Last year, a small European outfit named 11bit Studios released a reverse tower defense game, Anomaly: Warzone Earth, on the PC, and it was good. By having you control the convoy instead of the towers, it turned the tables on what people expected from a tower defense title while the solid gameplay and mechanics made it a great game. The game has made its way to both iOS and Android, and now, almost a year after its first release, it debuts on a console via Xbox Live Arcade.
The plot is as typical as they come and could be mistaken for that of just about any modern sci-fi shooter. It is set in the near future, when an unidentified object comes crashing down toward Earth. Before impact, the object splits into two and lands in Baghdad and Tokyo. Very little is known about the object, which is now called the Anomaly, except that it appears to be a fragment of an alien ship, and it's surrounded by a large red energy shield. As the commander of the 14th platoon, your task is to get inside the Anomaly and see what is going on.
The core of Anomaly: Warzone Earth revolves around basic tower defense principles. A convoy of troops tries to get from one checkpoint to another while strategically placed weapons towers unleash all the firepower they can to destroy the convoy. Most games have you laying down towers and getting funds to build more towers as wave after wave of the convoy gets eliminated. The roles are reversed here, so you play as the convoy while your enemy is the alien force laying down towers along your route.
That change brings with it some other gameplay differences. Instead of being given wave after wave to attack the enemy, you only have one convoy and must try to get at least one member to the designated zone. Unlike other games of this type, the convoy can fight back by destroying towers along its path. Different defensive and offensive units can be mixed in with the convoy, but it can only be a maximum of six units long. Units can be bought and sold on the fly and arranged in any order. Your route is also dynamic, so you can change the convoy's direction at each intersection instead of toughing it out on a fixed route.
Instead of controlling an omnipotent being who cares for the convoy, you play the role of the squad commander, who is physically on the battlefield. In addition to being the one who calls in units and changes routes, he has a few other important tasks. He can repair units on the field, though he has to ensure the units fall into the area from which he deploys the power. He can deploy smoke screens to lower the tower's visibility and unleash decoys to draw fire away from the convoy forces. He can also guide air strikes should the defenses prove to be too much for the convoy to handle. The advantages, while great, do come with some drawbacks. The commander cannot be killed, but he can still be incapacitated by enemy towers. He also can't attack or defend the convoy on his own. While the tools at his disposal are powerful, they aren't limitless; since air drops are inaccurate, it's up to you to venture from the designated path to pick up dropped items and replenish your supply.
All of these elements come together well to form the kind of jolt the genre has needed for some time. You have to constantly stay on your toes instead of just sitting back and letting things happen. Paths become dynamic since you want to strike a balance between harvesting elements and destroying towers while taking on a minimum amount of damage. You learn how to maximize your healing and defensive strategies because later missions have fewer resources. Additionally, different enemies call for different unit formations, so keeping one formation throughout the game is near impossible. It's a very active tower defense game that keeps the player engaged throughout the whole campaign.
The game still runs a bit short. Story mode is comprised of 14 challenging levels, and there's the Squad Assault mode, which takes some of the levels and puts you in something akin to Survival mode. For Xbox 360 players, Tactical Trials are the exclusive addition to the package, and even though there are only six missions to tackle, they require more thought and planning than the other modes. Different enemy placement and restrictions on your resources make these levels challenging for veterans of the game's earlier incarnations. Even though this version runs longer than both the mobile and PC iterations, it would be nice to see some downloadable content .
The controls are quite simple, especially since they were available on the PC and were specifically mapped with the Xbox 360 controller in mind. The left analog stick controls the commander, and the right analog stick controls the camera. The Y button brings up the map and route while the A button brings up the abilities menu. The X button handles the shop and convoy arrangement, the triggers handle timer speed, and the bumpers deal with camera zoom. By having the commander act as your cursor, the transition from PC to console feels seamless.
The graphics are quite surprising. The amount of detail in the environments is great, and the cars and abandoned buildings looking rather good. Shadowing is well done, and the constant dust storms and Anomaly interference make for a beautiful and bleak atmosphere. Even though the environments are filled with the necessary but constant grays and browns, both the enemy and friendly units stand out because of their brightly colored outlines; it's a very good decision considering how easy it would've been for those moving parts to get lost on-screen. The only noticeable flaw is the frame rate flipping. The game runs at 30 frames most of the time, but it'll go to 60 with nothing happening. It is a minor gaffe that not many people will notice. Though the PC version is best when it comes to overall look thanks to the higher resolutions, the Xbox 360 port handles itself well.
The sound is relatively weak compared to the game's other technical aspects. Much of the blame falls on the voices. The British accents fit in well, but the lines remain predictable and trite. The delivery doesn't do anything to give the dialogue any punch, so you can expect lines of victory and defeat to be delivered flatly. It also doesn't help that there's little variation in the voices, so it always sounds like one person is performing every role in the game. Thankfully, the other sound elements fare much better. Effects, such as gunfire and drop-ships zooming by, come through clearly, and although the music hits the same chords and tempo expected from any shooting game, it still fits in perfectly with the title.
Anomaly: Warzone Earth is an exciting strategy game that enthusiasts and casual fans should play. The role reversal does wonders in making tower defense feel fresh again; route and formation planning are excellent replacements for guiding enemies in other games. The ability to control an on-screen commander who has to worry about a myriad of things certainly adds a new wrinkle to the proceedings and ensures no lulls in game activity. The great controls and graphics make up for the sound issues, and the length and difficulty of the game feel spot-on. With the game available on more than one platform, that's one more chance for people to try it out.
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