It’s a bit strange to realize that South Park has only been on the air for 12 years now; Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny feel like they’ve been an integral part of the fabric of pop culture for far longer. What’s stranger still is that for all its weight in the public mindshare, only three attempts had been made to translate Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s brainchild into into video game form before now. By comparison, its closest counterpart in terms of longevity, The Simpsons, has spawned over 20 home video game releases, if you count PC titles.
One can’t really make the argument of quality over quantity either, as none of the South Park games were particularly well received. The eponymous South Park, South Park: Chef’s Luv Shack, and South Park Rally (an FPS, mini-game collection, and kart racer, respectively) were all released in a three year window between 1998 and 2000 to fairly unanimous critical panning. Eight years passed without another attempt at bringing everyone’s favorite whitebread mountain town to life in game form. Then, at E3 2008, an announcement was made that a new South Park game was in development for Xbox 360. A year later, the curtain was finally pulled back; the new release fans had eagerly waited for was… a tower defense game?
Tower defense may not seem like the first genre you would think of when pitching a new game idea based on a long running series like this – I admit that it caught me very off-guard – but upon a bit of reflection, it actually does work. Over the years, the boys have definitely accumulated a large enough cast of enemies that lend themselves well to faceless, horde-like organization (hippies, ginger kids, Mongolians, etc.). And what kid hasn’t built walls and forts out of snow, provided they live somewhere that gets regular winter precipitation? It’s not such a huge logical jump if you think about it.
If you’ve played any other tower defense games, you’ll obviously find the concept immediately accessible. The level setup leans more towards the open-ended school of design. There are some features to each map that will serve to route enemy mobs in certain directions, but you will still be required to build walls to slow their progress and channel them past your towers. The biggest difference between SPLGTDP! (wow, what an unwieldy acronym – let’s just go with calling it South Park from here on out) and other tower defense games is the addition of multiple, directly controllable characters.
Similar to PixelJunk Monsters, South Park has you building walls, placing towers, and upgrading them all via an onscreen avatar. However, unlike Monsters, your character isn’t simply a helpless, tower-building drone. All four characters can hurl snowballs at the attacking hordes, which also serves to charge up a unique special power that can be unleashed every so often. In addition to their specials, each character also has their own damage, throwing range, movement speed and more.
In the single player mode you only control one character at a time, switching between them with the right bumper. This will leave the others where you positioned them, where they will happily huck snowballs at anything that gets within their range. In this way, they actually function much like mobile, re-positionable towers. Developers doublesix made mention before the game’s release that South Park combines more standard tower defense play with elements of arcade shooters like Geometry Wars and this really is a pretty fair assessment; after positioning the remaining characters strategically, you’ll find yourself circling the incoming mob, picking off weakened outliers, and snatching up coins dropped by fallen enemies, all while frantically mashing buttons. It’s definitely something I haven’t seen before in my experience with other tower defense games.
Still, this is where South Park suffers in single player mode. The action can get pretty frantic on some levels and often you will barely have enough time before the match to get your defenses fully set up, leaving you to forget that you didn’t finish your maze of walls until the current wave moves past it and beelines for the exit. This is where multiplayer (both local and online) really benefits the game. All players can build and upgrade at the same time, making both setup and the actual gameplay much more streamlined and enjoyable; provided all the players are on the same page, that is. I did experience a few games where one player decided to dominate the match by tearing down any towers other players built that apparently didn’t jive with his unspoken master plan. Still, this seemed to be the exception, rather than the rule and what multiplayer I tried was fast-paced and fun.
It really is sad when a game’s single player mode shows its weakest face, though, since this is the mode most players will be spending their time with. Switching characters with the right bumper can be problematic when you’re trying to find the right special power to activate in the heat of battle; few things are more frustrating than shooting past Stan when you need to heal the town’s rapidly dwindling life bar, leaving you to frantically cycle through the boys a second or third time. The mechanic would have been much better served by mapping all four characters to the D-pad, which goes unused in this game. Likewise, when the hordes have passed the firing rage of the three characters you’re not controlling, you have to switch to them one-by-one to move them forward, which just leads to losing more time and ground to the enemies. It can be pretty frustrating, indeed.
My only other real complaints are pretty minor. Despite a large selection of enemies, the later levels get pretty homogeneous, focusing on only a couple of enemy types per section, leaving you building little else but the towers to which they’re most vulnerable. The difficulty ramps up a bit unevenly towards the end; some levels will be controller-smashingly frustrating while others will be a breeze. It also would have been nice to see the cutscenes leading off each level done with actual animation rather than comic-style panels, but at least the voice acting there is all new.
South Park Let’s Go Tower Defense Play! puts some neat spins on a genre rapidly approaching saturation and makes exceptional use of its license; a real rarity considering the pedigree of the franchise in game form. A ton of unlockable video clips in the Scrapbook, a handful of challenge levels and multiple difficulties give this one some serious replay value. Who knows – You may even be able to get friends that are virgins to the genre sucked in, provided they’re fans of the series. Also, this may be the only tower defense game in history to drop repeated F-bombs during gameplay. That fact alone should at least warrant downloading the demo, don’t you think? Good. I’m glad you agree.
Things We Liked: Excellent use of the license – total fan service. Neat twist on the TD genre. Large amount of unlockables keep you coming back. Fast-paced online play. MANBEARPIG!
Things We Disliked: Uneven difficulty curve. Too few challenge levels for my taste. Switching characters with the shoulder bumper in single player mode. MANBEARPIG!
Target Audience: Fans of the series (should go without saying). Fans of the genre (same). Anyone looking for a quick, easily playable online experience. Collectible junkies. Al Gore.
(South Park Let’s Go Tower Defense Play! – Developer: doublesix, South Park Digital Studios. Publisher: Microsoft Games Studio. Available on Xbox Live Arcade. New to CFD!’s reviews? Read our explanation here.)