Defender, Chapter 10: Strategy

Defender, Chapter 10: Strategy

There is a fine line between tactics and strategy.  Tactics are individual maneuvers, like the swarmer follow move and mutant quick reverse.  Strategy is your overall approach to the game: how you set priorities and decide which opponents to pursue next.  A Defender player without sound strategy – and there are many such players – simply shoots at opponents as they appear on the screen.  Even if you’re a great tactical player, this approach will not bring you the success you deserve.  A well-planned strategy is the secret of successful Defender players, and in this chapter we’ll look at several different approaches.

In order to take a strategic look at the game of Defender, we must no longer concern ourselves with individual opponents and situations; it’s time now to take a step back and look at the game of Defender one or more waves at a time.  In fact, we’ll even be using a new term for the unit of time that these strategies cover: the block.  A block is five consecutive attack waves, starting with a wave when you get 10 new men, and is an important concept in Defender strategy.  (The number of waves in a block can be changed, but throughout this chapter we’ll assume that it’s five, the standard setting.)  Even if you aren’t getting through a single block yet, it’s important to think of the game in these terms.

Playing the higher waves

Before looking at the different strategies that can be used in the game of Defender, we need to develop a method for quickly and safely eliminating all of the opponents in an individual attack wave.  The correct approach to each attack wave can best be explained by a set of priorities that will help you decide which opponent to pursue when there are several possibilities. Chapter 1 gave some general hints for the first four attach waves, so we’ll only be concerned here with wave 5 and beyond – the higher waves.

The best order of priorities for getting through an attack wave is:

  1. bomb the pods
  2. shoot the landers
  3. shoot bombers
  4. break up leftover pods
  5. shoot mutants
  6. catch falling men
  7. shoot swarmers

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t shoot a swarmer until all of the first six priorities are completed; it just means that, given a choice between two or more of the above items, you should pursue the one with the higher priority.  Also, I should add that this list is not the only way to play Defender well, but it is the set of priorities followed by most good players with more than one man on the ground.  We’ll save the special case of defending a single man for later in this chapter.

The highest priority is bombing pods. Specifically, this means to bomb the four pods that appear in front of your ship at the beginning of an attack wave.  A clean bomb that catches all four pods can be worth up to 8200 points, so bombing the pods can earn up to 80% of an additional bomb.  In other words, the act of bombing pods has almost no effect on your total reserve of smart bombs; you will probably earn another bomb just by doing it.  To not bomb the pods at the beginning of the wave (because you’re low on bombs) is an error; doing so implies that you believe there is a better use for bombs, which is not true.  As explained in Chapter 5, you should bomb the pods even if you only get two of them (and you can always get the first two at the beginning of the wave).

There is another, more subtle, reason that you should bomb the pods at the beginning of the attack wave.  Bombing the pods will cause many of the landers to be hypered, which usually moves them farther away from the men they have chosen to pick up.  Bombing the pods, then, buys you a few extra seconds to clear out the landers before they begin picking up men.

The second priority on our list is shooting landers. The landers, as all of the opponents, must be eliminated during the attack wave, and landers are the only opponent that can become a bigger problem as the wave progresses (by turning into mutants), so they should be eliminated first.  Shooting the landers quickly will also keep you out of free space, because they won’t have time to pick up your men.

In Chapter 1, I recommended that beginning players move continuously to the right while shooting the landers.  This is good for beginners, because it forces them to keep moving around the planet.  An experienced player, however, should watch for opportunities to shoot the landers more quickly by flying to the left.  You should fly to the left if: (1) most of the landers are on the left half of the radar scanner; or (2) nearly all of the landers are moving to the right (away from you when you fly to the right).  Whenever you stop moving for any reason is a good time to check the possibility of starting out to the left instead of the right.

Whichever direction you are going, try to move at a speed that allows you to shoot every lander you come to.  The best speed will be determined by how accurately you can fire – the better shot you are, the faster you can fly while shooting landers.  Although you should move as fast as possible when shooting the landers, it’s better to slow down a little and hit ever one than to fly very quickly and miss some.

The next priority after landers is shooting bombers. This is because shooting leftover bombers at the end of a wave can be very time-consuming (and therefore baiter-generating).  Bombers are slower than either mutants or swarmers, and the don’t always move towards you, so it’s best not to have any bombers left when baiters start appearing at the end of the wave.

It is especially bad to have bombers moving both directions at the end of the wave, since some of them will be moving away from you no matter which way you fly.  If you don’t get the opportunity to shoot all five bombers while clearing out the landers, at least try to shoot all of them that are traveling in one direction.  Even if the attack wave has just begun, and there are many landers left, it’s worthwhile to turn around and backtrack slightly in order to shoot all of the bombers traveling in one direction.  (This is the only exception to the rule of never backtracking while shooting landers.)

