The Double Fine Amnesia Fortnight is now the stuff of game design folklore. Conceived in 2007 during the grueling development process for Brutal Legend, the studio’s tent-pole title, the Fortnight offered beleaguered staff members the chance to temporarily forget the fact that they were hard at work on a half-finished behemoth, and focus instead on crafting a rough version of the game they had always dreamed about making, whatever that happened to be. This enviable business practice has already born fruit twice, with considerable ripeness — Costume Quest and Stacking have both been extremely well-received.
Trenched is the third apple on the verdant tree of Double Fine imagination. Cultivated by programmer Brad Muir, the game can be described as a “tower defense shooter,” drawing on the influence of games like Chromehounds and Mech Assault to correct two problems endemic to the burgeoning tower defense genre. First on the docket was the traditional camera angle: hovering over the battlefield. To combat this flaw, Trenched puts you in the action, on the back of a 25-foot smoke-spitting death machine. The second weakness that the team identified in classic tower defense games was the paucity of things to do once you had actually placed your towers. That problem was also solved with a lumbering, high-caliber vengeance.
“It’s our first game with a gun it,” Tim Schafer quipped, as Muir fired up the game on the big screen. The assembled members of the press were treated to the game’s terse opening cutscene, which sketches out the plot: Two paraplegic veterans of World War I, Frank Woodruff and Vladimir Farnsworth, are working together at a radio listening post when a mysterious “signal” strikes via the airwaves. Though it has a deleterious effect on most, Woodruff and Farnsworth find that their own intelligence is significantly augmented.
Each of them uses this unexpected gift to escape from the confines of his wheelchair. Woodruff invents massive mechanical legs, which, in the parlance of the developers, “bring him to the world,” and also form the basis for the game’s heavily-armed, player-controlled Trenches. Farnsworth, the more sinister of the two (you can tell by the giant beard), invents the television (his name is a combination of the names of the TV’s two real-life inventors, Philo Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworykin). In this way, he “brings the world to him,” but his invention has sinister consequences. It becomes his obsession, taking over his brain, and soon, with the help of ravenous biomechanical creatures that are themselves a product of the technology, taking over the world.
Trenched is therefore a battle between the Mobile Trenches, defending humanity, and Farnsworth’s minions, attempting to spread their evil, blue-hued network wherever possible. You can see the TV screens in the beast’s mouth in the above screenshot. It is impossible to talk about the game’s other elements without diving headfirst into the gameplay, and thankfully the Double Fine gave the assembled supplicants ample test-drive time. We were dropped into a mission that required the good guys to hold an airfield against Vlad’s maurading forces, which poured forth in waves from the spawn points scattered around the map. Built on the Brutal Legend engine, Trenched recalled the mix of action and strategy featured in the former title’s multiplayer, though with more of a firearm focus. The game was instant fun, and quite easy to learn, although it was clear that tactical depth and and potential difficulty lurked right under the surface.
Three mechanics drive defense. As anyone can tell from a screenshot, you’ve got guns arrayed on either side of your Trench. No matter the number, or caliber, the right trigger fires all the guns on the right side, the left trigger all the guns on the left. Defeated enemies drop pieces of “scrap,” which can be magnetically sucked in with a simple press on the right bumper. Scrap is shared between team members, to encourage cooperation, and can be spent on a variety of “turrets,” persistent, automated allies that can deployed anywhere with the left bumper and directional pad to help you fend off Farnsworth’s swarming minions. Some turrets are basic in concept, like the shotgun turret (does damage up close, on the ground) or the flak turret (anti-air). Others are more specialized, like the scrap-gathering magnet, which will replenish your reserves without the need for manual looting. Scrap can also be spent to upgrade various turrets.
Strategy in the game is driven by Trench customization. I overheard one developer describe the game as “War Barbie,” in reference to the way that the mechs will be constantly reconfigured and accessorized. Trench pilots will have to make important decisions when preparing for a mission, starting with which kind of chassis to bring. Heavy chassis provide more guns but fewer turrets, mediums are a mix of both, and small chassis pack little firepower but a full complement of four turret types. Having made that initial decision, players will select from a wide range of different weapons and turrets, filling their chassis to capacity. The third key selection is made between various types of legs — bipods have a triggerable sprint ability, tripods can emplace themselves in the ground (gaining a bonus to damage and rate-of-fire), and quadrupeds can crush nearby enemies with their galloping, mammalian legs. During gameplay, boss mobs (and occasionally other monsters) will drop loot, constantly increasing the number of customization options, and giving levels plenty of replay value.
Battle begins aboard the USS McKinley, an “amphibious aircraft carrier” that acts as a hub for all the game’s activity. Its primary attraction is a mech docking bay, from where you’ll be able to customize your Trench. Demonstrating Double Fine’s trademark humor, the Mobile Trench Brigade’s commanding officer is only a short distance away, cigar clenched in his teeth, despite the fact that he’s confined to an iron lung. All missions are arranged through this comical figure.
The real attraction, on both the carrier and in the game, is the user-friendly multiplayer. The developers have made online play and cooperation a focus for the title, hoping that people team up in order to take on Farnsworth’s vastly superior numbers. The McKinley’s main deck has slots for four Trenches, meaning that when you fill up your party, your allies’ mechs will appear for your inspection, ogling, approval, or criticism. With multiple mechs on the field, its important to specialize and take on different roles — four heavy chassis with big guns but no turrets would likely get creamed. By discussing your approach with your teammates, you can ensure that you’ve got all the different equipment bases covered, and select components that are synergistic or mutually supporting in order to ensure the best possible outcome.
These outcomes are measured, first of all, by score, encouraging players to repeat levels until they’ve defended well enough to earn a Gold rating. Players’ personal statistics are also tracked, unlocking mech parts, uniforms, accessories, and other perks as they complete various milestones. That’s not all, however. Thanks to one of the game’s most clever features, every player you complete a level alongside will be added to your “Regiment,” a virally increasing group of players whose experience also provide benefits to you. As a means to encourage unfettered team building and reward skillful positive play, it’s hard to conceive of anything better.
By combining ingenious innovations like the Regiment system with the classic thrills of tower defense and mech piloting, Double Fine is well on their way to another downloadable gem. Cheekily contrasting the “manliness” of Trenched to the cuteness credentials of their previous two titles, they might even expand their audience. Either way, one thing is clear: Vladimir Farnsworth must be stopped!