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Why Element TD is awesome

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(A complimentary thread towards the extraordinary efforts of Karawasa for the best Tower Defense game of all time. Anyone is free to add their own thoughts.)

How do you know a game is deep? When it can be replayed over and over and over, and each time, you still find something new. I've played Element TD for a total of... probably over 1000 hours, be it screwing around, single-player runs to set some records, online against others, testing, and passing the time. I can only say that for a handful of other games, all of which were funded and created by organizations. So what makes it so replayable? Why does it have seemingly infinite depth? What makes it stand out from other tower defense games?

I've played a lot of different TDs (namely Warcraft 3 ones). There's a lot of cool ideas everywhere, but a lot of them conform to one style of defense, where the following things don't hold much meaning:

  • Choices
  • Map design
  • Tower position

Obviously, map design doesn't particularly matter if it's mazing. But that aside, what choices do you have in most TDs? Different builders maybe. Otherwise, you have access to every tower. The next tower in line is stronger in every way to the previous, and it attacks differently, be it bouncing, AoE, slowing, anti-air, high-damage single-target, etc. The only real choices you have are deciding if you're gonna mass low-level towers or get only a few towers and upgrade them.

Map design and tower position go hand in hand. So literally every single non-mazing TD is not a straight path. It's filled with curves and possibly repeated areas. Does that make it a good map design? Not necessarily. In most cases, what you do is place towers in spots that hit the most area. Regardless of their range, they'll probably hit everything within any sort of peninsula or loop. About the only thing you care about regarding tower position is sticking slowing towers in the front and a few more periodically around the defense. Range is rarely a factor.

Element TD plays strongly on these things (amongst others, which I'll get to). You have access to six different elements. Each element brings a single-element tower that comes with it by default. Each element can be upgraded to a level of 3, thus allowing you to upgrade that base single-element tower to higher levels. However, by getting multiple elements, you're able to build towers that combine those elements, be it dual-element towers or triple-element towers. It'd be inaccurate to say that every single tower is different, as the various support towers often fulfill the same role for a different element combination; however, each one is different in how it goes about utilizing that role. In total, there are 2 basic towers, 6 single-element towers, 15 dual-element towers (12 damage, 3 support), and 20 triple-element towers (12 damage, 8 support), all with varying degrees of levels.

Many TDs use a 3-4 attack/armor type system, where towers will do maybe double damage to Fortified, increased damage to Armored, less damage to Normal, and non-existent to Light. These systems are kinda convoluted, because then it usually becomes "okay, use this tower against Fortified, this against Armored, this against Normal, and this against Light". The problem there is each tower acts differently, so if some high HP creeps come along with an armor type of Armored, but if your only anti-armor towers are splash damage towers designed against masses, then your next best bet is whatever does single-target to them without having a huge decrease in damage. There's also creep types like Air (can only be hit by towers that can hit Air), Invisible (requires a detection tower in the area to shoot them), Boss (low count, high HP), and various others. The two problem creeps are Air and Invisible, because in just about every case, that's two towers you're guaranteed to get because there's no way you can win without them. This limits strategies because you simply cannot live without them, so potentially rushing a certain defense is sidetracked by the fact that you're forced to get these two darn towers.

In Element TD, there's 7 types, BUT it's in a cycle, with a constant bonus/reduction between them. Fire > Nature > Earth > Light > Dark > Water > Fire; the last is Composite. What this means is a Fire-type tower will do double damage to Nature creeps, but it'll only do half damage to Water creeps. As for Composite, it does full damage to all elements; notice that the only towers that use Composite are your basic towers and a late-game Periodic Tower that is limited in number. All elements do 90% damage to Composite-type creeps. There's also 6 different creep types - Normal, Mechanical, Undead, Healing, Image, and Fast. Well balanced defenses have a variety of towers, both in elements and roles. Having multiple elements allows you to cover weaknesses in other towers.

