Anthill Review

The stars of Image & Form’s first Real-Time Strategy title on iOS may be arthropods, but they sure live in a dog-eat-dog world! Only on an Anthill (Out Now, $1.99 Sale) would a slice-of-life documentary look like World War II. Indeed, Anthill’s freshness and fundamental strength lie in the modern warfare analogy Image & Form describe in their recent interview with iFanzine. iDevice-equipped Real-Time Strategy fans are well used to commanding individual units, but there’s also an incredible draw to zooming out a little and shaping strategy at the tactical level, like George S. Patton drawing arrows over a map and watching the tanks roll out to complete his bidding.

At its core, Anthill is a game of seizing opportunities and mitigating losses — of capturing entrenchments before enemies get to them, madly dashing for war materiel once the way has been secured, and making sure one’s own supply lines don’t get severed when more enemies close in. To call Anthill a must-have for diehard RTS fans is an absolute no-brainer, and thanks to a wonderfully intuitive interface, this is a great one to take a chance on even if you didn’t know you were an RTS fan before diving in.

As a refresher in case you missed our hands-on preview, Anthill sets the player in command of an ant’s nest surrounded by other bugs who’d just love to get inside and tear things up. At his or her disposal are four varieties of ant vital to the defense effort, each a thinly veiled homage to twentieth century military forces. There are the Soldiers (infantry); the Bombers (take  a wild guess); the Spitters (artillery and anti-aircraft batteries); and Workers that rummage through enemy remains for food that can replenish the hive population. As in a traditional Castle Defense or Tower Defense game on iOS, levels are measured in enemy waves and lost if the hive takes too much damage.

The first complaint raised by those who haven’t played Anthill yet will be that four unit types are too few for a solid RTS; we’re used to literally dozens in most Castle Defense and Tower Defense titles on iOS, aren’t we? I would argue that on the contrary, the player’s limited options as presented here are a gameplay strength. The mode of play is no longer, “I see enemy X, so I should dispatch unit Y.” Instead the question becomes, “How can I combine different forces to overwhelm this enemy formation most efficiently?” Anthill gets the player thinking in terms of real-world military tactics. He or she will launch blitzkriegs by pinning down ground forces with his or her own before sending in bombers for the coup de grâce; command infantry to guard extensive supply lines; and withdraw vulnerable units underground during air raids.

A particular situation can be approached any number of ways, a point the developers reinforce by introducing scenarios where one or more ant types the player habitually relies on are absent. The game’s light plot has the ant colony constantly burrowing into new territory, providing fresh logistical dilemmas and an ever-growing list of enemies to squash. Also masking the limited number of unit types is the fact that the player can exchange end-of-level performance awards for upgrades that change their properties. Players are sure to have a range of opinions on how tightly timed Anthill’s levels are; if you want the highest Game Center rating and accompanying in-game awards, you’ll have to work incredibly fast to collect bonus gems in far-flung, usually heavily guarded regions. It feels nigh impossible sometimes. However, this provides plenty of incentive to revisit the hardest levels a few times — returning with upgraded units usually does the trick. Level maps branch slightly, allowing the player to pick off less difficult battles before heading into the most challenging scenarios.

Anthill’s interface deserves high praise: it goes hand-in-hand with the premise and it’s perfectly suited to the platform. Whereas unit generation and deployment are often simultaneous in Anthill’s genre cousins, Image & Form do things a little differently here. Once generated with virtual button taps, ants remain unseen below the surface until they’re dispatched along a path the player traces out from the level’s hive entrance. The path is first drawn and then a unit type assigned to it. Once an objective is complete, the player can remove the path by tapping and holding anywhere along the trail for a split second. Naturally the question arises as to what happens when the player draws paths very close together — can the game engine tell which path the player’s trying to select for deletion? Happily, I can report that selection is incredibly reliable even if paths are mere pixels apart. Battle maps even auto-pan when the player’s finger approaches the touchscreen edge while tracing. This is one of the precious few instances on iOS where the interface and the player are always on the same wavelength!

Bomber and Spitter ants have unique functions, adding some spicy variety over the long haul. Bombers are dispatched with mere taps on target areas. Planning air raids is an interesting exercise, calling upon the player to judge the lead distance needed between the drop zone and the intended target’s current location. The farther away Bombers are deployed, the greater risk there is that enemies will veer in unexpected directions during the time it takes for the flying ants to cover the distance. Spitter ants occupy bunker-like holes in the ground if their paths lead them there; capturing these and denying enemies access becomes an important objective in certain battles. When not commanding ants, the player must keep swiping to pan the battlefield around and reconnoiter the forest for new enemy formations.

I do have one nitpick with Anthill’s path tracing: I’d love to see a way of extending existing paths in updates. The player’s units already do a great job of reacting to situations within a reasonable distance of their paths while on the beat, but there were still plenty of times I could have saved myself a few seconds if I just had the option of stretching paths a little closer to some new threat or a fresh load of enemy carcasses.

Anthill’s lush presentation left me nothing short of astonished that the whole package squeaked into the App Store just below 20MB — although, on balance, its levels are always some forest variant. I’m guessing that the game’s load times are also a side effect of the size minimization effort; it’s especially apparent when Anthill first fires up, but quite bearable thereafter. Fun, relaxing music starkly contrasts the game’s militaristic theme for better or worse. If you happen to have a copy of Holst’s “Mars: The Bringer of War” in your iTunes collection, you know what to do — the game’s music can be silenced in the options menu and I found it perfectly friendly to external tracks. Weighing in at 21 stages, Anthill’s meaty campaign can be counted on for a good four to six hours depending on the player’s perfectionist tendencies.

iFanzine Verdict: Anthill’s gameplay is so expertly crafted – and its flaws so aphid-sized – that it will enjoy a healthy stay on your iDevice if you count yourself a fan of Castle Defense, Tower Defense, or Real-Time Strategy games in general. A no-nonsense interface and gradually rising difficulty curve also leave it perfectly accessible to players not experienced in these genres.