There’s a simple truth when it comes to Strategy titles on Xbox Live Arcade and that’s Defense Grid is the benchmark on which all titles are judged such is the quality, breadth of content and sheer unadulterated fun that it offers. So when a pretender to the crown surfaces it needs to be prepared to offer something different to even come close to the quality of that particular title. 11 bit Studios feel confident they have something special with their release, Anomaly: Warzone Earth.
Their take on the genre sees the player in command of a near future squad of vehicles, sent to investigate a comet that has landed on Earth. But the question that Anomaly: Warzone Earth asks the player is both strange and rhetorical all at the same time; What would happen if this comet contained aliens that have crash landed in Baghdad (of all places)? It has to rank as one of the more unique settings for a game ever, but that is merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of where it takes the story as it twists and turns, eventually relocating to Japan in the run up to its thrilling climax.
That the game’s narrative ends up as compelling as it is, acts as a testament to 11 bit and what feels like determination not to fall victim to the usual video game storytelling tropes. While it’ll never win any awards, it engages and is a pleasurable experience which, for a change, doesn’t cause the player to reach for the button to skip ahead.
The action itself , set across fourteen levels in the main campaign, is a departure from how most Strategy titles play out in that the player guides their troops along a series of configurable paths while taking out Alien emplacements, with only direct control over the commander avatar who orchestrates the path of the vehicles in the convoy. The initial class choices of an APC, Crawler, Tank and Shield soon evolve to include the fearsome Dragon, a slow moving colossus that spouts plasma on nearby enemies, or the ever handy Supply truck, which absorbs energy from fallen enemies and converts them into abilities to add to the stock the commander carries around. Each and every one of these units can be upgraded, but the convoy is limited to six, meaning its makeup is of paramount importance. Thankfully there is the ability to sell units if a particular configuration isn’t working.
Being a noticeable moving target makes it difficult to survive for long, so there are additional abilities which provide much needed help, or distraction, depending on what is chosen. Repair does exactly what you expect it to, while smoke can distract enemies for a short period of time. Decoy is invaluable as it will cause all enemies within a given area to concentrate their fire on this until destroyed. Finally Airstrike will drop a bomb which does a fine job of devastating enemies in a given area, but is by no means a win button. Careful use of all options available to the player is required for success.
Actually plotting a course through enemy territory instead of predicting and placing units can take a bit of getting used to, needing to strike the right balance between offensive and defensive postures, especially when each successive enemy dispatched results in a care package drop from friendly Stealth Bombers. While it might sound as if it plays itself, keeping careful track of the health of the convoy and plotting on the fly course changes to a given route can prove to be a slippery process. Having to be on alert at all times is a prerequisite for victory, requiring full concentration. The rewards of medals for combat and ruthless efficiency at the end of each mission just adds the cherry to the cake, encouraging the player to always aim for the Gold standard.
When the main campaign is finished, there are Tactical Trials to contend with. Taking the vector graphic look of the tactical map used in the main campaign, these little slices of action require the player to clear all alien towers in an area or, in this reviewers particular favorite, take part in an ever-changing set of events which involve protecting a VIP in the convoy or finding the fastest path through an area set against a timer which is constantly counting down. While it still might be a dirty word to some, there’s the feeling that this is a game that would benefit from Downloadable Content in future to help add more value to the package. Because the premise is so strong, it almost screams out for the concept to be continued.
There’s something about Anomaly: Warzone Earth that sticks in the mind long after it’s been switched off. New and more elegant paths that should’ve been chosen, or perhaps challenges that could approached in a more efficient manner come to mind, which is always a sign of a good game.
While it might not take Defense Grid’s considerable crown, it certainly ranks alongside it in the quality stakes and is highly recommended.