Say you have a Flamethrower Tower (does Fire damage). It's doing great against the waves, but if a Water wave comes, it's doing half damage. Having a Runic Tower (does Dark damage) would cover that weakness, and if a Light wave came, having a Quake Tower (does Earth damage) would cover that weakness. As for roles, this refers to single-target, area-of-effect, and support towers. Multiple roles are needed in order to deal with the various creep types. Using all area-of-effect towers will slaughter Undead and Image without an issue, but it'll do little against Healing, and Mechanical tends to slip through quite easily. Likewise, single-target will knock out Healing and Mechanical nicely, but it has a lot of trouble against Undead and Image. Fast doesn't really have a counter, though supports (namely slowing) tend to undermine it quite well, allowing area-of-effect to pwn it.

Each element has a tower or two of each for the following:

  • Single-target damage
  • Area-of-effect damage
  • Support

Each tower works differently from one another. Nova (Light) is a slowing tower that hits everything around it, slowing all targets, so they go great on peninsulas. Muck (Earth) is a slowing tower that lobs giant blobs of goo that slows units in an area; not so great on peninsulas, instead, placing it on locations that will hit creeps on the second time around. Additionally, due to the way Muck hits them, it tends to stack the enemies up in clusters, whereas Nova simply draws them all closer together by slowing them all down.

Another example, Celerity (Nature) is an extremely long-ranged tower than does good single-target damage. Magnify (Dark) is a single-target damage that can change its range. At close-range, it's devastating; the longer the range, the less damage it does.

Vapor (Water) is an area-of-effect tower that hits all targets around it. The more targets packed together, the more damage it does. Infrared (Fire) is an area-of-effect tower that adds a stacking damage-over-time flame on the target, and when that target dies, everything that passes over its burning corpse (for the next few seconds) takes a bunch of damage.

Every 5 waves, you're given a resource to summon a new element, be it a new one or a higher level version of a current one you already have. What prevents you from maxing out one element immediately is that it summons an elemental boss, which requires some serious single-target damage to take it down if you don't want to lose any lives. It's practically impossible to take out a Level 3 boss any lower than mid-30s without taking some damage to your lives. Not to mention that trying to go for a Level 3 boss really early means you're sacrificing the balance of elements and towers/roles needed to clear the standard waves. By the end of wave 60 (last elemental pick is actually 55), you get a total of 11 elemental picks. For good reasons, that 12th pick doesn't exist, or else the endless wave at the very end designed to test the strength of defenses would have to be about 3x harder than it currently is.

There's something to be said for hoarding money in this game, and not just for the sake of saving up for higher level towers. Every 15 seconds, you gain interest, aka you get an additional gold bonus equal to 2% of your current gold. That may not sound like much at all, but with higher skill levels, you're able to know the minimum amount of firepower needed to clear waves, meaning you can save more gold and the 2% racks up. Believe me when I say that I've gone as far as having double the networth of my opponents just because I saved that much more (by switching to Geico- *shot*). Very rarely am I able to do that, but I usually end up with anywhere between 30-50% more than unskilled players.

Easily the number one thing I love about this Tower Defense game over all others isn't actually in the choices of elements; yes, it's a really awesome feature that provides a really cool balance (looking into it at an in-depth level shows a level of genius that took me hundreds of hours to realize), but there's something better - Map Design and Tower Position. At first glance, new players are going to ignore that fact that these two things matter. Why? Cause they're just trying out various towers, shiny/flashy stuff, explosions, and in general just watching crap explode. The second reason this gets ignored is because too many Tower Defense maps just have an arbitrary map design and practically ignore tower position, so even tower defense veterans that haven't played Element TD before may not have a clue about this. Every new player I've seen just sticks all their towers in one spot. Heck, even a lot of experienced players I've seen still does that, even with element build orders. The reality is, by positioning your towers correctly, towers can seem a lot stronger than they initially seem.

