Oh look, another tower defense game has been ported to the Xbox Live Arcade. Oh goody, I get to play something meant for mouse control with my controller, that always goes over well. Aliens are attacking Earth? How original. Wait … I’m the one taking out their towers? Well, OK that’s a little different… woah that thing is totally killing my guys. Oh yeah, you freakin’ E.T.? Take this! Yeah, you like that? You just got exploded. Hells yeah, welcome ta Earf! Who’s next?
It's been a long time since I went into a game with low expectations and within minutes of playing was pleasantly surprised. Anomaly Warzone Earth sucker punched me with fun before the first mission was over and I didn’t wake up from the enjoyment coma until it was time to stop playing.
In this universe red is the intergalactic color of EVIL.
In the not-so-distant future (quite the popular sci-fi chronologic destination), aliens crash to Earth and basically start being jackarses. You and a small convoy of soldiers must investigate the crash site and gather intel if you want to stop this menace. Anomaly Warzone Earth has been on our planet for about a year now, occupying iOS devices as well as Mac and PC. It takes the concept of a tower defense game and instead makes you the aggressors who have to run the gauntlet of turrets. Which means it's more accurately called a tower assault game. The XBLA version is updated from the iOS title and delivers some new features and obviously a whole new control scheme.
Anomaly Warzone Earth might not be the most dazzling downloadable game ever but when you notice that the whole game is only 350 MB you’ll be shocked that it still looks better than plenty of XBLA games that are 2 Gigs in size. The amount of quality they managed to fit into this small amount of space is quite impressive. All that said, the story is a little lackluster and the sound can get a bit repetitive; so all in all the presentation is great, but not amazing.
Taking control of those attempting to break through the defense towers is implemented in such a way that it feels both natural and unique. The player will only have full control of the commander, who doesn’t have any means of attack but is able to freely and quickly travel around the map. As the commander it's your job to collect and activate the various power-ups, plan out the route for your forces, and ensure the purchasing, upgrading, positioning, and well-being of troops. This is all mapped to the Xbox controller perfectly. Given how many other devices the game has been on, it's surprising that not once did I feel like the controller was inferior. It's quite satisfying getting to play a real time tactics game leaning back on the couch instead of leaning over a keyboard.
The planning of your path will become the most important piece of your strategy. At any time you can pause the action and pull up a map of the area. Here you'll be able to see the locations of all enemy towers. At each of the many intersections you can change the direction of your troops. Will you avoid as many towers as you can to both protect your troops and conserve your power-ups? Or will you instead try to destroy as many towers as you can to gain more money for upgrades to really steamroll the threats in the later parts of the mission? There is no “right” path and the balance of risk vs reward is all in your hands, Commander. The battlefield is also in constant flux so that “clear” path you have already selected might just have numerous hazards manifest as you get closer, so you'll have to keep an eye on what's up ahead and be prepared to adapt your strategy on the fly.
$400 for a tank? The economy really is bad.
Throughout the main 14 mission campaign you'll have five different units that you can place in your convoy. The units run the gamut from glass cannons to shield generators and combinations of power vs armor in between. The convoy can also only handle a maximum of six units at a time. The position of the units in your line, and which layout works best for each situation will require you to quickly adapt as the situation can change without warning.
The fun of a time-based strategic game is closely related to how involved the player is whilst the strategy plays out. You cannot sit back and simply watch your troops roll down the path that you laid out and expect to win; your key to victory is mastering the use of the Commander’s powers. One such power is the smoke screen, which greatly reduces how accurately towers will fire upon units inside the area of effect. There are decoy units that will draw enemy fire for a time, allowing your troops to flank them. Perhaps most important is the repair power, which requires smart placement to be effective. Lastly, you can call in air strikes when you just want to directly destroy something. Your access to these powers is limited, mostly appearing through scheduled reinforcement drops or often deployed where an enemy was defeated. There is never a dull moment as you must also often leave your troops briefly unguarded to collect the power drops scattered off the path. Powers activate at the Commander’s position, so planting a decoy often means running into enemy territory to draw their fire away. You do have your own (rapidly regenerating) health meter, so it isn’t wise to stay there for long.
Even the most enjoyable gameplay system gets dull if the mission structure is repetitive. Luckily, there's a wealth of mission variety to keep things lively. Sometimes you must simply force your way through a blockade, other times stealth is required. Some missions give you a time limit, which could have been a nightmare. Thankfully, on these missions the game calculates how long your current route will take allowing you to plan accordingly and simply focus on surviving the chosen path.
The difficulty progression is excellent. The first level is difficult to lose, but each mission adds another new enemy to deal with, new unit to help you deal with it, or other strategic wrinkle to really expand your wheelhouse for this game. The balance between instructive and challenging is practically perfect as the complexity is smoothly ramped up over the course of the main campaign. There are well placed mid-mission checkpoints that can help with any rough patches you might run into. Even on the easiest difficulty (called ‘casual’) you can find some challenge to the later levels. Experienced gamers will find something to really sink their teeth into on the high difficulties. On top of this there are ‘badges’ players can earn on each mission, ranking things like how direct your path was or how ‘ruthless’ you are in not leaving any aliens alive, and these act as nice incentives to replay missions in different ways.
Circled and red... we want it dead.
This is a purely single player game, with no multiplayer. However, once you have finished the main campaign (which will take about eight hours) there are extra modes you can unlock. Both Baghdad Mayhem and Tokyo Raid act as survival modes, where you navigate the streets and see how long you can last against the horde of towers. New for the XBLA version is Tactical Trials, a VR-style set of six goal-oriented missions. These can be a fun diversion from the main game that adds another five hours or so of content, but they do lack the depth of the campaign missions. You can also unlock awards for your avatar (if that floats your boat) by playing through the game. All in all this is an impressive package for 800 Microsoft points (or $10).
Anomaly Warzone Earth succeeds where many others have failed before it. The Xbox 360 controller doesn’t feel like a barrier to fun, and the gameplay balances strategy and skill with a smooth difficulty curve. You’ll find a good challenge no matter what your skill level. The new content added to the XBLA version may not be enough for those who already own one of the other versions (the resolution is naturally not as high here as it is on the PC, and the iOS version is half the price), however players who have never experienced the game before should not hesitate to buy it.