Review: Anomaly Warzone Earth

AnomalyWarzoneEarth

Tower defense games. They’re everywhere these days, streaming onto every machine capable of playing a video game in waves just like those faced in the games themselves. I love ‘em, but they are getting a little stale at this point. It’s time for something different, and that something different has finally arrived.

Anomaly Warzone Earth, now an Xbox Live Arcade game after a successful start on PC/Mac and iOS, takes the tower defense genre and puts it in reverse, making the player the attacker and the CPU AI the defender of bases and other valuable installations. So, I guess that makes it a tower offense game. That concept alone makes it worth a look for anyone with an interest in tactical strategy games; the fact that it’s a damn good game certainly doesn’t hurt either.

Anomaly’s campaign takes place in 2018 and encompasses 14 missions set in the Middle-East and Japan, where mysterious extraterrestrial events have blanketed cities with robotic towers of alien construction. The sci-fi invasion story setup is hardly original, and thus you shouldn’t expect to be wowed by a complex narrative experience. Here, the draw is all in the gameplay. Instead of being the turret placer charged with defending a base against hordes of enemies coming at you from all directions, Anomaly puts you in control of the Commander, a super soldier in an armored suit with glowing ability buttons on his back. A refreshing change of roles for this type of game, wouldn’t you agree?

As this elite soldier, you run alongside a small squad of no more than six units at a time and command them through the war torn, labyrinthine streets of Baghdad and Tokyo. Your squad motors along in an automated military train of APCs, mobile rocket launchers, tanks, shield generators, supply trucks, and plasma sprayers, and as the Commander it is your job to plan and constantly adjust the team’s route through rows of hostile turrets, assign the proper formation to confront the obstacles ahead, and use support abilities to repair damaged units, shield allies from harm with smokescreens, place decoys to temporarily divert enemy fire, or call in air strikes. Think of it like playing a real-time strategy game in a maze.

Pressing the Y button pulls up a tactical view of the stage map, and this is where most of your time will be spent planning out battle strategies. A line through the maze of streets indicates the squad’s current path, but nodes at every intersection along the way allow you to change the direction the team travels at any time. Your main duty is to regularly monitor the tactical view to see what types of towers are ahead, find optimal entry points to attack from, and to avoid leading the troop through choke points that will leave units vulnerable to mass bombardment.

Some enemy towers, like the Behemoth, are powerful but are easily distracted by decoys and slow to rotate into firing position. Other enemies, such as the Scorcher, can melt through units like butter with their thermal beams, but they can only fire in a straight line and they can’t turn to shift aim in another direction. Scouting out a path to approach from behind or the side is crucial to survival against these foes. Similar approaches to other towers is just as important.

Success as a Commander also has a lot to do with selecting the right units and organizing the proper formation for the job at hand. From the squad menu, accessible via a tap of the X button, you can buy, sell, upgrade, and reposition unit order. In most cases, I found having a heavily armored APC or tank at the head of the line a good strategy to absorb the initial onslaught like a tank class does in an MMORPG, and then have multiple crawlers (their rocket launches make them the best attackers but they have the weakest armor) in the middle of the pack or near the back of the line so they get a chance to blast away while other units ahead absorb much of the damage. Against enemies like the Stormrays, which fire bolts of electricity that spread to adjacent units like chain lightning, it’s wise to avoid bunching weaker units together.

The Commander is a unit himself, too, and thus he is viewed as hostile by the alien occupiers. Using the Commander to create a diversion is a helpful strategy in certain scenarios, but he takes damage and can die, leaving the squad without the support and leadership it needs for the few short but critical seconds it takes for him to respawn.