The importance of breaking pods that were missed by the initial smart bomb is debatable; many players save those pods for last, so that there are fewer swarmers to deal with early in the attack wave (when there are plenty of other opponents to keep you busy).  Although this is not a bad approach, particularly if you have trouble shooting swarmers, I believe in breaking the pods early for four reasons: (1) It’s the only way to learn how to handle swarmers when the screen is very busy with opponents – swarmer paranoia is a common problem, best overcome by exposing yourself to difficult swarmer situations often; (2) Pods and bombers slow the machine down, and a slow machine – with opponents disappearing and reappearing all over the scanner – is the cause of many unpreventable collisions; (3) Pods move very slowly, and a single intact pod at the end of a wave can be a problem if it’s at the far end of the radar scanner and baiters have begin appearing – if you had broken the pod earlier, the swarmers would be flying toward you at the end of the wave; (4) unbroken pods decrease your total opponent count, causing baiters to begin appearing earlier.

Shooting mutants is the next priority. Try to get rid of all the mutants before baiters begin appearing, because baiters and mutants are a very dangerous combination.  The reason mutants are such a low priority is that good players usually don’t have any mutants left at the end of the wave, having shot all of them with the quick reverse during the wave.  The mutant quick reverse becomes so quick and automatic after enough practice that experienced players can shoot mutants without breaking the flow of the game.

The next priority is catching falling men. The reason this has such a low priority is that moving upward to shoot the lander carrying a man away takes your ship above the other landers.  Once you’re above the landers, it’s very difficult to get back down to the proper altitude because the landers are shooting upward and you must pass through their line of fire to get them in yours.  Although you will eventually be able to slip back into the groove of shooting landers, many landers can go by in the meantime.  Another reason not to try to catch every man that goes up is that there is a chance of being shot by the lander carrying the man, who often leaves a parting shot near the man when you shoot him.  Since a successful catch will net you at most 1000 points, it isn’t worth a substantial risk.  Of course, if your last man is going up, catching him is a top priority and these considerations are not important.

The last priority on our list is shooting swarmers.  It takes a long time to finish off a cloud of swarmers using the swarmer follow move, time that could better be used to shoot landers or bombers.  Also, it’s much better to have only swarmers left when baiters begin appearing than to have mutants or bombers to deal with.

If it’s possible to use the swarmer follow move in the direction that you need to shoot the landers quickly, go ahead and use it but continue to concentrate on shooting all of the landers in your path (see “Maintaining the Follow” in Chapter 5).  And be aware that maintaining the follow move will limit your speed to the swarmers’ speed, which is not as fast as most players are capable of flying while shooting landers.

Finishing the wave

If you follow the priorities outlined above while playing a wave, there should only be swarmers or bombers or both left at the end of the wave.  If you fly quickly and fire accurately throughout the attack wave, you may finish the wave before any baiters appear, but this is rare.  Once baiters have begun appearing, your first priority should be to eliminate all of the swarmers or all of the bombers, so that you only have one class of opponents left if you get blown up before finishing the wave.  If you have a choice, try to eliminate the bombers first.  If you leave bombers instead of swarmers, they could be moving either direction when they reappear, and you won’t know which way to go when your ship appears (remember that your ship appears about a second before the remaining opponents appear).  Of course, you can predict the bombers’ direction (as discussed in Chapter 6), but few players are willing to go through that much trouble.

Pay careful attention to which way the bombers are moving as you near the end of the wave, so you can quickly choose which direction to fly to meet them.  If there are also swarmers left, try to follow the swarmers in the opposite of the direction the bombers are moving, so that you will be moving toward the bombers.  For example, if the bombers are moving to the left you should move to the left until you get to the swarmers, then turn and follow them back to the swarmers, then turn and follow them back into the bombers.

If the swarmers are very close to the bombers and behind them, follow the swarmers in the same direction the bombers are moving; swarmers move fast enough to overtake the bombers in this situation.

If you run into something when you only have swarmers left in the wave, they will reappear at the far left edge of the scanner.  You can either fly to the right or left to get to them; it’s about the same distance either way.  I prefer flying to the right, because you can hold down the thrust before your ship even appears, eliminating the possibility of a fumble if you have to turn around first.

Now that we know how to play and finish a wave, let’s look at the game of Defender in even bigger terms – the strategy for each block of five waves.

Requirements of sound Defender strategy

What is sound Defender strategy?  To answer this question, let’s look at the goals that must be met in order to reach a high score.  First and most important is staying alive – this is what keeps the game going.  A second goal, closely related to the first, is to score points; because of the design of the game, it’s impossible to stay alive for a long time in Defender without scoring many points, and if you can score 10,000 or more points on every turn, your game will never end.

