Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Anomaly: Warzone Earth, or The Best Defense is a Good Offense

Anomaly Warzone Earth.pcTower defense as a genre has exploded in the last ten years. Map mods for Blizzard real-time strategy games like Starcraft and Warcraft III afforded people to rapidly iterate on a simple formula: build stationary defenses to stop enemies from progressing across a map. The simplicity of the basic idea means it can be taken in a variety of directions, but it’s rare that a game puts the whole thing in reverse.

11 bit Studios’ Anomaly: Warzone Earth tasks you with investigating alien crash sites in Baghdad and Tokyo. You guide a convoy of military vehicles down the rubble-strewn streets, picking routes on abstracted city grids. Alien towers soon begin springing up, and you must take them out to continue. Of course, this is all set just dressing for an innovative inversion of tower defense.

Choosing your path is just as important as what you do along it, and it isn’t long before Anomaly abandons the linearity of traditional tower defense, instead offering up a latticework of paths on which to destroy your enemy.  Your squad – a mix of missile-firing crawlers, tanks, and transports – fire automatically at enemy towers within range, so positioning is crucial. Some towers need to be flanked. Some paths offer extra cash to spend on upgrades and more vehicles. Crafting a good path is always the best challenge in tower defense, and kudos to Anomaly for finding a similar challenge coming from the opposite side.

Instead of controlling the convoy directly, you control an infantry commander who runs around and provides support to the vehicles. You can drop area of effect abilities that will repair your convoy, distract enemy towers, and even call in the occasional airstrike. You are the medic, the recon guy, and the head cheerleader all in one. (How he can run faster than the fancy future tanks is beyond me, but I guess I shouldn’t worry about that.)

Moving the player from a somewhat passive and formless Omniscient Commander role into a somewhat active On The Battlefield role is not new to tower defense, but it is integral to Anomaly being any fun at all. Without a player avatar, it’d just be a lot of sitting and watching tanks roll down streets (which is a huge component of the game as it is). The later towers that actually impede your ability to assist the convoy magnify the codependence between you and your squad. All that difficulty might have been solved by giving the commander an actual weapon, even a pistol from the dollar store, but that wouldn’t gel with Anomaly’s touch-friendly controls.

I played Anomaly on PC, but I’d play it on an iPad if I owned one. You can feel the iOS influence in the limited camera controls, the elegant large-icon menus, and the simple control scheme. The commander handling in particular has its drawbacks on PC. Playing with a mouse, I would occasionally steer my commander wrong, simply because I expected it to feel snappier, more like a Starcraft. On a touchscreen, I imagine I’d be a bit more thoughtful with my commands, and the controls would feel more precise.

Despite the fun of choosing routes and controlling the commander, Anomaly is still capable of inducing a certain amount of tower defense fatigue. The pace is unfortunately constant. There will be flurries of activity when you encounter junctions crowded with the enemy, but your forward march never changes speed or temperament. A fast-forward button alleviates the boredom of moving on once you’re sure of your destination, but that only changes game speed, not the odometer on your APC.

Within missions, this isn’t much of a problem. The aforementioned commander abilities liven up encounters and the selection of routes requires constant risk vs. reward calculations. Play a few too many missions in a row, however, and it may wear on you. It did on me, anyways. Anomaly’s story about crash-landing aliens does a decent job providing context for the gameplay, but it won’t spur you on to the next mission.

Ironically, the grinding pace means that, to enjoy Anomaly the most, you should take it slow. Take breaks. Appreciate the excellent graphics that will banish the word “budget” from your mind. Carve out individual play sessions for the wave-based challenge modes. Get it for a mobile device and do a few deployments each commute.

Anomaly: Warzone Earth proves that the old tower defense dog can learn a few new tricks. Just don’t power through it or you might draw the erroneous conclusion that this game isn’t as good as it is.

You can purchase Anomaly: Warzone Earth for $9.99 on PC or Mac (more info here). An iOS version of the game will be available in the near future.