X-Morph: Defense was originally release back in August of 2017, however the recent release of an expansion and a new survival mode bring it back into view. The game combines tower building, lane based tower defence with hectic isometric shooter in another interesting take on the tower defence genre which sees the player taking a more practical role in the action. By this I mean the player controlling a commanding unit, similar in a way to the excellent Anomaly: Warzone Earth, with the added benefit of being an air-craft kitted out with a variety of powerful weapons.

In X-Morph: Defense, we play as the bad guys – the aliens that are invading Earth. Our race, in a quick and aggressive move to assert dominance over the humans, initiates its invasion by launching power cores into various countries of the world. These cores allow the land around it to be terraformed to harbour alien structures, in a bid to create a stranglehold and harvest the Earth.

First of course, the local human defence force needs to be put down, and so while your core establishes itself you must defend it from increasing waves of military. Before each round begins you have a window of prep time that will be instantly recognisable to any tower defence fan. You can see the paths your enemy will take on its way to your core, along with the various enemy types that will spawn at each location. They will initially take the most direct path to your core, and so it is up to you to plant towers in formation to extend the enemy’s journey as much as possible.

Depending on what types of enemy you will be facing, and as the game progresses, you can install a few different types of tower. Your basic tower is a normal paced turret – firing single shots regularly – but as you unlock more you can utilise artillery, which is good for long distance bombardment; flame, which is good for consistent damage; air flak, which is effective against flying foes; and so on. There are even multiple variants of these types of towers too, so you can fine tune your defense as you go – for example, the anti-air towers can come as flak or laser, and so on, depending on whether you are defending against small air units or large ones.

After each round you can re-organise your towers, add new ones and generally amended your strategy in preparation for what the next round is going to throw at you (the enemy types and directions changing occasionally, and even the map expanding to provide more routes to watch out for). And upon completing the waves, some levels throw a boss encounter your way – which I will talk more about later – before ending the level with a score, upgrade points to invest in powers and towers, and unlocking the next level.

So far, so tower defence. But where the game gets more interesting is in controlling your commanding unit, and attempting to manage the defence of your core while you’re in the thick of it. Your alien ship comes with a few unlockable weapons. Firstly there’s our trusty, fast firing lasers, effective against everything, though not necessarily very powerful. Then shortly after is unlocked the missiles, which are much slower, highly ineffective against flying units, but very effective against ground vehicles. These are the two base weapon modes that you are pretty much guaranteed to put to use early on (you don’t have to unlock the missiles as soon as they become available, but they are highly recommended), however there are a few others that you can unlock at your own pace.

Anti-air missiles are self-explanatory, and you can unlock a powerful laser that is useful against large enemies, such as giant tanks and bosses. Additionally each weapon mode has an alternative fire that can be charged for massive effect. These require a cool down period once used, only a matter of seconds, mind, but when things get really hectic you need to be careful not to waste them and end up letting too many forces get close to your core. If enemies do get close to your core, they will begin attacking it. Once the shields are depleted and your core reaches zero health, you lose the game. Your command unit can also die, however this only results in a slight delay before respawning at your core.

You can also get upgrades and defences for your core by spending upgrade points (the same points used to unlock new towers and abilities for your ship – these are earned by completing levels). For example, increasing your core’s shield capacity, to installing it with weapons of its own to defend itself – such as a laser that instantly destroys nearby units every few seconds. Ultimately these core defences are nothing to rely on and just act as last resorts if things get too tricky to manage, but during my playthrough there was the odd moment when I just about avoided defeat because of these combined upgrades.

Your ship on the other hand, while not an effective method to rely on entirely, is still essential to keep enemy forces at bay. While having tower formations and extending the enemy attack path as much as possible is the most effective way of defending your core, flitting to and from struggling zones, micro managing your defence and taking out as many foes yourself as you can is the only way to manage at higher difficulties. Even playing on easy and normal it’s hard to manage if you aren’t effective at keeping on top of things.