After these first two goals of Defender strategy, the list becomes less clear.  Most players would put avoiding free space next, but I think this is overemphasized.  As we have already seen (in Chapter 9), players who master free space have nothing to fear from it, and avoiding free space would be low on their list of priorities.  Of course, defending your men is the goal of Defender by definition, but we need not let that impress us.

Additional goals of a good Defender strategy might include maximizing the bonus for each wave, saving smart bombs, and avoiding unnecessary risks.  The strategies described below all fulfill each of these goals to one degree or another.  The most important of the differences among them is the degree to which they protect you from free space, a goal whose value can vary greatly from player to player.

Basic strategy

The approach we will call basic strategy is the approach used by most Defender players.  And well it should be, since basic strategy is playing Defender the way it was meant to be played: flying around the planet, shooting landers as quickly as possible, and catching and landing men whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Playing basic strategy requires that you pay close attention to the humanoids on the radar scanner; when your last man is going up, you should rescue him, set him down, and fight off the remaining landers. After shooting all of the landers – assuring the safety of that last man – you can turn your attention to bombers, pods, and swarmers.  Because of this concern with saving men, basic strategy requires that eliminating the landers be your first goal in each wave; you should adhere to the priorities listed at the beginning of this chapter.

There are two advantages to basic strategy.  First is that it will keep even an inattentive player out of free space most of the time.  If you’re quick shooting landers, more than one man will last through each five waves and you’ll never have problems with free space.  The next advantage of basic strategy is that it maximizes the value of each wave.  By saving as many men as possible, and by setting down a man whenever you catch him, you can make each of the higher waves worth as much as 20,000 points.  These extra points add to your score and earn extra ships and smart bombs.

There are some disadvantages to basic strategy, however.  First is that it requires you to watch the humanoids on the radar scanner.  This distracts you from the main screen.  Second is that you will get mutants in one or more waves of each block.  These mutants won’t pose a big problem to experienced players, but they can slow the game down, because the mutant quick reverse and other mutant moves require you to reverse, let off the thrust, or even stop.  The most important problem with the basic strategy is that it is the most dangerous.  Because of the added distractions of watching or counting your remaining men and shooting mutants, basic strategy will cause you to make many fatal mistakes.  Although this is partially made up for by the extra points earned in each wave, basic strategy is not the best for some players.

Basic strategy, then, should only be used by beginning players and poor free space players.  For more experienced players, the next two strategies will be quicker and more effective.

Intermediate strategy

The next strategy we will consider is similar to basic strategy for the first two or three waves of a block.  The difference is that, after there are four or less men remaining, you should shoot all but one of them.  Then wait for a lander to pick up the last man, shoot the lander, and carry the man away.  Rather than set the man down, you simply fly along with him, shooting the remaining landers.  If you die while carrying the man, he will be safe on the ground at the start of your next turn.

When you decide to shoot all of your men except one, give some thought to which man you save.  If there are many swarmers left in the wave, you may want to save a man close to the swarmer reverse line.  If one of the men is directly under the big mountain, don’t choose him to save, because it is difficult to make a catch in heavy traffic there.

This strategy has many advantages over the basic strategy.  The only way you’ll go into free space is to accidentally shoot your last man.  The last two or three waves in each block are greatly sped up, since you can fly wherever you want with the last man aboard, no longer tied down to his position.  Also, shooting three or more of your own men means that there will be that many fewer mutants to deal with in each block.

The biggest disadvantage of this strategy is that the first two waves of a block still have the same distractions as basic strategy.  Knowing that, it should be easy to see the step to the final, optimum strategy: shoot nine of the ten men as soon as you get them.

Advanced strategy

This advanced strategy eliminates all of the problems inherent in basic strategy.  There is no longer any need to watch the men on the radar scanner, since you always know that you have just one.  Mutants (except in free space) are completely eliminated.  And, most importantly, all five waves in a block can be finished very quickly while flying with your last man.  The only problem with the advanced strategy is that an error during the first wave in a block (shooting your last man) could bring on the five full waves of free space.  If you’re careful while shooting your men, this should rarely happen.

The only prerequisite for using advanced strategy is good free space play, so if you accidentally shoot all ten men when you get them you won’t lose all of your ships and bombs getting through that block.  Practice free space by shooting all of your men at the start of the 1st, 5th, and 10th waves.  Once you’re able to get through fifteen or more waves of free space, you can safely use the advanced strategy.

