|Anomaly: Warzone Earth|
|Platforms||PC, Mac, iOS, Kindle Fire|
|Genre||Reverse Tower Defense|
If someone tells you they're going to do a "reverse" something, odds are
the result will be terrible. The concept sounds similarly cheesy for
games, evoking memories of bad minigames and multiplayer modes.
However, for some genres it actually could be a fresh take on the
concept, and 11-Bit Studios
tries to prove this with their "reverse tower defense" game, Anomaly:
Warzone Earth. 11-Bit is a brand new developer out of Poland, powered
by a small team of industry veterans. It appears that they've taken an
independent mindset towards publishing and distributing, releasing
Anomaly directly to Steam and the Mac Store. Thus far, they seem to be
having a good deal of success and are proving capable in quickly porting
their game to new platforms, including iOS, Kindle Fire (!) and an upcoming XBLA release.
I suppose this is as good a time as any to come clean about why I played this game. Steam just had their annual Christmas sale and with it, a series of achievement challenges in which players could win "fantastic prizes." And free games! And amazing coupons! All for simply playing/buying games and unlocking Christmas achievements. Well, I got absolutely nothing of worth in the giveaway, but it did at least encourage me to play some of the games I've come to own through various sales and indie bundles. Anomaly: Warzone Earth was one of those games, and after trying it, I felt it compelling enough to see all the way through. The Steam holiday challenge was enough to encourage my 'first hour' of sorts.
Before I get into the game, it may be a good idea to explain the concept of tower defense and this concept of reverse tower defense. Tower defense games generally consist of the player defending against hordes of streaming enemies. You need to prevent the enemies from reaching their goal, and you do so by setting up a proper army of stationary attack towers to destroy enemies as they pass through. In a reverse tower defense, you are the invading force. In Anomaly, you take armed vehicles through cities taken over by alien structures to reach objectives and stop the threat. Your convoy is allowed relatively free reign over the path they take to their destination, at least moreso in later levels. All open roads are fair game, players are not stuck on one path as in traditional tower defense. More modern tower defense games, including Anomaly, include a 'player' character, which is able to attack or support or have other functions on their own. This player character fixes the often-overwhelming passivity problem in tower defense, as solid setups can regularly destroy waves with no extra interaction needed. Before playing, I also wasn't sure what to think about reverse tower defense because it seemed like it would be very defensive as you tried to survive rather than attack. Thankfully this was not the case, as I quickly learned once starting the game.
The positives that immediately jumped out to me were: stage lengths that corresponded very well for casual play, a slick UI with solid controls, surprisingly high production values, and fully integrated online rankings. The first was probably the most important to me as I already had a timesink on my hands in Skyrim. Each stage takes some time, but not too much time. So you end up satisfied in your game advancement while not feeling like you need to set aside a huge chunk of time to get things done. The levels are presented in a very episodic format, with an introduction sequence, the meat of the level (often with one or more 'events'), and an ending. All the gameplay is accompanied by a simple yet amazingly slick and functional UI that lets players easily add/sell/upgrade units in their convoy. The player character is incredibly important in this game, dropping repair kits, portable fog generators, decoys and airstrikes. All these functions are easily controlled in the UI. The only improvement I would've liked to see is the ability to switch paths on the fly, as it didn't feel necessary to go back into a menu for something so simple and seemingly natural.
Perhaps most impressive on the surface are the production values. From top the bottom, the game looks and sounds nice. Starting with the intro fmv and continuing with flawless "realistic" visuals and full voice acting throughout the game, Anomaly sets itself apart from the traditionally low-budget and often visually basic fantasy-style games that dominate the genre. The music is also excellent despite having a limited number of tracks. Topping things off, online score integration is built into the stage-select UI as an excellent touch. I'm a huge proponent of properly designed and competitive online score attack modes, where-ever it makes sense. Proper score attack is a huge incentive for players to get better and continue to play their game and truly get the most out of their investment. Similarly, it lets developers show off and stretch their legs in displaying how deep (or lacking) their engine is.
However, as one would almost expect, some issues do arise in Anomaly which detract from its total package. First, the game's checkpoint system has some issues. Each stage is fairly long and each have multiple checkpoints. You can return to your last checkpoint at any time along with restarting the level. Unfortunately, the nature of the game is one of building and upgrading your precious few vehicles along with proper use of consumables. Thus if you get yourself into a bad situation what a bad checkpoint, you may be forced to either restart the level or burn all your consumables and get lucky just to keep going. I personally became stuck in this situation several times and each was very frustrating. A good solution could be to keep all checkpoints in memory during main gameplay and let players revert to any of them so all the time they've spent thus far doesn't have to be wasted if they get trapped in a bad checkpoint. Of course, this also could make score attacking a bit trivial, so I'd also recommend a sort of 'hardcore' difficulty for score attack that has higher multipliers but no checkpoints whatsoever.
Along with the checkpoints, the game could use a faster speedup function. Speedups are more or less a necessary animal for tower defense games as the right setups can play themselves. In games with a player character, it's not so much of an issue as the player would naturally be more involved. However, with all the different paths and routes, Anomaly encourages the player to backtrack to pick up extra kills and resources to bolster their convoy, and this can be painfully slow. The game's speedup function seems to move at about double speed and you could easily introduce another speedup that further doubles that to make the slow-moving convoy a bit more bearable as it backtracks across the map and back just to pick up the last few straggling resources and points.
Also, as with many tower defense games, winning combinations can be a bit too straightforward. Anomaly has a decent variety of units, but it's still a fairly limited number and some combinations are clearly better than others. Most traditional tower defense games are more open and allow more creativity by nature. More unit types, better balancing and perhaps even a little better semblance of tower AI (for example, a tower type that only attacks a certain type of unit) could go a long way to make the game more involving. The player character's consumables also leave a bit to be desired. Namely, they're incredibly powerful and pushes game balance a bit too much on consumable management and perfect consumable positioning rather than proper convoy makeup. In later levels, you'll often find yourself blindly throwing around consumables in extremely packed and dangerous enemy tower setups because that's all you can do. Your convoy has absolutely no chance in many situations without liberal use of consumables. In all, it feels like a better game balance could be struck, creating the game with a better overall linear difficulty and pace and more creativity without needing to toss your consumables around everytime you encounter a group of towers.
While the game is extremely technically sound at this time, it still has a couple issues which could be addressed. First, I encountered a bug where scores would not upload if you previously played the stage while offline. I brought this to the developer's attention and they seemed to have confirmed it as a bug and are looking into it. Also, while the game plays perfectly at a smooth 100fps on my 120hz monitor, it seems to take the lower of the possible reported refresh rates from the display, which is disappointing and could cause more significant problems on other setups where things don't work out perfectly as expected. However, overall the game runs near-flawless, and these issues are relatively minor.
In all, Anomaly: Warzone Earth is a fantastic first effort by the young startup, which clearly well used their years of experience and connections in creating an amazingly polished and solid game on their first attempt. Anomaly doesn't quite match Trine for impressive achievements by a small indie staff, but it's not too far off either. I'm definitely looking forward to what this talented team can come up with in the future. Anomaly is presently $10 full-price on Steam, $10 on Mac Store, $4 on App Store, and $2 on the Amazon App Store (with current sales in the Apple stores). Free demos are also available.