Warzone Earth

by G. Christopher Williams

10 April 2012

It is kind of odd to be fighting aliens in Baghdad. But Anomaly doesn't need you to think about such things too much.
cover art

11 bit Studios

(11 bit Studios)
US: 6 Apr 2012

So, as PC gamers already know, Anomaly: Warzone Earth is a reverse tower defense game.  Since tower defense games generally feature more or less the same formula of setting up defenses to ward off a horde of creeps that are throwing themselves mercilessly (and suicidally) at those defenses, this genre of game in reverse puts you in the role of the creeps marching bravely into the jaws of death.

The premise of Anomaly is pretty much just that, a premise.  This ain’t Shakespeare.  Following an alien invasion of a near future earth, you take on the role of a commander of a squad of soldiers tasked with striking at an anomaly that has appeared at the heart of the enemy forces.  If that sounds vague, well, yeah, you’re looking for something that can only be described as “some sort of anomaly.”

The campaign’s 14 missions switch between two locales, Baghdad and Tokyo.  Given that most of the military hardware in the game resembles (with a few mild “futuristic” flourishes) contemporary military weaponry and vehicles, it is kind of odd to be fighting aliens in Baghdad.  There is clearly a dodge in approaching the current and recent conflicts in Iraq, despite the game resembling something like CNN footage of a familiar wartorn city.  Featuring “aliens” as opponents is kind of “polite,” I guess, but, again, it results in creating a kind of weirdly detached setting, both familiar and far away, that is, compellingly familiar but much too far, too alien from reality to really “matter” much.

That being said, none of this narrative business really matters much at all as far as the game goes.  While the graphics are extremely polished, and there is a lot more plot and dialogue than might otherwise appear in a tower defense game, everything that is “plot-driven” merely exists for the sake of tone. 

And that tone is tremendously earnest in its effort to immerse the player in some sort of macho, militaristic mindset.  The commanding officer (who, like your troops, is British and looks suspiciously like Jason Statham) that barks orders at you and congratulates victories in only the most “oorah!” fashion possible also delivers only the most hamfisted dialogue in the most hamfisted way possible.  It’s pretty awful stuff, but it works for whatever reason at least in terms of feeling like the proper motivation to keep crawling forward towards death.  You need some macho cheerleading when you are “kicking some alien ass,” right?  The script has been marinated in testosterone, and as noted, oddly manages to feel right in the context of the game’s furious violence and copious explosions. 

Again, though, this still doesn’t matter as far as the central elements of the game itself go because what really matters here is the gameplay.  And it is awfully good.

Your role as squad commander is to set routes through alien infested territory, determine what line up of units (tanks, missile launchers, APCs, and a few other unit types) to use in battle, and issue a few basic commands on the fly while those units go rolling forward to battle.  These kinds of orders are issued by a tiny onscreen avatar representing you as some sort of field commander, which you can control enough to run around in range of your slowly moving units.  You can heal them, toss out smokescreens and decoys, and call for airstrikes all through this figure, the only unit that you can directly control.

The game rolls all of these options (unit types and commander actions) out slowly over the course of the campaign, feeding you new unit options and abilities a little bit at a time as you grow accustomed to the types of towers that you will be facing and figure out how to correctly deal with them.  The pacing of new options is about perfect, and there is enough variety in mission types to give each mission some degree of novelty, which keeps things interesting while still always driving forward, forward, forward.

Much like typical tower defense games, which often get pigeonholed (and usually rather sneeringly from hardcore gamers) as a form of “casual” game, the basic gameplay, which consists of frantically buying and upgrading units as you gain the resources to do so and additionally being responsible for deploying some “on the field” tricks like the aforementioned dropping of smoke or calling down airstrikes at just the right moment is somehow maddeningly addictive and pretty purely pleasurable.  It is hard to put a finger on how surviving by the skin of your teeth by making quick, and most importantly, the most efficient choices possible within a few seconds is quite simply very, very fun to do successfully.

This is, indeed, pretty light strategic and tactical gameplay at a fast and furious pace, requiring some quick thinking and some quick reflexes.  Intellectually, this ain’t heavy lifting.  But it really doesn’t need to be because the simplicity of the strategy and tactics alongside the rapid pace at which they need to be worked out is about as perfectly balanced in the game as possible. 

Perhaps, tower defense (and reverse tower defense) is simply the bubblegum version of strategy gaming.  In the case of Anomaly: Warzone Earth , this makes for some awfully tasty bubblegum.


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