Since the early years of PC gaming, tactically-minded gamers have been building mazes of artillery towers to gun down endless lines of bad guys who are just trying to make it from point A to point B. Defense Grid: The Awakening was one such game, with its smart, approachable take on the genre and surprisingly strong story; now we have Defense Grid 2, a tower defense game that’s bigger, better, and tower defensier than ever before.

Those pesky aliens are back again, and it's up to you and your team of scrappy AI pals to stop them before they snag all of the power cores in the universe. To do this you'll create mazes consisting of artillery towers, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Gun towers are cheap, but weak, cannon towers are powerful, but lack short-range targeting, temporal towers do no damage, but slow the progress of the alien attackers. All of the towers from the original Defense Grid have returned, along with the new Boost tower, a cheap platform tower which upgrades the height and effectiveness of anything you build on it. These low-cost Boost towers make creating a maze easier than ever, and add a new layer of strategic consideration to the action.

Hidden Path Entertainment

Like the first Defense Grid, this is smartly-designed tower defense— your success hinges on careful planning and execution. There's good pacing to the ever-rising tide of enemies pouring into your maze, keeping you feeling excited, but rarely overstimulated. Additionally, the enemy variety rewards forward thinking players who plan ahead to account for the disparate weaknesses of the many enemy types. If you've got the resources to spare, you can also shift the battlefield around to your advantage, moving certain towers to more strategic positions, or increasing the potential size of your maze, adding to the feeling of escalating action during each play session.

Hidden Path Entertainment

New to Defense Grid 2 is the ability to choose a loadout, of sorts. Before each level you can choose a single cooldown-based ability, like the all-powerful Orbital Laser, or the tower-empowering Tower Overcharge. Outside of the Orbital Laser, the usefulness of these other abilities varies quite a bit, so don’t be surprised if you fall back on ol’ Orbie much of the time. Before each level you can also choose variants of each tower, and while this sounds promising in theory, most of the variants aren’t all that interesting, conferring flat statistical bonuses and small changes to the tower’s targeting priorities. During each level you can upgrade your towers to power them up, but this, too, feels a bit flat, as max level towers are just stronger versions of low level towers. These shortcomings are where Defense Grid would have done well to take notes from other tower defense games like Kingdom Rush, which allow you to choose between multiple types of max-level towers, letting you to strategize to alter the flow of the battlefield to your needs rather than just making your towers’ stats bigger.

Defense Grid 2 has twenty full levels, and each comes with nearly a dozen variants, with most being simple, but effective, variations on the core rules of the game. For example, Grinder pits you in an endurance test against a nigh-endless horde of increasingly powerful enemies, acting as Defense Grid 2’s survival mode. Grinder’s not the most low-key fun to be had here, but if you’re a baby bird who is hungry for a challenge this momma will give you all you can eat. Fixed Resources, as you might expect, gives you a pre-defined amount of resources with which to create your maze, allowing you to build the maze you want from the get-go and sit back to watch your handiwork. These modes trim and tune the core gameplay, altering the flow of action just enough to be worth your while. Other odder modes, like Focal Point, which only lets you deal damage by hovering over enemies with your mouse, are more weird than fun, but their inclusion is appreciated nonetheless.

Hidden Path Entertainment

Once you’ve exhausted the single-player campaign, you can battle it out with or against friends in either online or local multiplayer. For some players, this is where the real meat of Defense Grid 2 will lie, as the competitive multiplayer modes combine the same fast-paced fun of single-player with the added challenge of defeating a human opponent whose rizal maze fills yours with a new enemy for each one it destroys (and vice-versa). This mode is great, and since you and your opponent have access to the exact same things, you won’t have to worry about things like imbalanced/overpowered strategies— it all depends on your skill. Should multiplayer wear out its welcome, you can always try out the many custom levels either designed by the Steam community or by your own hand. Be forewarned, however, that while the custom level editor is very in-depth, it’s not the most user-friendly program, so if you hope to make any levels of your own, expect to spend a bit of time learning the ropes.

In spite of the fact that you're just playing a tower defense game, Defense Grid 2's story and characters are pretty damn strong. The voice acting for your motley crew of AI allies is great, especially Jim Ward, who reprises his role as Fletcher, the talkative, upbeat British AI.

There are a few minor quibbles here and there, however. The controls take a bit of getting used to, mostly because the game feels halfway built for a mouse, halfway for a controller, and optimized for neither. Moving your cursor around also moves the camera with it, and rather than pointing and clicking on tower options, you scroll through them with swipes of the mouse or taps of the joystick; it feels clunky, at first, but it’s nothing game-breaking, and you can get used to it after playing a bit. The music has a great synthetic sound... which you'll barely get to hear because the omnipresent sound of gunfire drowns it out in every level. Lastly, the resource management is a bit odd, granting you additional resources at regular intervals based on how many banked resources you have. This encourages you to occasionally sit back and not do anything, which in turn feels very counterintuitive. Still, these are minor issues, and do little to dull the sheer fun of crushing the alien hordes with your brilliantly laid out mazes.

Hidden Path Entertainment

Whether you're a lifelong fan of tower defense games or have no idea what "mazing" means, Defense Grid 2's smart gameplay, strong level design, and great writing make it a strong contender for any strategically-minder gamer's library.

This review was based on a publisher-provided copy of Defense Grid 2 for PC.

8.5 out of 10 arcade sushi rating