But this is where the fun lies, and for seasoned tower defence players you will be happy to hear that there’s plenty of challenge to the game as it goes on. This is helped along by a good variety in its levels that insists upon you improving your arsenal and skills at micro managing. During levels enemy unit types and their start points and attack paths can change up, meaning you need to change your towers and formations regularly, and sometimes mid combat. If, for example, at the beginning of a wave you are assaulted by strong air forces from the north, you will need to place anti-air towers along their path; however mid wave, after these are defeated, you may be attacked by a large force of tanks coming from the south, therefore making your anti-air towers redundant. Thankfully, you can move these towers around at will and even change their specification, so those useless anti-air towers can now be moved to where the tanks are approaching and be turned into artillery.

Some levels themselves also can expand, providing more paths for the enemy, and therefore more potential routes of threat for you to consider. And as previously mentioned, concluding some of these missions are boss fights. Tower defence and bosses aren’t the most natural fit. What comes to mind is simply a tougher enemy that follows the same formula as the rest of the enemies. But actually X-Morph: Defense throws out some pretty cool battles, and ones that eschew some of the rules other enemies in the game have to pay attention to. There’s no point in trying to block the path of a boss with towers, for example, as they will simply destroy them. Instead you may end up collapsing large buildings to block its path, or throw down towers to assault it as much as possible, focussing your own fire on individual parts of the boss – destroying the guns, or attacking its legs or wheels to slow it down. They’re really cool encounters, and a fitting way to end some of the levels – after you’ve defeated countless waves of small foes using strategy and formation, going on then to battle something big and slow that doesn’t care about your pesky barriers is an entertaining climax.

The boss battles also give the game the chance to show off its destruction and flare. Many buildings in the game are destructible, and the streets are littered with cars, lampposts and so on that can all be blown up in satisfying balls of flame. The particles that fly off from defeated foes provide satisfying visual confirmation of their defeat, and this is partly, along with the game generally just being a really good tower defence title, is what makes the gameplay so satisfying and enjoyable. Even in situations where you are outclassed, it’s difficult not to feel powerful as your weapons punch into oncoming waves – obliterating small ground units with lasers, and swatting helicopters out of the sky as they try to take you down, EXOR Studios have done a great job with the shooter side of the gameplay.

They’ve also done well with the tower building/lane blocking staple mechanics, and the idea of having to change things up on the go prevents this side of the game being generic. Not that this was going to be much of an issue in the first place, as the combination of shooter and tower defence is the game’s ‘gimmick’ so to speak, and this is fairly unique and impressive. The only areas I feel need to criticise would be with regards to some dodgy voice acting/dialogue (it’s not really that bad, just a bit cheesy), and the actual level design itself is lacking in variation. Although you travel the world, the majority of the places you visit look pretty much the same, not helped by less than stellar texturing. The newly released DLC, European Assault, however, is much better in this respect, with a few very cool looking levels.

But otherwise, X-Morph Defense is a very worthy tower defence hybrid. There’s a lot of content on offer, with levels not being too short and there being a reasonable number of them – this increasing as well with the European Assault expansion, and the survival mode, if you have the guts and strategic acumen to attempt that. The way the shooter gameplay and tower defence mechanics have been combined create a really enjoyable and hectic experience, rife with opportunity to create effective strategic defences, as well as get a fix of direct combat. Difficulty levels make this accessible to those who might prefer to rely on the less strategic side of the game too, which opens this up for a wider audience, perhaps allowing you to introduce yourself to tower defence if you were previously put off – though also providing plenty of challenge for others if they want it. A reportedly enjoyable coop mode could seal the deal as well if that’s your thing, though on its own it stands up well enough to be worth the time in my opinion.



Author

John Little
John Little

I started gaming with the release of the PS1 - Crash Bandicoot and Ridge Racer Revolution being the first 'real' games I ever set eyes on - and have been enthralled with the medium ever since. I particularly love strategy and horror games, the sort offered by titles such as Total War and Silent Hill, though I also have a soft spot for a good RPG. I studied Journalism at university in the hopes of progressing into writing about games, but my 'real job' is as a postman. You'll most likely find me covering indie games as I'm always on the look out for interesting little titles, and generally I stick to the PC and PS4 platforms. I'm not interested in MMOs or really any kind of online game, and I have an unusual and frankly worryingly expensive obsession with collecting gaming guide books, but aside from that I like to think I'm a well rounded average gamer. Find me on twitter @JohnLittle29