There's this giant guide here that goes through the map design and tower ranges/positions. I'm just gonna nutshell it here. Pretty much, there are locations that provide areas idea for short-range towers - they can hit a large area, aka the peninsulas. However, enemies only pass by these areas once. Up next are double-passes, categorized into short-pass and long-pass. By placing towers on short-pass areas (like the left-side of the middle island), creeps are hit once the first way and then hit once against shortly afterwards. Mid-range towers like these spots nicely. Long-ranged towers like the long-pass areas, because they'll still hit a giant range the first way through, and because it takes longer to get to the second time, long-ranged towers are able to fully hit the wave both times. The whole right side pass is ideal for this. These are by no means definitive rules, just basic guidelines. Due to the different mechanics of each tower, there are various ways you can use each tower.

Does it matter how fast you clear the wave? For single-player, not really, unless you're trying to amass lots of gold by interest abusing and letting creeps get to nearly the end of the maze before finishing off the last one. In multiplayer, however, builds the favor killing creeps quickly will screw up long-pass builds, because the first player to clear a wave will start the wait timer for the next wave. In most cases, long-pass builds actually deal more damage than builds that focus all of their damage in one section, so when it comes to the endless wave at the end, these builds tend to win. The problem is that depending on how fast those waves were cleared, those long-pass builds might die before reaching the endless wave. This provides yet another aspect to having a balanced defense.

For example, I have a particular build that is able to literally camp the entrance, even on the highest difficulty. As in, creeps survive for a maximum of a second, so this forces the next wave to happen very quickly, leaving very little breathing space for other players (the higher the difficulty, the less wait time between waves, so it benefits off higher difficulties). I refuse to put this build on the site, and unless I know I'm up against skilled players, I also refuse to use it online, because the few times I did use it invoked too much rage. So you'd think "well, if I use this build every time, I'll win". Not really. Anyone that is able to live through wave 60 will automatically win by default on the endless wave. The build is absolutely horrendous on the endless wave. So it's meant as a build to screw up anyone banking on any of the following:

  • Minimal towers (MOAR MONEY)
    • I'm looking at you, money tower abusers
  • Long-pass defenses
  • Heck, even short-pass defenses that require creeps to pass through the second time
  • Anything that depends on racking up even some amount of interest to survive

What will this build lose to?

  • Balanced defenses
  • Something that hits a good-sized area in one pass (peninsulas)
  • Short-pass defenses that kill most waves (except ones they're weak against) in one pass
  • People sitting on a small number of celerity/torrent towers *cough*, the ultimate wave clearers; coincidentally, the worst towers against the endless wave

What will this build will kill every single time:

  • Long-pass defenses are screwed. Period. Either the player needs to be able to adapt or they're screwed.

Some builds are really, really good at clearing the waves while racking up interest. My money tower build allows me to have 70-100k unspent gold at the end of the game. The problem? It's pretty crappy against the fruit round, unless I make certain adjustments which then make it vulnerable to a rush-kill build. Using Celerity or Torrent also pwn waves nicely. Rush-kill builds can kill waves nicely, but every time they run into a creep element/type they're weak to, it loses effectiveness. Not to mention rush-kill builds tend to not do so well on the endless wave, though there is a positioning that allows one to both rush kill and have long-pass, something especially vulnerable to waves its weak against, because by the time that wave comes around for the second pass, the next wave has already started. It's risky, but if pulled off successfully, it does fantastic on the endless wave.

I'm not even going to attempt to list the number of different builds in the game. Mathematically speaking, there's a maximum number that I forgot how to calculate, but needless to say, there are a LOT, and there's usually multiple ways to EFFECTIVELY use and utilize each one. This allows a whole new level of replayability, allowing players to find what builds can reach the end (hint: all of them can, even on Very Hard, some require higher skill levels than others), what order to get them, how to build things in order to get the most money without dying, what does the best on the endless wave, what rush kills, what lasts long, etc.

