The greatest horror to befall popular culture in the last decade is not Michael Bublé, as is commonly believed. It is another Michael B entirely, and one infinitely more dangerous. Michael Bay’s Transformers movies were, somehow, some of the biggest box-office grossing movies of all time, you see. This means a generation of young and/or money-hungry creators are convinced that the path to riches is to include spiky metal insecty things with pallid neon bits invading cyan-hued American cities, accompanied by a boomy orchestral soundtrack. We’ve just seen it in Crysis 3, and now 11-bit’s tower-defence-in-reverse sequel Anomaly 2‘s at it. It’s not right. Why can’t game artists be inspired by Czech animation, Swedish architecture and Fleetwood Mac instead? I’d play the hell out of a game about asymmetrical clay bears trashing Malmo while Go Your Own Way plays.
BUT ANYWAY. Bayisms aside, the four levels of early Anomaly 2 code I’ve played suggest good things, building upon the RTS aspect of the tower-dodging action.
Here’s the thematic concept: Earth got itself invaded by aliens, which look like giant metal snakes, giant metal crabs, giant metal spiders and other giant metal animals-that-people-don’t-like-much. For Reasons, these aliens are rooted to the spot, becoming deadly, laser-spewing sentinels which guard the city streets and nobble any human life which passes. You are Ian Military or someone, in charge of a small rebel army, scouring the ruins for gizmos and doohickeys with which to beat the invaders. It looks very shiny, high-tech and explodey, in its desaturated way.
So far, so Anomaly the First. Similarly, your task as a player is to deploy, navigate, upgrade and repair a small force of vehicles with which to take out and survive the alien towers. There’s not much direct control, as you plan a route for these guys in a pause-time map mode, then they basically drive themselves along it. Most of the strategy is in that map view though, as you’re assessing which is either the route of least resistance or, if you’re all about maximising the win, which will earn you the most points. In this sequel, two new additions to the Anomaly formula help make you that much more involved in the real-time action.
Important I-am-idiot update: I have only played the iPad version of Anomaly 1, in which there is only a cursor and no commander-guy. Apparently there is in the PC version. So, yeah, sorry. Firstly, you’re no longer a cursor, but a dude. A little in-game dude, darting about the place, collecting power-ups and getting shot at. Ian Military is essentially a cursor with legs rather than a truly active unit, but it makes an agreeable difference. He’s pretty hard to kill, as his health regenerates faster than Lance Armstrong’s (too soon?), but leave him stood in a death-ray for too long and he’ll be out of action for a few seconds, and thus unable to deploy the repair, distract and disable abilities/pick-ups which are utterly vital to keeping your units alive.
He’ll pop back to life soon enough, but slain tanks will not. Additionally, where before you could just click wherever you liked to instantly place an ability – e.g. a repair one a few steps ahead of your units – now Ian Military needs to run to the spot in question. So if he’s idly around a few city blocks away, your tanks will probably be dead by the time he finally turns up with his magic spanner icon.
Secondly, your units can transform, in what I will brazenly guess is another hint of this game’s debt to Michael bloody Bay. With only four levels and two types of unit to play with in this code I don’t know if the formula will span everything in the game, but essentially vehicles switch from ranged mode to close-ish combat. So your basic tank has a machine gun which fires faster and faster the longer it’s active for (leading to an additional sub-strategy wherein you try and get them to the next enemy as quickly as possible, while their guns are still at maximum bullet-rain), but doesn’t do them much good if they’re surrounded by enemies on multiple sides. So click the morph button and they grow a pair (of legs) and dual-wield short-range but multi-directional flamethrowers.
Your long-range artillery cannon thingies, meanwhile, can basically only shoot straight forwards, which suggests to me that the human resistance really should find some better vehicle designers, but never mind. These are high-damage and, with smart planning, can take out some turrets long before you’re in range of their death-rays, but they’re like a horse wearing blinkers if anything’s either side of them. So, click the Bay button and then turn into crawly things which slowly spew rockets in any direction they like. Just don’t forget to switch them back once they’ve turned a corner and there’s an enemy straight ahead.
It’s the combination of these two elements, Ian Military and the Bay Button, which makes Anomaly 2 markedly different not just from Anomaly 1, but also from tower defence in general. While the series has always been an inversion of that oft-abused genre, in the first game it did nonetheless evoke the indirect control and watching, waiting aspect of traditional tower defence. Here, you’re right in there yourself all the time – darting your little guy around manically as the tanks do their own thing, and rapid-fire switching vehicle modes as the alien threat regularly changes type and position.
It’s also hard. Not Dark Souls hard, but with just enough sadism in the tank to keep it tricky and requiring brain use even at moderate difficulty. And that’s just on level four, so I look forward to seeing how devilish it gets on later levels. Which I definitely want to play, even if the art style’s leaving me a tad cold. It feels as though the already-engaging Anomaly’s now evolved meaningfully past “wouldn’t it be cool if we did tower defence inverted?” and into a distinctive, high-engagement RTS of its own. We need more of that, quite frankly.
Anomaly 2 is out later this year.