Into the Anomaly


— 11:36 AM on October 28, 2011

I was there with the platoon. That's how I got these burn marks. They were waiting for me at every corner, red eyes in the darkness, flashing at me. Blinding pain. I wake up.

What's that? Cut out the B-movie crap? Okay, fine, whatever. It worked for Max Payne, y'know. Sigh, there's no appreciation for creativity these days.

Creativity, my friends, is what makes Anomaly: Warzone Earth so tantalizingly refreshing. It's the proverbial ice cream truck in the middle of the desert for two reasons. One, it turns the tower-defense genre on its head and puts more spin on it than a pro soccer player performing a free kick. Two, the game creates a great movie atmosphere with simple-but-effective "2.5D" graphics, minimal CGI, and really good voiceovers. Interested?

Anomaly was created by 11 Bit Studios, a small Polish developer based in Warsaw. You'd think a small team would create one of those artsy but ultimately unfulfilling titles, with low production values and simplistic gameplay. (Quick disclaimer here: I love indie games, but the signal-to-noise ratio isn't as good now as it was a year ago). Well, you're in for a surprise. The first thing that hit me was how slick the intro is. Everything regarding the production values screams AAA more than bargain bin.


Despite the suit, this is neither an FPS nor a Crysis clone

The pre-rendered intro is well-edited and shows off some great sound work. It sets the tone perfectly, showing a rear view of your character with what appears to be a Crysis-esque suit and then of the convoy you'll be leading onward to glory. The clip ends with a glance at a robot that looks not unlike a Cylon, with the perpetually evil red eye—and boom, the main menu shows up, and you're hyped up and ready to go.

The story is simple and clichéd, but the delivery makes it interesting, and the presentation creates a sense of tension. The year is 2018, and Earth's been hit by a large comet, which us poor meatbags come to realize is actually the remains of an alien spacecraft. This crash creates (you guessed it) an anomaly of titanic proportions, and it's the 14th Platoon's job to investigate. (Yep, that's you.) There's more than one race of green men out there, developing the story further.

At its core, Anomaly is a strategy tower defense game in reverse, with enough cowbell to make Christopher Walken happy. Tower-defense games typically ask players to defend an objective from relentless waves of enemies by strategically placing turrets and other assets to keep the little (and big) buggers out. In Warzone Earth, you're the one on the offensive. The objective is to dig deeper and deeper into the anomalies to find out what in the name of Chuck Norris is going on.

To aid in the offensive, the player is given a convoy of weaponized units. Killing enemies and completing secondary objectives generates income that can be used to purchase additional units or to upgrade existing ones. The number of units in your convoy is limited, so in the words of a certain templar knight: choose wisely.

There's another twist here: in addition to managing the convoy, your role as squad leader is also, well, to lead the squad. Rather than directing from the sidelines, you put boots on the ground and actually run along with the convoy. That's where the funny-looking suit comes in. Your character can deploy power-ups that perform repairs, create smoke screens, and enhance shareholder value, just to name a few. As the game progresses, you'll get to play with new toys and different units. Extra power-ups are air-dropped close to your vicinity, and it pays to go out of your way to get them.


Control your squad leader with the action view

With dual roles, your time in the game is divided between two views of the playing field: an action view that provides real-time control over the squad leader, and a strategic view that freezes time to allow the convoy's route and units to be managed. Your enemies consist of unmoving turrets in more varieties than Starbucks coffee, and the objective is usually to get from point A to B without dying.

The thing is, your armored (though early on, rather flimsy) convoy can't really stop. If you need a break to use power-ups or to recharge shields, the best you can do is order the convoy to go around the block to buy time. Otherwise, you have to keep on truckin'. Be sure to keep your squad leader safe; if he dies, you'll have to go without the aid of power-ups until he respawns.


Convoy management via the strategic view

Anomaly's graphics are very detailed, and everything looks consistent thanks to an effective lighting engine. The visuals are somewhat desaturated, but when viewing the game zoomed all the way out, the contrast between the scenery and the action helps to differentiate the buildings from the aliens—except when the latter blow up inside the former. The post-processing and effects are applied tastefully, from the smoke and drab brown of Baghdad, to the distortion caused by explosions, to the screen shakes that occur every time something big blows up. Warzone Earth has the right mix of quietness and explosions, and I quickly learned to dread those moments where everything was just too quiet.

The animations and graphical transitions in both views are smooth, and I found the user interface intuitive and responsive. Incidentally, this game has already been ported to the iPhone. Assuming 11 Bit did a good job with the port, the game is a perfect fit for a touchscreen. Don't let that fool you: it plays just as well with Ye Olde Mouse. There are configuration options aplenty, and Anomaly follows almost all of the 10 commandments I outlined for PC games. One exception is the selection of graphics options, which is limited and lacks antialiasing. This isn't a graphically intensive game, so that's not a big problem.

I believe less is more, so the minimalist soundtrack provides just the right ambiance for me. This isn't Jeremy Soule material, but it's not trying to be. The rest of the sound design shines, though. The exploding enemies and rockets all have impact, and the alien weapons have suitably sci-fi sounds that aren't overdone. Despite some occasionally cheesy and repetitive lines, the voice acting is very much above par and enjoyable. You're treated to several flavors of British ah-ccent, which leads you to believe you're part of Her Majesty's army forces. Naturally, when in Japan, you'll meet the obligatory Engrish-accented honorable Japanese commander.


Boom. Headshot.

The missions take place in two major scenarios split between Baghdad and Tokyo. The former is really just a lengthy tutorial—an easy walk in the park, whose existence is justified by the need to prepare you for the royal ass-kicking you'll get when you hit Tokyo. I walked in brash and confident, only to have my backside handed to me in little origami shapes. In Tokyo, the enemies are much tougher. You'll also have to work harder to generate income, since you'll need every cent. Although some of the missions seem simple at first, the battlefield is constantly changing due to enemy intervention of one form or the other. What once looked like a simple path through enemy lines can suddenly become heavily reinforced.

The action is hectic and sometimes overwhelming. Being a split-second too late with your moves can easily cost you the level. I found myself constantly on edge while scouting out terrain, activating power-ups, and collecting air drops with nary a moment's respite. Games have started holding the player's hand too much in recent years, I think, so it's nice to see a real challenge for once. That said, there are times when Anomaly is extremely tricky. I admit to slamming my mouse down in frustration on a few occasions. When you do get through a difficult section, the feeling is quite exhilarating, spurring you on. This is one of those addictive, "just one more mission OH DEAR IT'S 3AM" titles.

As much as I like the game, I do have some complaints. The checkpoints aren't common enough to prevent frustration in difficult sections, when several minutes of play must be repeated before having your plans foiled... again. A quick-save feature would've made the game far too easy, but given the steep ramp up in difficulty moving from the Middle East to Japan, a few more checkpoints would have been appreciated. Thankfully, Anomaly's three difficulty levels can be set on a per-mission basis. I played the game on normal, which was challenging enough.

Warzone Earth isn't very long, but then it costs only $10 (or 10€) Steam. All in all, it's a solid and engrossing game with great attention to detail. The gameplay is original, easy to learn, and hard to master. Despite being an indie title, I think it puts many big-name releases to shame. Anomaly: Warzone Earth is prime rib at a bargain price.

   
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