Every summer I have a little fling with downloadable games. Usually it starts with Summer of Arcade, a five-week festival of high-profile Xbox 360 exclusives, but this year it's off to an early start with a couple of games that aren't part of any promotion: Trenched, which launched in late June through Microsoft's downloadable games service, and the just-released Dead Block, which is currently only on Xbox 360 but will come to PlayStation 3 later this month and Windows machines in the fall.
Let's start with Trenched, made by critical darling developer Double Fine. It presents an alternate early 20th century history in which the world's military forces are forced to do battle against waves of giant glowing blue automatons. I'm merely lukewarm on the game's story, which works hard for laughs but rarely succeeds. Thankfully, it's a relatively small part of the experience.
At the heart of the game is a fairly original concept: Third-person mech combat melded with tower defence strategy. We control powerful robots that can be completely customized. Players can swap out speedier or more powerful legs and bodies and switch between dual-wielded weapons designed to match up well against specific types of enemies. The controls feel great, and Double Fine doesn't spoil us with simple snap-to targeting. I had to work hard to take down swooping fliers while tactically switching between weapons to keep armoured and explosive units from battering my bases.
The tower defence element is slightly less satisfying-rare are the circumstances in which players can build more than a handful of automated defensive units and cause serious devastation. Still, the basics have been handled well. Press a directional button to choose a turret, then tap a shoulder button to place it wherever you like (raised platforms act as placement suggestions, but there's nothing to keep you from plopping them down anywhere you fancy). Simply look at a tower and press "Y" to upgrade it, assuming you have the cash. One thing I'd change is being forced to run around collecting enemy "scrap"-which is used as currency-at the end of each wave. My mech always seems to end up out of position once the enemy bots begin swarming again.
Still, I've returned to Trenched frequently over the last couple of weeks. Its missions are quick and I'm always left wanting more-even when I don't succeed. Look for it on Xbox Live Arcade for 1,200 Microsoft Points, or about $17.
Also flawed but fun is Candygun Games' low-budget Dead Block, which delights in recreating the atmosphere of low-budget films from decades past. It focuses on what is normally the second act of most zombie movies-fortification and survival.
Set in a series of buildings-houses, a garage, a school-players take on the roles of a small crew of zombie apocalypse survivors. Our primary objective is to search for and collect pieces of musical equipment which, used together, will drive the attacking undead hordes into a self destructive rock 'n' roll frenzy. These items could be anywhere in the building-on shelves, in suitcases, on counters-which means we spend much of our time frantically sifting through junk.
But we must also always be on look out for roaming zombies, which gain entry to buildings through windows and doors. You can fight them off with melee weapons, but this is dangerous and slow. A more effective use of your time is to bust up furniture by jamming the "B" button and then use the debris to board up entry points. As the game progresses you'll earn the ability to construct impermeable walls, which means you can completely and permanently seal off a room flooded with zombies-very handy.
Better still, lay traps that make it easier to kill your lifeless foes. Players can leave meat on malfunctioning radiators to draw in and electrocute the undead. Or set up cold foam canisters to spray and freeze them in place. Or drop boxes on their heads to make them blind. You can even plug a coin into a juke box to cause some of the zombies stop seeking your brains and start gyrating on the spot, making them easy targets for a while.
However, be warned that virtually every activity is associated with a non-contextual mini-game. You'll need to press the controller's triggers alternately to clear dust away from collectible nuts; spin the chambers of a lock so you can reach inside and grab a power-up; move a stream of junk left and right to find valuable items hidden within; tap a moving slider at just the right moments to hammer up boards; and play a little rhythm game to rock out on your guitar. You'll likely play a hundred or more of these games per level. It's not that they aren't fun, but rather that they are too frequent.
That said, Dead Block proved compelling enough that I spent three hours with it the first night. Even if that's all the fun you can wring out of it, that's not bad value-especially considering that, at 800 Microsoft Points, it costs less than going to a movie.