Anomaly: Final Thoughts

I said before that I wasn’t sure whether it’s better to say that the player character in Anomaly: Warzone Earth protects the convoy or vice versa. Well, now that I’ve been knocked around a bit more, I can say that it’s definitely the former. The PC doesn’t really need protection; he’s literally tougher than a tank. Most of the enemy turret types can’t even really hurt him by themselves, because he heals so fast. Even when multiple ones acting in concert do manage to knock him down to zero, it only lasts a few seconds. It’s all due to his “battle suit”, apparently, which effectively makes him a superhero.

Still, you need to stick with your convoy most of the time for their sake when you send them into the thick of things. Even tanks protected by force field generators need protection that only a battle-suited superhero can provide. And so the designers quite sensibly come up with ways to force you away from them.

There’s a type of tower that fires missiles that, on hitting their target, create a sort of jamming signal that makes you look like an enemy to your own troops unless you stay outside its range. This is a problem not for the danger it poses you, but because it makes your guys aim at the wrong thing. A tower of this sort can prevent you from lending crucial aid in a pitched battle. I’ve found that the best way to deal with this is by calling in an air strike on the tower before it’s an issue, but it took me a while to realize that this was an option, because getting close enough to the thing to do so usually requires dashing through enemy defenses alone.

Later, there’s another tower type that can’t be approached this way: if you get near it, and within a line of sight, it fires a continuous beam that absorbs energy from your battle suit. It then uses this energy to heal itself and to power up its special ability to re-create towers you’ve destroyed. Letting it use that spell even once can mean defeat, so you don’t want to get near it. The curious thing about both of these area-denial towers is that they’re not capable of damaging your convoy by themselves. They’re purely support units, and they provide support of sorts that I don’t recall seeing used in normal tower defense games — mainly because they both involve warding off a player character.

At the end of each level, the game evaluates the player’s performance on three axes: directness, ruthlessness, and efficiency. Directness has to do with how fast a route you took, ruthlessness is based on how much stuff you killed, and efficiency seems to be all about how many smokescreens and air strikes and so forth you have left at the end. Directness and ruthlessness are almost opposites: if you’re destroying everything on the map, you’re necessarily doubling back on your path a lot. At the game’s beginning, when I was just learning the mechanics and didn’t have force fields yet, I got high directness bonuses, but by the end, I was flat-out ruthless. That’s because ruthlessness is the cautious approach. Caution means minimizing the number of towers you engage at a time, and that means looping around the more sparsely-defended blocks until you can advance to the next block without being hit from behind.

In fact, by the end, my tactics were pretty procedural and by-the-numbers, upset only slightly by an end boss capable of respawning nearby towers endlessly. This is the sort of thing that leaves me wondering if the game has exhausted the potential of its mechanics, if it leaves no room for expansion or imitation. But then, those two special towers I described aren’t exactly elementary types that anyone making a similar game would invent, and that hints at more elaborate possibilities.

Anomaly: International Politics

The whole premise of Anomaly: Warzone Earth is that a couple of alien spaceships, or possibly one spaceship broken into two pieces, have crash-landed in the middle of two major cities. The aliens you fight don’t seem to be the ones that were in charge of those ships, though. They’re attacking the ships, apparently scavenging some kind of energy. I suppose it’s entirely possible that if we just left them alone they’d eventually get what they came for and go away, but the fact that they’re doing it in the middle of populated urban centers kind of makes that not an option.

But we don’t really learn a lot about the aliens. The ones we fight are described as “invaders”, even though, from a more immediate standpoint, the player is the invader, pushing into alien-claimed territory. Well, the whole idea of invasion carries negative connotations, so a game whose very mechanics require the player to be an aggressor against a passive force requires a little narrative trickery, unless the designer is willing to explicitly cast the player as a bad guy. But things get weirder when you consider the two cities that they chose for the crash sites: Baghdad and Tokyo.

Baghdad is the site of the first six levels. I’m guessing it was chosen mainly because it’s our touchstone these days for images of troops advancing through city streets, but it also probably helps with the aggression factor, since so many people are emotionally invested in seeing a similar operation in Baghdad as justified. I remember an online argument back in 2003 in which a supporter of the war in Iraq strongly objected to the use of the word “invasion” by its opponents, until it was pointed out that no one has a problem with “the invasion of Normandy”. Have connotations changed that much since WWII? Perhaps. The sci-fi movies of the 1950s taught a generation that the word “invasion” is usually preceded by “alien”.

