At this point I’d like to assume that the majority of you are familiar with the “tower defense” genre of video games. In short, these are titles where you’re given a “tower” (which can be anything from a geographical area to an object to a person) that is under attack by waves of enemies. Your goal in these games is to set up turrets, catapults, and other immobile or semi-mobile weapons to deter the oncoming hordes of bad guys. With practice, tower defense games start to resemble real-time puzzles, where a player’s only hope of succeeding (or earning a higher score), is to perfectly optimize the placement of one’s defenses. Though the genre is relatively nascent, it’s seen a massive spike in popularity over recent years thanks to the genre’s traditionally simple control scheme, which allows tower defense titles to appear on almost any platform, from the Xbox 360 to the latest Samsung smart phones.
With such mainstream popularity, it’s only natural for a developer to try to differentiate their game by switching up the formula a bit. 11 Bit Studios’ downloadable PlayStation Network and XBox Live title Anomaly: Warzone Earth is the perfect example of this. Though it initially appears to be a strategy game akin to Westwood Studios’ Command & Conquer series, it is actually what I’d describe as a “reverse tower defense” game. I’ll get back to that in a moment, but first let’s take a look at the game’s plot.
As you may have surmised from the title, the game’s story revolves around mysterious “anomalies.” At the beginning of the game you’re told simply that a huge semi-opaque dome that seems to be actively repelling all attempts to study what it might contain has appeared in downtown Baghdad. In game, the anomaly resembles a giant electrical, black blob. Like the love child of a lightning storm and a bisected black pearl. Your very first mission is to lead a group of soldiers directly into the heart of this weird, unexplainable phenomenon. As you progress through Anomaly: Warzone Earth, the story becomes more fleshed out and you do eventually find a reason for the anomaly’s existence, but that’s for you to discover.
If it seems like I’ve glossed over the game’s plot, there’s a very good reason for that: It’s almost totally unnecessary. I’m not claiming that the game’s fiction is bad by any means, it’s just in this case the gameplay’s the thing. That aforementioned first mission drops you into the boots of a soldier who is tasked with leading a convoy of attack vehicles through the increasingly ruined streets of Baghdad, and into the anomaly at the city’s heart. Unfortunately, the vehicles under your command aren’t very adept at thinking for themselves, so instead of commanding these machines manually, you’re asked to plot a route through the streets for your troops to follow. As they drive closer to their destination however, miniature electric anomalies rain from the skies, and alien turrets and other weaponry pop up alongside the road in an effort to destroy your tiny army.
While your vehicles will automatically train their fire on these alien weapons, your role as a commander is to constantly update the route you’ve planned to ensure that your forces face as little opposition as possible. Likewise, if your convoy takes damage, you’re able to open a simple menu and create a repair area that replenishes the health of both your troops and yourself. As your character can’t really attack enemies directly, you’re forced to plan out your route through each stage, adjusting on the fly, and positioning your forces to best attack enemies as well as avoid their attacks. Later levels introduce new weapons, vehicles and upgrades for you to purchase, but the overall thrust of the gameplay is represented almost entirely in that first mission.
Despite the simple premise (or perhaps because of it), Anomaly: Warzone Earth quickly grows addictive. Once you’ve mastered all of the game’s basic commands, each level becomes a puzzle to be solved while your troops roll ever onward. This would be perfectly compelling by itself, but the developers at 11 Bit Studios have created a comprehensive, yet quite accessible system that tallies up every action you undertake during a mission, and presents you with a final score at the end (along with any medals you may have earned for causing massive destruction, taking minimal casualties or completing the level in record time). Thus, once you’ve completed a level, there’s ample reason to go back and replay it in an effort to continually improve and earn greater bragging rights. While I’m a fan of this concept, it’s been gaining a lot of popularity lately. And while Anomaly Warzone Earth’s interpretation of the “high score” concept is solid, it’s also quite basic when compared to downloadable games like Trials Evolution or Rock Band Blitz. I don’t want this to seem like a big knock against the game, as it will prove a minor issue for the majority of gamers, but it is notable.
Beyond that though, I quite enjoyed my time with Anomaly Warzone Earth. It’s not terribly flashy (though it has surprisingly excellent aesthetics and sound design for a $10 downloadable game), nor is it overly complex, but the gameplay systems in place are executed almost perfectly, and the end result is a relatively novel take on the tower defense genre that offers both immediate accessibility and myriad reasons to keep playing long after you’ve finished the standard storyline.
It may not have been what I initially expected, but after giving it a legitimate shot, I’m impressed by the solid work 11 Bit Studios has done here — especially since the firm has already announced a sequel dubbed Anomaly: Korea that promises new weapons, upgrades and missions. Though that game has yet to receive an official release date, I’d be lying if I claimed that I wasn’t very excited to see what 11 Bit does next.
Score: 8 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 on a copy provided by Sony Computer Entertainment)