11 Bit Studios' clever (and budget-priced) tower-defence-in-reverse game, Anomaly – Warzone Earth, is out today! The concept and presentation look neat, but is it a towering inferno, or a creepy cinder? What does that mean? I just don't know. I've been up all night playing videogames. But that won't let stop me telling you wot I think...
It's an interesting experience when something appears at first glance to be quite familiar, but actually turns out to be entirely unfamiliar. The experiential equivalent of From Dusk Til Dawn, if you didn't realise it was a vampire movie. (Which is quite a thing to behold if you can convince someone the film is a straight up heist movie before they watch it...) Anyway, that's what happens with Anomaly, which looks like a tower defence game, but is actually tower defence in reverse. You think you know what to expect, but in this case you are the invading creeps, and the towers are your enemies, trying as best as they can to kill you up from the world.
The titular Anomaly is the result of an alien spacecraft breaking up and crashing onto the earth. It's a big bubble of weird that has landed in cities across the globe, and you have to go in and deal with whatever is inside it by poking it with some soldiers. What is inside it is alien stuff. And gun towers. The concept for dealing with the towers is this: you control a tiny man, who runs along next to a convoy of vehicles. He is the commander. Using a map screen you can plan the route of the vehicles, but not what they shoot at or how fast they move. They always move at the same pace, which is slow (unless you hit the speed-up-time key to make them move slightly faster). The vehicles shoot at the towers as they come along, and eventually the towers are destroyed. The slow pace of the vehicles gives the commander a chance to aid the convoy with a series of area effect power-ups. Without the use of these power-ups they will surely die.
For example, one power-up simple repairs your vehicles. You set it off, they drive through it, and damage to them is repaired. Another creates smoke, so that towers can't shoot directly at the vehicles, but only in their general direction. Another still creates a decoy that makes all the nearby towers shoot at it. The final one is an air-strike: useful for dealing with towers that you don't want your team of rambling vehicles to have to face. When things get really hellish you might be firing off a couple of power ups at once – smoke to reduce the damage taken, repair to keep them buffed up. As towers are destroyed by the fire from your convoy, then new power ups will drop, and you'll have to dash to collect them. The commander can take damage too, although he's self-healing, and difficult to get into too much trouble.
Aside from power-ups and route-management, there is one other thing to think about: the convoy itself. As you travel you are able to collect up some alien resources to earn cash. This allows you to fit out your convoy with either more vehicles or upgraded vehicles. Finding a balance which suits your tastes is the challenge, although I suspect there is a very definite optimal set up for any given convoy. Having an APC or tank at the front, for example, means you can soak more damage. The cash thing also means that you might want to plot more difficulty or more lengthy routes through the city so that you can pass - and therefore collect – the deposits of resource. Having a well upgraded convoy is, ultimately, more satisfying than having simply beaten the level by choosing the route of least resistance.
While overall the game escalates pleasingly, the pacing of Anomaly occasionally gets me down, because it's constant, and slowish. Not slow like a snail, but more like a conversation where you want the person to skip to the end. Sometimes you have to circle a block, perhaps, if you destruction has been inefficient, and that feels like a bit of my life getting away. In fact the constant pace of the game felt a little, I don't know, constrained, maybe? Like when you are stuck behind a driver who is crawling along but you should be doing twice that speed? When the game is hectic and you are rushing about with the commander then it's great, and truly engaging, but that only happens occasionally, and there are big lulls. I also felt that the game could have been a bit more inventive with its challenges. It became pretty obvious how to get through everything after the first couple of hours. I was also livid that the route changes I made were always reset when I failed a level. This is, of course, because the only point the game saves is at checkpoints, and I made changes after each checkpoint, but having to do it over and over – especially on the more convoluted maps – did cause me to grumble in a vocal way that made my cats move into the other room.
Getting through the game, which will take about six hours, unlocks some extra “endless” game modes in Baghdad and Tokyo, which allows you to drive a convoy around while the baddy turrets spawn all over the place. So that might keep you entertained if you are desperate for more. As for difficulty, well, I found the “advanced” middle level (read “normal”) to be pretty competently balanced, with a very occasional spike to make me, as metioned, hiss like some kind of threatened animal. Anomaly is a novel idea, and well executed.
Now we can conjure a conclusion: I would conclude, spining the wheels on the Conclud-o-matic 2000, that this a rather decent budget title. Just about the appropriate sort of length to digest in a couple of sittings, with the right kind of “oh this is a bit different” to make you feel like life isn't all the same action RPG. Anomaly isn't exactly going to fundamentally change our collective consciousness, and I'd be surprised if anyone bothered to copy or remember it, but it's that kind of pleasant challenge – like say Defense Grid – that manages to be both well-presented and consistent. And that makes for a satisfied Jim Rossignol. Well done, I say.