Element TD is equipped with multiple modes. You can choose between Wars (still experimental, might see another overhaul down the road) and Defense (standard), and within either, you can choose more modes:

  • Mazing vs. Non-Mazing - Non-mazing is the standard, creeps follow a predetermined path to get to the end. In mazing, you build your own maze around various checkpoints for creeps to go through. Yes, the game is balanced around non-mazing, so in mazing, some towers are definitely more powerful than others. However, there's also a TON of new strategies, maze designs, and other stuff that you can try out. Some builds work better in mazing than non-mazing. Personally, I find Mazing really awesome for Element TD.
  • Hero vs. Non-Hero - Non-hero is the standard. With Hero mode enabled, creeps are twice the strength, but you get an upgradable hero that goes around and kills stuff alongside your towers. This is more of a fun mode than anything.
  • Two-Man vs. FFA - FFA is the standard. In Two-Man mode, players divided into Two-Man teams. Creep strength is doubled, but teams share areas instead. Defenses in Two-Man are definitely stronger than lone players by the end-game due to more synergies between more support towers. In a nutshell, it adds EVEN MORE replayability and strategies to the game.
  • The best part? You can mix and match any of these.

There's also another set of modes available, assuming you didn't pick Wars mode:

  • Game type. The standard is Competitive; whoever clears the wave first causes the wave timer to start for others. Casual waits on the last player to clear the wave, or one that automatically starts after a long time. Race disables the interaction between players, so whoever clears wave 60 the fastest wins - long-pass defenses not recommended here. And then there's Extreme, which is Competitive except everyone only has 1 life, and there is no wait time between waves.
  • Difficulty. Thanks to a recent update, if you want to challenge yourself against other players in case you don't like how easy the voted difficulty setting is, you can type "-harder" at the start of the game to make it more difficult. The higher the difficulty, obviously the harder it is, but you gain more money overall (provided your skill is proficient enough) and you gain more points per kill on the endless wave.
  • Element choice. In All Pick, you can select each and every one of your elements. In Random, a random element is automatically summoned for you every 5 waves. This is where the most fun of the game is easily.
  • Wave order. Normal, there's a predefined wave order that goes through every element/type combo for creeps in a balanced order. In Chaos, it's completely randomized. Yes, I've seen 4 Water waves in a row before and saw a Fire-based defense that didn't have coverage get slaughtered. Chaos is also helpful for people that have played "too much Element TD" and have memorized the standard wave order of all 60 waves... *cough me*.
  • Game length. Normal, you go through all 60 waves. In short, you start with 3 element picks and 1000 gold at wave 16. In very short, you start with 6 element picks and 6000 gold at wave 31.
  • Both in part "for the lulz" and because I think it'd be really awesome if it ever actually happened, I always vote the following settings in every single game - Extreme, Very Hard, Same Random, Chaos, Very Short. Unfortunately, there are not nearly enough crazy people to actually vote those settings.

So that's a quick rundown of why Element TD is awesome. Well, quick relative to how much there truly is in the game. It's extremely balanced both in design and gameplay, with only a few tweaks that might need to be made down the road. It has a ridiculous amount of depth and replayability, even without playing around with various modes. It's unique both with the element system and that it's one of the few TD games that actually makes use of map design and tower position. It has a competitive side to it in multiplayer, albeit not as competitive as something like Squad TD or other PvP type games, but still on a substantial level.

About the only problem with Element TD is that it's hard to learn. As of a recent patch, the addition of a sandbox mode really helps out all players, both in testing things out and screwing around. Compared to a lot of other SC2 maps that are played a lot, it takes a lot more to really get into the full layer of depth that Element TD offers, but it's well worth it. Besides, this site contains lots of information for the game along with lots of guides along with players that are willing to help out newbies.

A huge thank you goes out to Karawasa for making the best Tower Defense game of all time. This is not an overstatement. More thank yous go out to the community support that has driven the game to a level of quality that parallels big-shot games nowadays that cost $60. This game, provided you have WC3 or SC2 (different version for each, though WC3 is getting a new version closer to SC2's version soon), is free. It was created with budget of an editor, a lot of time, and lot of feedback. At most, it's gotten donations, nothing more.

That's how awesome Element TD is. Those of you that play it, you know it. Those of you that haven't played it and want a good TD to play, go play it. Those of you that haven't played a TD before, what better way to introduce the genre than with the best of the best.

And holy crap, this turned out way longer than I thought it would. And that's with me excluding stuff, because there really is that much to talk about this game.

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