by Sergio Brinkhuis
previewed on PC
The easiest way to start describing a game is either to classify it by genre or to compare it to something similar that a lot of people have already played. For developer Tesseract Interactive, this meant calling Excubitor a Tower Defense game inspired by classic shooters such as Desert Strike. It is not difficult to place those references into Excubitor’s context. An action packed top-down Arcade Shooter, the game puts you in the pilot chair of a prototype spaceship tasked with defending a research vessel as it explores the galaxy.
Unlike most Shooters, Excubitor sheds the usual linearity associated with the genre in favor of open, more dynamic maps. Unlike most Tower Defense games, enemies do not necessarily traverse along a fixed path, or at least not something you would recognize as such. Some maps certainly lend itself to more traditional Tower Defense style approaches of enemies but others are almost completely open.
Build and defend
Your ship, the SST-77 Hammerhead, is fully upgradable and can be customized by distributing weapons over two loadouts that each have two weapon slots. In battle, you can quickly switch between loadouts to counter different types of threats. Quick firing Cutting Lasers may work fine on smaller adversaries but it is nice to have some rocket launchers backing you up when sturdier vessels show up, right? Weapons themselves can also be upgraded, increasing their oomph.
I guess you could say that the game has two currencies. One is cold hard cash which is earned during missions and can be spent on upgrades. The other is energy and that is gained and bought in the field. Turret placements are activated and upgraded with energy. If there is not enough energy available, a lifeless turret remains just that.
With the exception of turrets firing on enemies, everything is done by the Hammerhead. Like a hummingbird flying from flower to flower, the Hammerhead flies from turret to turret to bolster or alter defenses. When you’re not doing that, you are actively defending using your ship itself as a weapon, or activating giant fans that mince up enemy squadrons as they are trying to pass through.
And just when you feel things are under control, the game throws a wrench in the wheel. Suddenly, the research vessel has moved to the other side of the map and all your defenses have been set up the wrong way. Scrambling, you deactivate inefficient turrets to free up energy and hurry back to put new ones in place.
By any other name
I’ll not deny Excubitor its classification as a Tower Defense game, but seeing it in action at Gamescom I think that it is indeed an incomplete description. When you are setting up your defenses, it’s all Tower Defense. As soon as the waves hit, the game smoothly transforms into an action packed Arcade Shooter that tests your speed, dexterity and your ability to keep track of the state of your automated defenses as well as the welfare of the research vessel.
While I doubt the story will be what drives players to progress through the game, Excubitor features a good variety in maps that offer a wide range of challenges. Between that, the increased freedom on the maps and its furious action, I think Excubitor’s gameplay may well remain fresh for far longer than the average Tower Defense game.