Shooting men

Shooting your own men can be dangerous.  This is because bombers and swarmers can wrap around and kill you while you’re flying along the bottom edge of the screen.  The bomber problem is worst at the bomber intersection point, where the lower part of the screen can become very crowded with bombers and mines.  Although you will probably run into them while trying to shoot your men at first, don’t get frustrated and revert back to basic strategy.  The advanced strategy is actually much safer than basic strategy; strange as it sounds, the hardest part is shooting the defenseless humanoids.

When you shoot the men at the start of an attack waves, don’t be so anxious to get started that you forget to bomb the pods.  Also, watch the radar so that you know when you’re at the last group of men.  Then count your shots carefully; if there are three men in a group, make sure you only fire twice.

Protecting your last man

Regardless of which strategy you use, you will almost always end up with only one man left before the end of a block.  At this point, there are three different things you can do: stay over the man and protect him, pick him up and fly with him, or do laps all of the way around the planet, getting back in time to save him each time.

Staying over a man and protecting him is a good idea when there are many landers coming from both directions.  By not letting any of the landers pick the man up, you can stay down low and clear out all of the landers.  If you let a lander pick up the man so you can carry him, some of the landers might get by while you’re up in the air.  Instead, stay right over the man and shoot the landers as they arrive on the screen.  Reverse often, shooting a few at a time from each side.

Another good time to stay over your last man is when he is on or in front of the planet’s big mountain.  A catch in heavy traffic is very difficult here, because there is such a small space between the terrain and the top of the screen.  If a lander does pick up the man, however, you should let him get close to the top of the screen before shooting him, so you have more room for a catch.  If you shoot the lander too soon, and the man falls back to the mountaintop, he will still be in a position where you might accidentally shoot him.

Carrying your last man

If the landers are spread out around the planet, you may want to pick up your last man and fly with him.  To do this, just wait near him for a lander to come along.  When the lander picks the man up, let him get a good distance above the terrain before you shoot him, so you don’t accidentally set the man down while catching him.

Flying with your last man will require some practice at first.  The idea is to fly as close to the planet’s terrain as possible without setting him down, so you can shoot landers.  If you do accidentally set the man down, it usually happens on a peak in a terrain, where you may accidentally shoot him.  This is especially a problem around the big mountain, so practice sliding down the back side of the mountain as described in Chapter 3, even when you aren’t carrying a man.

One important thing to remember about carrying your last man is that you are free to shoot your opponents in whatever order you like; landers are a low priority, because there are no men on the planet for them to pick up.  In fact, landers should now be your last priority.  By eliminating all of the swarmers and bombers early in the wave, you are assured of only landers when baiters start coming out, and landers are by far the easiest opponent to shoot with baiters around.  Your priorities, then, should be:

  1. bomb the pods
  2. break missed pods/shoot swarmers
  3. shoot bombers
  4. shoot landers

Doing laps

In addition to carrying your last man or protecting him, there is another possible approach to the last-man game: doing laps.  Doing laps means to leave your last man and go all of the way around the world, getting back before a lander picks him up or at least in time to save him from a lander’s grasp.  Doing laps is only useful in certain situations, and the trick is to recognize these situations.  When all of the landers to the left of your last man are moving left, that’s the time to do a lap to the right.  Go around the world as quickly as possible, and never miss a lander moving left (he could get back to the man before you do).  It also helps to start your lap as soon as a group of five landers has beamed in, so that you will be as close as possible to the man if one of the landers in the next group appears directly over him.

These three different ways of taking care of your last man (protecting him, carrying him, and doing laps) should be mastered individually, and then used in combination.  Watch the position and motion of the landers as they appear, to decide which one to use first.  Usually you’ll end up doing a lap or protecting your last man to shoot as many landers as possible at the start of the wave.  Then, if a lander manages to get a hold of the man, you can catch him and fly with him to finish off the bombers, swarmers, and remaining landers.  By reacting to the landers and intelligently combining these three methods of protecting your last man, you will be able to finish every wave quickly and smoothly.

Shooting humanoids – ethical considerations

PTAs and concerned housewives might object to a video game strategy that requires you to shoot humanoids – they don’t need to play that one backwards to find the subliminal approval of violence.  But, zealous as anti-video game fanatics are, they probably won’t be the first ones to complain when you start playing Defender with the strategy outlined in this chapter.  It will be other Defender players, some of whom will tell you that shooting your own men is “cheap” or even cheating.  These players often compare it to lurking in Asteroids, where you don’t shoot the last rock and just wait for 1000-point saucers to come out.

Shooting your men is definitely not cheating – it just raises the stakes of the game.  If you don’t shoot your men, the chance of putting together a good long turn of several waves is very small; equally small is the chance of going into free space.  By shooting your men, you make it easier to have long turns and build up extra ships, but a single error at the start of a block can be very costly – five waves of free space in a row.