenches” to allow crippled soldiers to keep fighting. The other, Vladamir Farmsworth, works to bring the world to him with “monovision,” a type of television that only has one channel and drives people mad. The two former friends engage in massive battles between “trenches” and “tubes,” and only one can win.
Core gameplays revolves around the “trenches.” Basically mechs, these two-legged customizable units can vary in weight and power. They are also capable of deploying turrets to help defend their primary ship from attacking forces. Players will want to design and customize their trenches with the right weapons and turrets. For example, I played a lighter mech that only had a sniper rifle attached but could built turrets for a cheaper cost. A heavier trench might have a stronger chassis, a shotgun, and a sniper rifle, but that weight means it costs more to deploy turrets. When designing a trench, players have to pay attention to the types of attacking units, be they chargers, fliers, or suicide units.
Turrets are the second important element of Trenched. Able to be placed anywhere on the map, turrets are built with a scrap cost that comes from the “tube” left over from defeated enemies. Ranging from magnetic vacuum turrets to a sniper turret or a shotgun turret, these defensive units can be deployed, upgraded, and repaired. This tower defense element is integral to Trenched, and gameplay shifts from dropping and repairing units to shooting enemy monovisions.
After five minutes of play, Trenched is a lot of fun, and becomes more so with others. Up to four players can play cooperatively and delegate roles. For example, the heavy trench could focus on attacking enemies on his own, while a lighter unit could focus on turrets. It’s a great balance, and smart teammates will work together to get the highest score possible.
Finally, while the idea of a shooter/tower-defense game sounds like a bad idea after Brutal Legend, the team seems to have learned a little restraint, at least with gameplay. Project Lead Brad Muir was quick to admit Brutal Legend wasn’t perfect and that Trenched will do a better job of applying strategy. The turrets follow the “set-‘em-and-forget-‘em” mentality, and while certain enemy units will attack them, players will not have to babysit these units. Stages are designed with the waves of enemies in mind, and players always know their goal. It’s a tight experience over all, and while chaotic, players will feel less out of control.
Now, it wouldn’t be a Double Fine game without lots of humor and charm. Trenched uses men’s magazines from the 1930s and 40s as thematic inspiration. While the racism and sexism has been removed, the focus on manliness and being a man’s man is paramount. Magazine artwork between levels highlights this aesthetic, and the character customization revolves around manly costumes and hats. The player lobby, on a gigantic amphibious trench called the S.S. McKinley, allows up to four players to showcase their customized trench. There’s even a salute button! From beards, cigars, and lantern-jaws, Trenched glorifies in a bye-gone era of masculinity.
Trenched might be the most fun I’ve ever had with a Double Fine game. Not weighted down with a bloated theme and a sky-high budget like Brutal Legend was, Trenched feels like a tight action game. There’s a lot to like, and so far, very little to hate. That's very good thing for Double Fine. With a possible 2011 release date, there's at least one person anticipating Trenched. Now to get my beard on.