When I upload screen caps from my iPod Touch I always label images with a game’s initials; this time, they turned out to be “awe.” That’s pretty appropriate, because Anomaly: Warzone Earth (Out Now, $1.99), courtesy of 11 bit studios and Chillingo, is one of the most awe-inspiring iOS titles in its price range. Its premise is certainly expected enough – militaristic aliens have been reading a little too much H.G. Wells again – but its gameplay turns the Tower Defense genre inside out to wonderful effect, and its sheer production values suck the player right into its world.
Think of Anomaly as the flipside to Holy Moly! Dragons: rather than strategically placing units that take down a passing train of enemies, the player is in charge of forming and commanding the embattled convoy itself! Given Anomaly‘s urban setting and near-future level of technology, it’s impossible to deny the cultural factors that make this situation so compelling for a wide swath of gamers. Many of us are used to watching on helplessly as news stories about besieged convoys in far-off conflicts roll into the local news, or perhaps vicariously sharing in the frustrations of military route planners in media like Black Hawk Down. In that context, there’s something eerily magnetic about a chance at the driver’s seat in the middle of a hot zone, albeit from the safety of one’s living room. This is a game RTS fans can turn to for an answer to the question, how would I fare if I were in charge of a situation like that?
Naturally the answer is, “probably not much better than the people who run real-world conflicts,” and that’s a testament to the developers’ level and enemy design prowess. The player’s best friend in Anomaly is the Tactical Map, a simplified layout screen where he or she uses directional nodes at urban intersections to shape the convoy’s path through a level. The path is shaped and continually re-shaped in realtime, as the player might want to circle around so the convoy can finish off an enemy, or redirect the units away from streets where adversaries enjoy triangulation of fire. While the player doesn’t have to manage the convoy’s offensive actions – the soldiers on the ground will handle that themselves – the incredible amount of nuance in route planning provides enough complexity for the player to chew on all by itself.
Nor does player interaction end once a route is finalized for the time being. While viewing the proceedings live from an overhead perspective, the player needs to call on support abilities to minimize damage from enemy fire. These include setting up repair and smoke screen zones, and deploying decoys that draw enemy attention away from the convoy for a limited time. Stealth bombers seem more concerned with dropping item pickups to refresh the supply of support abilities than with destroying enemies, but few players will complain. Item drops are randomized so the player has to make expert use of whatever’s available, relying on knowledge of each enemy type’s offensive behavior and reaction time.
Mission objectives range from mere convoy survival to elimination of specific targets, to item collection runs, to protection of guest units — most commonly some combination of these. If the player’s convoy gets close enough to collect discarded alien resources that double as in-game cash, individual units can be upgraded or reinforcements purchased. The number of available unit types grows noticeably slowly, but this is outweighed by the game’s sheer fun factor; once the introductory levels are complete, Castle Defense fans in particular will appreciate Anomaly‘s resource management challenge.
Whether on the Tactical Map or the live battlefield view, Anomaly‘s virtual button interface is wicked smooth. A nice mid-level checkpoint system ensures the player won’t be pulling his or her hair out given the amount of experimentation needed here, and there’s even an option to re-start individual levels at lower difficulty in case the opposition seems to have gotten far out of hand. All the action in Anomaly is presented at a good zoom level by default, but the developers provided pinch-zoom just in case players want to get a closer look at its Retina-worthy models and environments. An astounding amount of voicework went into mission briefings and giving the player real-time feedback on the convoy’s status. Anomaly sports a thumping rock soundtrack, though this is limited in scope — one of the few aspects of this game that reminds the player of the price range.
iFanzine Verdict: If you’re generally an RTS fan – that includes Tower Defense and Castle Defense aficionados – get this! Whether in terms of gameplay depth, fun factor, or production values, Anomaly: Warzone Earth reigns supreme. Its challenge lies more in proper planning and powers of observation than quick-fingered reflexes, so it’s also perfectly accessible to iOS gamers of any stripe who might be interested in taking a chance on it.