Fortified, the console and PC debut from former mobile developer Clapfoot, presents an interesting dilemma for discussion. If a game fully executes on a concept that isn’t all that ambitious, can that fully be considered a success? Make no mistake, this is not meant to undermine the hard work that went into Fortified. If anything, it’s a testament to how well Clapfoot executed upon its vision. The issue with Fortified, which nails down the combination of tower defense and fast third-person shooting that it’s going for, is that its concept places a bit of a ceiling on just how fantastic it has the potential to be. Combining two genres that can clearly work well together is novel in a way, yes, but there’s also something to be said about unintentionally limiting the ambition of a game through its core concept. Fortified is both a solid tower defense game and a solid wave-based third-person shooter, and there is absolutely a bit of an addictive hook throughout its campaign, but it’s hard to see this being a title that sticks around with its audience for an extended period of time.
Imagine a version of 1950s America in which martians have invaded the streets and are attempting to destroy as many rocket ships (you know, those rockets that line this nation’s wonderful streets) as possible. You take the role of one of four characters, either the Captain, the Rocket Scientist, the Agent or the Spaceman, who is tasked with commanding troops, setting up defenses and shooting as many aliens as possible in order to prevent the world from being overrun. There’s a pretty neat 1950s sci-fi comic book aesthetic to all of the cutscene art and menus, and while the core gameplay loop does not feel as stylized as these aspects, it’s awesome to see a game that didn’t need a theme actually have one. There isn’t really any story to speak of, despite the fact that there are the aforementioned comic book cutscenes, and while some out there will be disappointed by this, the real hook here is the combination of strategy and action
Fortified features two main gameplay modes, Campaign and Invasion. Whereas Campaign takes place over twelve standalone levels, each with a set map and set pattern of enemies, Invasion, is a more traditional horde-style experience, with endless waves of enemies coming one after another in hopes of destroying your rocket. The setup here isn’t all that different from the modes you see tacked onto modern shooters, only you have the chance to build turrets, lay down support soldiers and generally reek havoc on the enemy without having to use your gun on every one of them. Invasion is going to be the mode that most players stay with over the course of Fortified‘s life cycle, namely because simply upping the difficulty on single campaign missions isn’t as epic as fighting until it becomes impossible for you to fight further. Still, even though Invasion is the biggest draw in terms of replay value, it’s not going to be as widely played as the core campaign (namely because if you don’t fiddle with the Game Mode option in the lobby, you’ll never find it).
With that caveat out of the way, it’s worth diving into exactly what the moment-to-moment gameplay in Fortified looks like using Campaign mode as an example. When players choose to embark on their world-saving campaigns as one of the four character classes, they’ll dive into an enemy-free set-up period right away. Players will have the ability to choose any weapons that they have unlocked by killing aliens and winning missions (or just by generally playing, the progression system) as well as a limited number of tower defense items that can be placed essentially anywhere on the map. Much like the tower defense games that many of us have experienced in the past, you’ll have as much time to set up your defenses as you’d like and the option to spend your resources in whichever way you deem fit. Once you’re ready to go, you have the ability to send the aliens along their predetermined paths to your rocket and destroy as many of them with your defense items and weapons as humanly possible. The good news here is that you can buy and sell defense items as you please, with no penalty for selling items back, meaning that you are free to change your arrangement in whichever way you like. Essentially, you are never bogged down by the choices you made before previous waves, and Clapfoot was smart enough to incorporate this mechanic into a number of its later levels.
Despite the fact that its relatively simple 3D visuals and occasionally maddening motion blur effect might indicate that Fortified is not the most polished experience out there, it’s a pleasure to report that its shooting is as tight as you can hope for. Granted, this isn’t a Gears of War level of mechanical shooting prowess, but throughout my time with Fortified, there wasn’t a single moment where bullets felt as though they were not connecting. Add this to the fact that pretty much all of the weapons available are unique in some respect, whether it’s the Spaceman’s freezing pistol or an assault rifle that can be upgrades to shoot in three directions at once, and the result is a pretty solid shooter. Oh, and if you’re the type of gamer who enjoys RPG elements, then you’ll be happy to know that the aforementioned progression system manages to find a wonderful balance between rewarding players immediately and locking some items away behind higher levels. The one disappointment here is that a lot of the items that you’re able to unlock as you progress with each separate character blur together a little bit. When you receive an assault rifle right away with one character and then later earn it deeper into another character’s progression, it creates the same feeling that you get whenever you unwrap a pair of socks on Christmas Day.
Of course, tower defense is definitely fun alone, but when you have the ability to grab up to three friends and rack up kills, the experience is certainly better. All of the Campaign levels and each Invasion map can be played by one to four players, though cooperative play is exclusively online via peer-to-peer connection. If you found yourself disappointed by the last part of that sentence, you’re not alone, as Fortified seems like the perfect game for split-screen co-op. Imagine my disappointment the first time I booted up Fortified with a friend to find that we would have to take turns like brother and sister rather than being able to share a thrilling co-op experience. A great deal of the chaos that Fortified thrives upon is amplified when other players are present, but a great deal of that joy is lost when everyone is in a separate room. Add this to the fact that Fortified‘s online experience faces all of the follies that come with peer-to-peer connectivity, and it’s hard not to wonder whether or not its lifespan will suffer as a result of these choices.
Though this review has thrown a great deal of criticism at Fortified, it’s actually a surprisingly fun, well-polished genre mash-up that gives off a wonderful initial impression. When you think of all that could go wrong with a developer’s first foray out of the mobile space, Clapfoot is a studio that should be commended for what it’s been able to accomplish here. Though this is likely going to be a title that falls off the radar almost immediately (outside of a select core community) because of its inherently conservative concept, players who dive in with an open mind will be pleasantly surprised. Yes, it’s a massive bummer to see games that appear to be prime split-screen titles go completely without this functionality, but if you’re looking for a solid game to hop into with friends before larger multiplayer experiences begin to drop, you could do a lot worse.