Let’s talk about Curiosity. No, not the mental peculiarity that is the bane of felines everywhere, nor Peter Molyneux’s recently released massively-multiplayer poke-‘em-up. I mean, of course, the Mars Rover, to which I’ve inexplicably attributed a personality not entirely unlike Short Circuit’s Johnny Five. If you were to take the rock-scavenging robot, hold him in front of the fan fiction writers of the internet and ask them to ‘do their worst’, what you’d end up with, in addition to a lot of crossover stories featuring My Little Pony and Naruto, is the basic premise for fledging developer Elefantopia’s debut game, McDROID.
At its core, McDROID is a tower defence game. As I sat down to check out the latest preview build, I thought to myself, “Zed, you’re absolutely awful at tower defence games. What are you doing?” Writing this, I’d even go so far as to say that I don’t usually like the genre. I’ve always found that, unless you stick to the specific build process that the developer had in mind when designing each level, a particular wave or enemy will eventually turn up and completely wreck your carefully laid series of turrets. It speaks to the current quality of McDROID that at no point did I ever experience this particular frustration.
Basic gameplay sees you moving a customisable bipedal robot (I naturally coloured mine ‘Royal pink’, because why wouldn’t you?) around a series of closed-off arenas in various parts of the game’s setting, Planet M (The ‘M’ blatantly standing for ‘Mars’, to fit with the ‘Curiosity’ fan-fiction theory), placing down various types of fully upgradeable turrets to fend off multiple waves of hideous slimy alien slug things. So far, so bog standard.
Old McDROID Had A Laser-Turret Farm
Where McDROID sets itself apart is in the amount of control you have over each level’s outcome. With most other games in the genre, you place your turrets, then sit back and watch the carnage unfold like a lazy army general, reclining in your proverbial armchair, sipping brandy and smoking a cigar while your minions either win the day for you or get themselves senselessly massacred because you neglected to cover five or six pixels somewhere in the corner of the screen.
Here, however, if your turrets are struggling to deal with the onslaught, you can strap one of those bad boys to your back and get stuck right in, like a medieval King on horseback, leading the charge after a particularly rousing speech about heading once more unto the breach, and stiffening the sinews, and all that. This is crucial to dealing with the more difficult parts of each level, since your defences will surely be overwhelmed by a couple of the stronger units, requiring you to get right up in their face with a laser beam and actively lead them away from your shuttle base.
“There are strawberries aplenty to plunder but they come with a side order of angry creatures!”
A lot of the game seems to be about genre ‘box-ticking’. There are multiple types of turret: lasers, missiles, glowing power-boosting thingies, resource-collecting mini-droids, etc. Each one is upgradeable, as is your own armour, although you’ll need to find the ‘blueprints’ for each thing scattered around the levels, then spend semi-rare blue crystals to research their advancement. There’s lava-stricken ground, which causes constant damage to both you and any turrets placed upon it, countered into ‘blissful’ ground by the aforementioned glowing power-boosting thingy, and specific points upon the ground where you can (and must) plant and grow the game’s ‘stuff buying’ resource, strawberries.
Yes. Strawberries. Not ‘mythical mutated space strawberries’, just… strawberries. You buy machines of death with an unassuming, inoffensive red fruit. I can only assume the game takes place in the summer and Wimbledon has a serious supply chain issue. That kind of bizarre detail permeates McDROID’s presentation. Professionally cel-shaded with an acoustic guitar soundtrack (in which I swear I heard someone attempting to sing and then thinking better of it), charm oozes from every uneven crater. The turrets even deliver high-pitched, robotic quips as they take damage, in a blatant homage to Portal’s oddly endearing red-eyed machine guns.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance in the preview build to check out what I assume will be the game’s unique selling point: drop-in/out co-op play. Every time I logged in, there were no games to be found and I had no-one on hand with whom I could schedule a play session, but the idea of spontaneously recruiting human help to deal with the game’s story missions sounds positively brilliant.
You’ll need it, too. Around level 6 of the 10 level preview build (it’s not clear at the time of writing how many levels will make the final release), I noticed that the difficulty went up in less of a curve and more of a sudden, harsh, pointy vertical line. The developers have described McDROID as “a fast-paced hybrid of third person shooter, tower defence, bullet hell and real time strategy”. The ‘bullet hell’ part originally confused me, as nothing I saw in the opening few levels corresponded particularly closely to things like Cave SHMUPs or what I’d seen of the Touhou games, but about halfway through, it suddenly made sense.
“Too many monsters? Deploy a few Teslas in a defensive perimeter and see them amplify each other!”
Waves upon waves of alien slug thingies approached from both sides of my horribly under-defended shuttle base and, as the lasers began to fly, the part of my brain responsible for keeping track of what was going on decided to step out for a tea break. This isn’t your traditional tower defence, where you can just put your turrets down and then put your feet up. You’re ‘on’, all the time, and I very much enjoyed the constant sense of tension created by the imminent threat of being swarmed to death.
Each level also features a ‘Challenge’ mode, where your turrets (and any corrupted crops) carry over from your Story performance, further unlocking a ‘Nightmare’ difficulty that, if I’m honest, I’ll never have a chance in hell of completing. I did manage to clear a couple of Challenges, but considering my absolute and total failure to get past any story missions beyond seven, it’s not looking good. Taking into account the time investment that each attempt at a level requires (around half an hour to get everything set up and on to the last wave, where it all usually goes south rather quickly), failure can mean a pretty hefty chunk of time you won’t be getting back. With the personality of the Droid and turrets, it’s also just a little bit heart-wrenching.
Being a preview build, there was nothing in the way of cutscenes or narrative exposition, but the developers promise a robust story mode, investigating the secret of ‘mega-corporation GLACeNTO’, which even has its own ARG-like corporate website, here: http://www.glacento.com/. I am going to feel SO vindicated when they end up being some kind of evil parody of ‘NASA’ and my ‘Mars rover’ theory comes to fruition (HA! ‘Fruition’! Get it? Fruit? Strawberries? Oh, never mind.).
Right now, McDROID has made a bit of a convert of me. Before getting hands-on with it, I was both awful and largely uninterested in the tower defence genre. Now, I’ll be watching the development and release of McDROID with (ahem) curiosity, because the unique presentation, mechanics and evolution of the genre makes this a highly promising debut release.