Unleash is an upcoming tower defense game with a competitive twist

In a previous article I commented upon the disparity between the colossal popularity of the match-3 puzzle genre and it’s critical reception; how can a genre that enjoys so many iterations suffer from lack of innovation? Similar to match-3 puzzle games, the tower defense genre is one that suffers from a lack of innovation despite the constant influx of titles, especially on mobile devices. The last tower defense game that I can remember being delighted at was Sanctum 2. That was years ago. But on February 1st a promising and innovative tower defense game called Unleash will make its way onto steam early access. Unleash is best described as like playing two tower defense games at once; one in which you traditionally defend and another in which you compose waves of monsters to attack, but they both happen simultaneously, with up to seven other players in real-time. Sounds intriguing, but does it have the right stuff in practice? I was lucky enough to receive a pre-release review copy to find out.

I think it does, but it’s a little rough around the edges.

Firstly, the presentation: it’s undoubtedly the weakest part of the game. The menus and user interfaces are passable, but they really don’t do the game any favours. They aren’t pretty to begin with, and they lack polish. The graphical fidelity of the game play itself is actually decent but it wears it’s indie heritage on it’s sleeve. No one is going to be fooled into thinking this is a triple-A title. The freeze towers and flamethrowers, for instance, emit identical particle waves: the former’s being blue and the latter’s being red.

The design and art-style of the towers is pretty standard stuff. They all kind of share the same colour palette and aesthetic, which is uninteresting. Like the monsters, the towers can also be upgraded, but only once they’ve been built. The design of the towers changes slightly when they’re upgraded to reflect the change, but it’s still pretty uninspired on the whole.

The art-style of the monsters is much, much better however. Each one has a memorable name and design, as well as unique and useful perks. Their designs can dramatically change as they are upgraded which is a really nice addition. It makes for many “oh shit!” moments as you bear witness to the horde of giant monsters your opponent has lined up to test your gauntlet.

The music is fairly stock orchestral action music – something that could have come from Hans Zimmer. And I don’t mean that in a good way. It’s not terrible, but there’s no denying that it’s bland.

Unleash can be a compelling game, but it’s certainly due in no part to it’s presentation elements. What makes it compelling is it’s unique but somewhat familiar twist on the tower defense genre.

Probably the gauntlet I am most proud of. The monsters are forced through a vertical gauntlet on the right, with really long electric hazard lanes and freeze towers, before being funneled through a horizontal gauntlet on the left, rife with mortars.

As mentioned, the twist is that Unleash features competitive tower defense. Each player has a lane in which they can build walls and towers with various abilities, and through which other players spawn monsters to be destroyed. The goal is to have enough of your custom army of monsters make it past all of the opponent’s defenses and through their portal, reducing their health to zero, before your opponent does the same to you. This is fairly reminiscent of old community made game modes from Warcraft 3, specifically one known as “tower wars”. The developers openly admit this influence on the Steam page.

Players have up to 120 seconds to build their initial defenses and plan their starting enemy waves. The UI for each of these sits discreetly in the two bottom corners of the screen. It’s simple enough to understand, but it’s hard to formulate a proper strategy at first without taking the time to study the tower units and monster units. A tutorial mode would have been welcome. There is a “sandbox” mode, which resembles the regular game modes, except there is only one lane, and you can test out any of the towers/monsters by spawning them against each other. The only thing truly missing from the sandbox mode is that you cannot see how expensive each tower or monster is to unlock. This mode is a crucial addition for starters. But again, some kind of tutorial mode, or monster/tower compendium would have been a nice ‘quality of life’ addition.

It’s 2018, and yet this game has bots, which is absolutely amazing. Some of my most cherished gaming memories when I was younger were on Counter-Strike: Condition Zero playing against bots. Bots need to come back. Because of this simple addition, the game is endlessly replayable even offline. There are three levels of Bot A.I. – Mr. Random (easy), Mr. Coincidence (harder), and Mr. Think (challenging). The A.I. will catch onto your tower building strategy and send enemies accordingly. If you are lacking in air support, you can bet that the A.I. will be sending flying units your way in an attempt to exploit the weakness of your gauntlet. These bots are no pushovers.

The game seems pretty well optimized. In some more intense matches, there can be a hell of a lot of stuff on the screen at a time. I tried to spawn as many monsters as I could in sandbox mode, with hundreds of monsters going through a very intricate gauntlet, and while the game experienced some slowdown it wasn’t as bad as I expected.

