How best to explain the wonderfully unusual Trenched? It's true that it's a tower defense game. It's also a third-person shooter, a deeply customizable war game with loot drops and online player progression. This is World War I-era trench warfare, only this time, the good guys have giant gas-powered mechs and the bad guys are walking televisions.
Here's the set up. During the first World War, the game's hero, Frank Woodruff, and its villain, Vladimir Farnsworth, are subjected to and miraculously survive a deadly enemy broadcast of unknown origin. Both are granted powers of great intelligence. Woodruff, paralyzed after an unfortunate run-in with some tank treads, uses his gifts to build giant walking machines to help the war's wounded walk again.
Farnsworth, on the other hand, invents the television-as Woodruff calls it, "the plague to end all plagues." Farnsworth's cathode-ray creation drives him insane, Trenched designer Brad Muir explains, because in this alternate reality in which television was devised years earlier, "the programming would have been a lot shittier."
Bent on finding that mysterious signal and broadcasting his hatred to the world, Farnsworth finds his former ally fighting against him, with Woodruff taking his Mobile Trenches to the battlefield to rid civilization of this televised menace.
And so we set off to war.
We started our 90-minute demo of Trenched by choosing one of four characters, "personality skins," as Muir described them. Being a quarter Polish, I picked Josef Kowalski as my avatar. I stepped into my Mobile Trench and learned how to use this walking weapon of war.
Trenched's mechs are highly customizable mobile suits. Players can outfit their Mobile Trench with a huge arsenal of weapons, including shotguns, machine guns, sniper cannons and more. What types of weapons players can equip depends on what type of chassis they've chosen: the light engineering chassis, the medium sized standard chassis or the heavy assault chassis, all of which have a certain amount of slots available for weapon attachments.
Interestingly, each weapon is reloaded independently, adding an amusing tactical consideration when being swarmed by foes.
Those Trenches can also be outfitted with one of three classes of legs: sprinting for speed, tripod (which grants you a weapon reloading bonus) or quadruped (capable of deploying an area of effect melee attack).
Those Trench modifications, which players can acquire as loot drops, buy at a store or win as "Spoils Of War" after a round of play, are primarily a factor of Trenched's third-person shooter side. But remember, this is also a tower defense game.
When choosing one's chassis, players also have to consider what Emplacements they'll need. These are the defensive structures that attack waves of enemies as they approach the bases your Mobile Trench is tasked with defending. You'll call them in via air drop from a nearby ship. Just paint a lighted reticle on the target, and it's Emplacements away!
Most Emplacements are familiar tower defense deployments. There's a short-range shotgun turret, machine gun turrets, ground-to-air flak turrets, mine laying Emplacements, a dampening generator that slows enemies... well, there's a lot. Each can be purchased and upgraded by collecting scrap left behind by enemies on the battlefield. That scrap looks like still-glowing TV tubes.
To collect all that scrap, your Trench has an on-mech magnet, which sucks it all up. At one point, you'll have access to an Emplacement that will aid in the scrap collection, a powerful magnetic miracle known as the Ionized Collection Prong. (Yep!)
Your Mobile Trench can only carry a handful of Emplacements, depending on your chosen load out. Heavy Assault mechs can only equip lighter, smaller Emplacements, like machine gun turrets. Lighter Engineering mechs can carry every class of Emplacement, even the heavy stuff, like mortar launchers. Don't worry about making bad load out choices, though. Commander Woodruff will offer recommendations before you head to the battlefield.
Now let's (finally) get to the battlefield.
Of the half-dozen missions we played at Double Fine HQ, most involved defending a base or pair of bases from Vladimir Farnsworth's television beasts, called Monovisions. These are the wiry, bug-like mechanical monsters that emit a blue glow and rush your protected towers.
They come in multiple flavors, like the standard swarming Resistors. Tommys have tails and shoot at long distances. Blitzers, which glow red, are suicide bombers. There are flying Monovisions, Breaker Tubes with powerful shells of armor that can only be destroyed by mortar fire or explosive cannons, and massive mini-boss variants known as the Big Willie or Volt Dropper. They'll almost exclusively attack from pre-defined lanes, so you'll always know from where the next horde of are approaching.
What players cannot do is build a maze of Emplacements to steer that flow of TV terrors. They'll instead need to carefully deploy and thoughtfully upgrade their Emplacements to protect themselves and their bases—and to ensure that enemies don't crush your Employments, should those turrets get in their way.
Some of these enemies will drop loot upon their death, particularly the Big Willie. In loot boxes, you'll find rare and unique weapons. Some of those weapons can have unique attributes, like the ability to shred enemies (leaving behind more scrap), knock them back, ricochet fire into other enemies, or shock stun them with an electrical charge.
Players may also find loot at the end of a round. You'll get a scorecard, tallying up your kills and experience with weapons and deployments. Think Call of Duty: Modern Warfare-style player progression, unlocking new weapons and abilities as you level up. Oh, and there are unlockable hats too. Hats. Double Fine has done something interesting with player progression, splitting it into Personal progress and Regiment progress—that is, the group of other Trenched players you cooperatively play with online.
That means, even if you haven't played Trenched, if the last nine players you've played coop with have, you'll be rewarded with Regiment bonuses. (There's no way to set up a strict, established Regiment. It's simply the most recent Xbox Live players on your list.)
Unfortunately, we didn't get to see anything of Trenched's multiplayer side, which supports up to four Mobile Trench pilots, but it's certainly something we're looking forward to trying out.
From what we played—about a quarter of the campaign, according to Muir—Trenched feels like an exciting mix of solid third-person shooter action and smart, tactical strategy in straightforward tower defense style. The frenzy of shooting down enemies from your mech, while also managing defensive towers and roaming the battlefield, hunting for scrap makes for a thrilling mix of gameplay. Add to that clever Call of Duty-inspired progression, Diablo-style loot drops and unique weapons, plus the great humor developer Double Fine Productions is known for, and we may have a game with a little something for everyone.
Trenched is coming to Xbox Live Arcade via Microsoft this year.