During the First World War, life in the trenches was anything but fun; rats, lice, heavy rainfall, and enemy snipers all did their bit to ensure misery. Developer Double Fine's take on trench warfare in which Trenches are mechlike war machines rather than muddy holes in the ground, on the other hand, is a blast. Somewhat reminiscent of Signal Studios' excellent Toy Soldiers, but with a greater emphasis on action, Trenched is a tower defense game that lets you take an active role on the battlefield as you defend strategically important locations from an unimaginable evil. You're afforded brief respites between the waves of enemies that are headed your way, but Trenched is played at a pleasingly frantic pace for the most part, and you need to be both smart with your tower placements and skilled with your chosen weapons to overcome the enemy. All 15 campaign missions are fun to tackle solo or alongside up to three friends, and replay value comes courtesy of leaderboards and a compelling loot system. This isn't the Great War that your ancestors might have fought in, but it's a great war nonetheless.
Trenched isn't a game that's going to keep you glued to your controller with its story, but its tale is at least good for a few chuckles. The events of the game transpire shortly after the aforementioned conflict, when two injured comrades serving at an Allied listening station intercept a mysterious signal that makes them supersmart. Frank Woodruff and Vladimir Farnsworth then take very different approaches to using their newfound intellect to aid other disabled veterans. Woodruff invents mechanical legs known as Trenches so that he and others like him might walk again, while Farnsworth invents television (referred to in-game as Monovision) so that veterans who are unable to move can still see the world. Woodruff's Trenches make him the toast of the town, while Farnsworth's broadcasts are considered a plague. Long story short, Farnsworth loses his marbles and, in an attempt to force his broadcasts upon humankind, fashions mechanical monsters (Tubes) and sends them into battle. And that's where you come in. As one of four marines with a customizable Trench at your disposal, your mission is to defend against Farnsworth's forces and to foil his dastardly plan to dominate the airwaves.
The first campaign mission, in which you must defend your battleship-with-legs base of operations, serves as a tutorial and does a great job of familiarizing you with the equipment at your disposal. Controlling your Trench and dropping defensive emplacements almost anywhere that you care to on the battlefield could hardly be easier. Emplacements, which initially include only mounted machine guns and shotguns, must be positioned a certain distance apart, but that's the only restriction. Typically, you start each mission with only enough of the game's scrap resource to place a couple of them, but since scrap is dropped anytime you kill a Tube, there's certainly no shortage of it. What's unfortunate, though, is that while most of your time is spent gleefully managing defenses or using Trench-mounted weapons to deal with enemies in a more hands-on manner, some of it must be spent wandering around the battlefield to collect scrap. Trenches are equipped with magnets that attract this valuable resource, but the magnets aren't nearly as powerful as they should be, and because Trenches move at a pretty sedate pace, this process quickly becomes a chore. Compounding this problem is that scrap disappears after a short time, so if you don't collect it quickly you don't get to collect it at all.
Scrap collection is a minor but frequent irritation throughout Trenched's campaign. As you progress and unlock more customization options for your Trench, you might choose to equip legs that move more quickly or to carry emplacements that automatically collect nearby scrap for you, but these are imperfect solutions. Making your Trench a more effective scrap collector means compromising its abilities in other areas. Using legs with a sprint ability means not using legs with the ability to shorten your weapons' reload times, for example, and since no Trench can carry more than four different types of emplacements simultaneously, devoting one of those slots to a scrap collection pod means you have one less defensive option. It's a shame that scrap collection isn't handled more efficiently in Trenched, because customizing your Trench for each mission can be almost as much fun as the missions themselves. In addition to legs, each Trench incorporates a chassis with variable armor and speed ratings, and the chassis, in turn, incorporates one to six weapon slots and up to four emplacement slots. You'll inevitably have a favorite setup, but missions are varied enough and new equipment comes your way quickly enough that you're unlikely to use the same Trench for more than a couple of missions in succession.
Prior to embarking on each mission you're given tips about what kind of equipment you're going to need, based largely on the types of enemies you're going to be facing. Flying enemies are most efficiently shot down with antiair emplacements or machine guns, while sniper Tubes are best dealt with using long-range weapons, for example. These guidelines are certainly helpful when attempting a mission for the first time, but on subsequent plays there's plenty of room for experimentation. It can be fun to shoot down flying enemies using magnetized grenades that are also very effective against ground targets, for example, and you won't need to concern yourself with enemy snipers too much if you position a powerful mortar emplacement within range of their camping spot. The further you get into the campaign, the more options become available to you and the more varied your enemies become. Some Tubes rush you like suicide bombers, while others prefer to attack from range. And while some are heavily armored enough that they can march across your minefields without taking much damage, others are fragile but capable of shielding other units that surround them. One thing that all of the Tubes, including three very different bosses, have in common is that they look great; their bright colors contrast brilliantly with the mostly muted environments, and they look menacing without flying in the face of the lighthearted humor that permeates practically every aspect of the game.
Another thing that the Tubes have in common is that while they're satisfying to take down solo, they're even more fun to tackle alongside a friend or three. Interestingly, Trenched is actually a more challenging game when you add friends to the mix. Not only are your enemies more resilient in cooperative games, but whereas you're afforded infinite lives in solo play (the only way to fall short is if a target you're defending is destroyed), in co-op games you need to be revived by another player, so it's possible to fail if all players' Trenches are incapacitated at the same time. Even when a full complement of four Trenches is heading out on a mission, you have to be mindful of the equipment that you take with you. You might want two Trenches that are geared for dropping heavy emplacements but are lightly armed, and two that can hold their own on the front lines but have only basic emplacement-dropping capabilities, for example. There's give and take with every single decision that you make when setting up your Trench, which is one of the main reasons the process is so compelling. Any scrap that's collected is distributed evenly among all players, so there's no danger of anyone being able to run around and hog it all. In fact, if anything, you're more likely to find that some folks can't be bothered to collect scrap for themselves.
Players you fight alongside online are automatically added to your regiment, and from that moment on their kill tallies using various weapons and emplacements are added to your own on the challenge screen. When certain milestones are reached, you unlock additional customization options for both your Trench (paint jobs, and rare and powerful weapons) and your chosen marine (outfits and hats, including some that you might recognize from Psychonauts). A separate, solo challenge screen keeps track of your personal tallies and unlocks similar extras. These tallies, along with any experience points and loot that you might collect during a level, are yours to keep even if you don't successfully complete a mission, which prevents failing one after 10 minutes or more from ever becoming frustrating.
Given that you're never entirely sure what to expect from a mission the first time you attempt it, you shouldn't necessarily expect to complete it, and you certainly shouldn't concern yourself with gold medal scores yet. Forewarned is forearmed, though, and things are much easier on your second or third attempt, especially if you've managed to loot some upgrades from enemies that you've killed in the meantime. Playing through Trenched from start to finish should take you at least six or seven hours, but if you're at all interested in playing online or in chasing high scores on the leaderboards, you can expect to be enjoying the game for many hours beyond that. Trenched is at once a challenging tower defense game and a satisfying mech-themed shooter, and it's also a great game to play with friends regardless of whether you're looking to team up for 15 minutes or several hours.