The two main game modes are referred to as “Line Wars” and “Line Wars 1V1”. Line Wars is the mode that supports up to eight players, and may be considered the definitive game mode. But Line Wars 1v1 is particularly fun against a friend, and most of my early gaming sessions were spent in 1v1. Where Unleash really shines though, is with seven other friends in Line Wars. Even with mere bots, it’s a blast.

There are plenty of options to modify your custom games, too. The games can last quite a long time. Money is the resource used for building and upgrading structures and monsters, and the main source of income is set on a timer. There can be quite a lot of downtime if your custom game is set up to pay out low amounts at long intervals, increasing the length of the match. But again, this is entirely adjustable – you could also start the game with the maximum amount of money.

There are four damage types in the game – physical, fire, cold, and electric. Monsters vary in their resistances to these types of damage. Thus, eyeing your opponents and their tower setups are a good way to determine what monsters you ought to spawn to succeed, and likewise determining the opponent’s monster composition will influence the specificity of your defense gauntlet. Each game of Unleash takes on its own meta game, per se: your tower building strategy influences your opponent’s monster strategy, which then feeds back to influence your tower building strategy. Perhaps your opponent bombards you with an onslaught of flying monsters – the counter is to quickly erect some air support. Then against your erection of air support comes a gaggle of heavily armored ice units that can only be damaged by flamethrower towers. Each strategy or counter is met with an equally effective strategy or counter, making for an intense meta game that happens on-the-fly.

In terms of the mechanics of the towers there are a few minor interesting additions. Perhaps the most interesting is that electricity towers can link together causing area-of-effect lightning damage in certain places depending on their positioning. Flamethrower towers can also be augmented by building diesel towers nearby, which douse enemies in accelerant increasing the potential for fire damage.

The monster mechanics are where the depth of the game is added. There are 19 different monsters, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and unique perks. Some monsters fly, while others even dig underground. Two of the monsters have very useful healing abilities. Some specialize in destroying walls and towers, others in toughness, others still in quickness.

Ultimately, the monsters become much more powerful than the towers in order for inevitable stalemates to be broken. At a certain point in upgrading the monsters, it’s impossible for the towers to adequately defend. Some monsters also gain new perks when fully upgraded. The razorlegs gain the ability to walk over any of the structures, which is ridiculous considering how fast they are, making for an effective endgame gambit.

For early strategies, I’ve found that upgrading the munchmaster unit early on is a good idea: it’s a tough unit that absorbs smaller units into it like a carrier. When the munchmaster dies, these units then pop back out, continuing their run. It’s a good idea to fill up some munchmasters with the much weaker razorlegs, creating a durable tank that protects the weak-but-lightning-fast razorlegs until they’re close enough to do some damage. If a munchmaster makes it to the enemy’s portal, the monsters inside of it also count towards the damage dealt.

There may be one thing preventing Unleash from attaining excellence (well, besides it’s presentation), and that would be the lack of micro-management. The monster units themselves cannot be micromanaged like a traditional RTS game. Don’t get me wrong, the game is frantic enough – it doesn’t really need this feature. So the lack of it doesn’t hurt the game, but I feel like it would have benefited from the higher skill ceiling. According to the Early Access page, the developers plan to add more monsters, towers, better visual effects, better U.I. elements and better sound/music. These would all be welcome improvements. But more than that, they also plan to include a new feature, referred to as “avatars” – controllable spell caster units with special strengths and weaknesses. If these “avatars” are micro manageable as the word ‘controllable’ suggests then it’s bound to really shake things up, and could heighten that skill ceiling.

I would also like to see more custom game options, such as having more time to set up before the first few waves. With 120 seconds as the maximum I found myself defaulting to the very basic ‘maze’ wall formation every time just to ensure I didn’t take any heavy losses at the start. But perhaps the frantic reiteration of your gauntlet is part of the charm. Your buildings aren’t really supposed to be permanent and unchanging. Like the meta-game, your gauntlet has to morph and evolve to be effective, which will include a lot of frantic building and re-building.

There is some real potential with this game. It’s rough around the edges, and it doesn’t hold your hand through the mechanics or basic strategies. But once you get over the learning curve, it’s actually quite compelling. And remember, the game is only in early access, where it will remain for 6 months to a year, according to the early access page. There is still lots of room for improvement, and it seems as though that is precisely in store for Unleash.

When Unleash is… well… unleashed, on February 1st, 2018, it will have more than enough early access content to justify the $9.99 USD price tag.

If you are a fan of the tower defense genre, or you’re wanting to relive some nostalgic memories from Warcraft 3’s tower wars, then you really ought to check out Unleash early access.

(this product was received for free)

–Lou

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