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Review: Anomaly Warzone Earth

Anomaly Warzone Earth has been described as a reverse tower defense, and while this is marginally true, it misses something essential: rather than simply trudging endless waves of units towards a generic goal, you are actively dismantling the opposition. It's not so much reverse tower defense as tower attacking. It's also absolutely fantastic, and an extremely strong first showing from indie studio 11 Bit. Excellent production values, clean and concise game mechanics, and excellent replay value make it a steal at its asking price. It is probably the most highly polished $10 game you will ever play.

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Anomaly, as befitting its status, is extremely cheesy in an endearing sort of way. You play as the commander of a task force sent to investigate some sort of energy field that has sprung up around Baghdad. Once you enter the anomaly, you find that the field is actually some sort of prison for mechanoid aliens trapped within, and that said aliens are now rapidly propagating within the field's limits. As you explore, you find new enemy types, realize new things about the aliens, and discover technology you didn't think possible. Underlying it all is a goofy, 1950s approach to science-fiction. Aliens are out to kill us, so we have to blow them apart with tank shells. It's only exacerbated by the unintentionally hilarious voice-acting and dialogue. Everything is so serious, and that's why it's so charming.

We have never been this stunned by how well an indie game is presented. Anomaly is unabashedly a good-looking game. Not good-looking by art style, or within the confines of retro, but measured alongside other, contemporary games with massive art budgets. The textures and models are extremely detailed, but the level itself is heavily desaturated. While we aren't normally one for this sort of art style, Anomaly uses it to phenomenal effect by highlighting units and abilities with bright colors. Enemies glow red and have red textures all over their bodies, while player units are much the same except with the color blue. Abilities do the same with colored rings. The end result is that, even in the middle of a massive battle, you know exactly what is going on. As for the sounds, they are average. The music is catchy enough and the sound effects fit the game without being too obtrusive on the experience.

The basics of Anomaly are very simple: you control a squad of up to six units through 14 different levels. Each level is comprised of a number of winding streets, and you determine the squad's path to the objective. Standing in your way, however, are plenty of turrets that aim to blow both you and your squad to pieces with overwhelming firepower. Thankfully, while you can't really control what your squad shoots at, you can give them added boosts through the usage of abilities. That's the core of the game, and while it doesn't sound like much, it's actually quite engaging thanks to the variety of units avilable as well as the ability to change your path on the fly.

Your squad, as mentioned, can hold six units. There are also six different unit types to use. The two you start with initially are the APC, a heavily-armored tanking sort of unit, and the Crawler, a fragile but powerful rocket-launching battlesuit. You eventually unlock four other units, each with their own specific uses. The tank fits somewhere between the APC's toughness and the Crawler's firepower, making it an excellent point unit. The Dragon has two rapid-fire flamethrowers on each side, making it great at continually toasting enemies. The Shield does exactly that: it creates a regenerating shield around the units in front of and behind it. Finally, the Supply creates new abilities uses for you depending on enemies killed. Our personal favorite is the Dragon, as it is fairly durable and the continued fire on both sides of a road make it exceedingly useful.

Enemy units are just as varied and nasty as yours. The core enemy unit is the Blaster, and it is everywhere in every level. Thankfully, it does rather minimal damage. The Scorcher and Behemoth do far more damage but come with greater limitations as well. The Scorcher can only attack directly in front of it, making it easy to flank. The Behemoth, despite having a splash attack, turns very slowly and is easily confused by decoys. The Stormray is the last directly-attacking unit, and it shoots arcs of electricity that go through multiple units, slowing them and dealing tons of damage. Thankfully, it is also easily distracted by decoys. The final two towers are more support than damage: the Hacker makes your own units attack you when within its area of effect, and the Energizer feeds off of open ability usage to repair all nearby enemy turrets.

Finally, there's the four suit abilities: Repair, Smoke, Decoy, and Air Strike. They do exactly what you would expect them to. Repair heals all friendly units in its radius, Smoke makes enemies unable to directly target units, Decoy forces enemies to attack it, and Air Strike damages all enemies within its radius. Each has its own particular uses, and oftentimes you will have to combine them in order to work properly. For example, Decoy is best when used with a Smoke in order to keep it alive longer, while Smoke when used with a Repair is a good way to heal up units in the middle of a massive firestorm. In general, you can survive most of the levels (keep in mind that survival is just that: reaching the end without losing every unit) using only Repair, so those that aren't interested in the more strategic aspect of the game can at least get by with using Repair at good times.

For being, essentially, a game entirely about timing and path choice, Anomaly is surprisingly engaging. While you are mostly determining your survival by telling your units where to go, you must also run around yourself, lay down abilities at the correct time, avoid enemy fire, and complete the level's objective. It's a lot more involved than what one might expect out of a self-described reverse tower defense, and we find ourselves coming back to it with fair regularity. The quick levels and satisfying planning aspect make this a blast to play regardless of difficulty. And it is a challenging game on the default (Advanced) difficulty. We'd hazard to say that it's one of the few games we have ever played on the default difficulty that we didn't simply breeze through. The challenge is paced quite nicely as well, so it's unlikely to get seriously rough until the later levels.

For those aiming to get more out of the game, there are a few added incentives to play older levels. Each level (except the first, for obvious reasons) has three medals: Ruthlessness, Efficiency, and Directness. Ruthlessness corresponds with how many towers you kill, Efficiency with how many units you lost, and Directness with how much time it took you to complete the level. It's impossible to get all three gold on one play, as Gold Ruthlessness alone completely ruins Directness, so the game tracks each medal individually. If you got a Gold Efficiency on your first playthrough, but a Bronze Directness, you can try for a better Directness medal without worrying about your unit survival as much. There's also a number of Steam achievements to get, and we have to admit that some of them are quite hard, forcing us to replay the different missions several times.

Despite being so fantastic, there are a few minor quibbles. The survival modes, unlocked when you complete a particular city, are great for replayability but lack variety. More interesting level layouts and maybe alternate objectives definitely would have been nice. As always, more abilities, units, and towers would also be much appreciated, although the game is plenty good with what it has. Finally, more consistency in cutscene skipping. Anomaly allows the player to skip some cutscenes, but not others, forcing you to fast forward through them rather than simply skipping. Unskippable cutscene are our biggest pet peeve, and while Anomaly does very well in general dealing with the issue, it does fumble a bit. Besides that, we had no technical errors whatsoever. No crashing, graphical errors, or gameplay issues. It's nice to play a relatively bug-free game for once!

Anomaly Warzone Earth is fantastic. Don't let the budget price fool you, as it is easily a mainstream quality game. Beautiful presentation, smart mechanics, and replayability that keeps drawing us back distinguish it from its peers. What is even more impressive is that this is a freshman title from a newly established studio. So while the name might be a bit generic and goofy, don't let it affect how you look at the game. It would be a disservice to let this thoroughly polished and refined game slip by based on a bad name.

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