From your position of command, the camera can also be zoomed in and out by pressing the bumper buttons and, should the need arise, holding down either of the triggers activates a fast-forward feature that comes in handy when the coast is clear and you want to cut down travel time. About the only thing the Commander can’t do that I kind of wish he could is point out specific targets for units to focus on. Overall the unit AI is smart and chooses the best enemies to shoot at, however at times I did wish I at least had the option to micromanage a little more. Sometimes I felt like I wanted to say, “Crawlers, unleash hell on that Behemoth,” or, “tank, you concentrate on that pesky Blaster.” For balance, the developers could have even added another limited-use support ability, like a targeting laser or smoke bomb that would pinpoint a target only for a short duration.

If anything else could be improved, it would have to be the overall level of variety. The game does do a good job of folding in new wrinkles as the campaign progresses, either by introducing a new enemy tower type or adding a different mission objective. One mission, for example, has you escorting a damaged dropship across a map by clearing away towers lying in wait beneath its flight path. Another mission challenges you to quickly and stealthily cross a series of ambushed bridges before they are destroyed, with Sentry bots hiding nearby to sound the attack alarm. In others you may just have to contend with different enemies, such as Energizers capable of repairing and resurrecting all towers around it, or these alien hacker things that shoot out circular barrier traps which, if the Commander is caught inside, cause ally units to cease fire and even become hostile against their own.

However, even as new objectives and enemies pop up, the missions do all feel kind of the same at a certain point, with you moving through a lot of same-looking city streets, blasting away a lot of same-looking alien towers. The game sure looks (and sounds, by the way) phenomenal, the top-down maps packed with an intricate level of graphical detail that could almost be mistaken for satellite images of real-world locales, but the art direction isn’t particularly distinguishable from any other sci-fi action/strategy game and for much of the game you face off against the same three or four alien towers over and over again.

I imagine there will be some players who will be saddened by the lack of a multiplayer component, but for the style of game that it is I don’t really see the need for multiplayer. Maybe the developers could have added some form of co-op in which players controlled smaller teams of three units each and took different sections of a larger map and worked side by side to reach a main target at the end. But I’m not exactly sure there’s a fit for something like that and I’m glad the developers focused on developing what is a surprisingly deep strategy experience for gamers who prefer to play one man army style.

Besides, in true XBLA form, the game does offer leaderboards and three levels of difficulty, and is built around an arcade high scoring system whereby successive kills build a point multiplier and stellar performance is rewarded with medals upon mission completion. Unlockable wave assault/survival modes and six new Tactical Trial VR missions, which are exclusive to this version of the game, also extend the replayability by incorporating tougher challenges and puzzle-oriented objectives that require thinking outside the box more than those that make up the story mode. Hell, there’s even a set of Achievement rewards that unlock the Commander’s battle suit for your Avatar to rock. I’ve got the full set on my Avatar, and he looks awesome.

With Anomaly Warzone Earth, Developer 11 bit studios has successfully executed every aspect of creating a compelling counterpoint to the overcrowded tower defense genre, from the tactical balance of squad management all the way down to the intuitive console interface that looks clean and controls like a dream. Sure, a more compelling storyline and a larger variety in environments, units and objective types would have helped, but I don’t necessarily consider the lack thereof a significant drawback compared to the countless other aspects the game absolutely nails. So, if you’re growing weary of traditional tower defense but still have a tactical gaming itch that needs to be scratched, Anomaly Warzone Earth’s tower offense hybridization of explosive action and streamlined real-time strategy is just the video game crossbreed you’ve been waiting for.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Mix of real-time strategy and action puts a much-needed spin on tower defense
+ Intuitive interface makes squad command a snap
+ Unlockable modes, multiple difficulties and leaderboards add great replay value
+ Amazingly detailed graphics
+ Booming sound effects and music create a strong sense of atmosphere

Cons:
– Could have used more variety in enemy types and environments
– Not much of a storyline to wrap up in
– Art direction really doesn’t stand out from any other sci-fi/military strategy game

Game Info:
Platform: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade; previously released on iOS, Mac and PC
Publisher: 11 bit studios
Developer: 11 bit studios
Release Date: 4/6/2012
Genre: Action/Strategy
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!