Which brings us to Tokyo, whose use here is influenced less by the news and more by anime. “Tokyo is destroyed and rebuilt with monotonous regularity“, declares the tvtropes page on the phenomenon of the “The Tokyo Fireball”. The destruction in this game is slower than a Tokyo fireball, but the Anomaly of the title does share some of its characteristics as mysterious spherical dome of energy. Although you’re supposed to be controlling the same company of soldiers in this section as in the previous one, brought in for your hastily-learned expertise in alien-fighting, the Japanese military lends material assistance. A Japanese general joins the cast of characters who communicate plot and mission details via radio over the course of the missions (both before and during), and this addition suddenly makes it conspicuous how absent the government and military of Iraq was from the previous chapter.

And what of the soldiers braving the Anomaly to fight the alien menace? Somewhat surprisingly, they’re British. And not just a little British; they’re not soldiers who just happen to have a nationality which just happens to be British. They’re gratuitously British. Their dialogue is peppered with blatant mentions of things like the Prime Minister and Big Ben just to keep reminding us of it, kind of like how Shylock in A Merchant of Venice keeps on bringing up Old Testament prophets apropos of nothing. The game’s developers are Polish; perhaps British soldiers seem exotic enough to them to warrant such treatment? They’re a little exotic even to me, giving it a vibe somewhere between a WWII movie and U.N.I.T. from Doctor Who. The more typical American soldiers (or, more extremely, marines) certainly wouldn’t have the same kind of mystique; being the forces of a superpower, they’d make it into more of a dominance struggle between tough guys than the asymmetric scrappy-underdogs-overcoming-incredible-odds story we’ve got.

But also, there is of course Baghdad again. Even though the UK devoted troops to the Gulf War alongside the US, it’s still thought of primarily as America’s war. So keeping the whole thing from being too on-the-nose might require repeated reassurances that the soldiers fighting the alien menace are not in fact American.

Anomaly: Warzone Earth

Yeah, Steam is having another one of its scavenger-hunt-like achievement-based promotions, and, as usual, it’s making me want to play the games that they tell me to play. Not enough to make me buy any new games, of course, but one of the achievements is in Anomaly, a game I already own but haven’t played yet. So I might as well accept the cue to give it a try.

Anomaly managed to creep onto the Stack as part of a bundle earlier this year, despite my not knowing anything about it. Despite? No, because! The unknown stuff is half the point of bundles. I probably wouldn’t have bought it by itself, because the title doesn’t exactly stand out, but I’m already glad I did, because it turns out to be a fairly interesting work, gameplay-wise.

It’s not quite in any familiar genre, being, in a sense, composed entirely of escort missions. The whole idea is that you’re shepherding a sort of convoy through hostile alien-infested territory. Or perhaps the convoy is shepherding you: your vehicles are all weapon systems, capable of exploding enemy gun turrets and other defenses that would simply kill you if you tried to hoof it alone. But the vehicles defending you can only do so if you, in turn, defend them. So you keep them in good repair, and erect smokescreens and decoys and the like to help preserve them from harm.

The entire thing is presented from a top-down view. You control your avatar’s movement by clicking on where you want to go. The convoy, you don’t control directly. Instead, you set up a route through a network of streets, telling it which turnings to make. You can alter this route at will, responding to changes in the road ahead. Generally speaking, you want to follow the convoy, but it’s sometimes useful to dash away briefly to collect air-dropped supplies.

So, we have slow progress of attackers along an assigned route, opposed by stationary gun emplacements. This makes it feel a lot like a tower defense game, but one played from the opposite side. But in other ways, it feels a bit like League of Legends — and presumably other DOTA-like or “MOBA” games as well; I’ve only recently started to sample that genre, and LoL is the only one I’ve become familiar with. The point of similarity here is that you have one character you control amidst a bunch of minions that choose how and what to attack autonomously, and you have to support them while they support you. It’s like someone decided to combine features of these two genres. Interestingly, tower defense and MOBA are both genres that originated as RTS mods, so there’s a sort of diamond-shaped inheritance hierarchy going on here. Which isn’t unusual in games — every RPG/strategy hybrid does essentially the same thing, the root in that case being miniatures wargames.