A sentence including Macs and video games should mean nothing for most gamers. Compared to the titles available in portable platforms or traditional consoles, the Mac App Store is still an infant. The fact that Apple awards a game with its coveted Design Award from a very restrictive pool of nominees should be irrelevant for an app freak, but oh boy!, how wrong could I be?.
Developed by 11 bit studios and published by Chillingo, Anomaly Warzone Earth HD [iTunes Link] is the iOS version of the “reverse tower defence game” PC and Mac game where you command a group of elite troops to investigate an alien invasion. Note how I use quotation marks, since I've read that reverse reference everywhere but for me this is more of an strategy game on rails.
Unlike other games that have played around with the RTS gameplay on touch devices with different fortune (EA’s Command & Conquer and Gameloft’s Starfront Collision), Anomaly Warzone Earth tweaks the concept restricting the player to a couple of options to complete a mission and reducing areas like building, upgrades and map navigation to its most minimal function.
The action takes place in the Middle East, where alien machines have taken over the streets of a futuristic Baghdad. As a first measure, and I guess before deploying the armies you see in other RTS games, you are in charge of infiltrating the area to gain enemy intelligence, save lost allies and disrupt their main defences. The high tech in these setting allows you to be dropped with a handful of vehicles and get strategic air support in order to survive until you complete your goals.
Using the tower defence analogy, this is where your first enemy wave comes in - with the difference that this time you are the enemy and must decide the weakest spots yourself. For some reason, the alien ships will never move from the positions, which reinforces that tower feel. Don't get fooled by these comparisons please, the concept boasts originality.
Command & Think
The top-down perspective is also taken to a glorious command centre-style screen with futuristic neon type UI where you decide the best course of action while the game remains paused. This means that instead of point-and-clicking your orders in real time, you select a route through the city grid with simple taps at your own pace. Gameplay-wise it’s all been reduced to collecting air support power-ups tapping on them and watching your troops combat like an spectator. But wait, there’s more action and time management than what it sounds like.
Swapping from the command view to the real field action will become second nature, allowing players to take a break and take measured decision without being rushed by enemy fire. The actual time based element is the deployment of power ups to heal and shield your units, which you learn to master slowly and become increasingly decisive to complete levels.
Although this title was originally though for PC, it translates very well to a portable experience, since you can pause at any time without feeling that you are missing anything. It also makes me wonder if there’s people that leave the game in the middle of a mission to come back later, because you can definitely do it.
Action at your own pace
At the start of every level you choose a number of troops with the allocated budget. These guys will form a line and slowly move towards the objective - meaning that the line order affects the end result. As you progress through the game you unlock new types, limitations and threats with make the new missions more challenging without the feeling of repeating the same steps over and over. And that’s for the story-driven missions, which come to an end quite fast but are extremely enjoyable. The voiceover work with British accent works very well in both the mission briefings and in-game and the soundtrack brings the whole things together remarkably well.
The desert setting chosen, buildings and enemy units will get repetitive at some point, which coupled with the short life span of the story mode makes you feel this is just a first episode of a larger Anomaly Warzone Earth. There is an update coming with more content, but it will unfortunately use the same Baghdad assets. I do, however, praise content updates in a game of this calibre: we can't forget the impressive production values that have gone into it and the price point it is forced to compete at in the App Store.
With all there is on offer, there is no reason why you shouldn't try a game that can easily make the top 5 iPad title of the year. Yes, the endless mode feels like an after-thought and the automatic save when you reach a checkpoint might ruin your plans in some missions. Replay value isn't there: there’s no multiplayer option because the strong story mode takes over the rest. I can see new episodes being very successful as DLC content, but we must wait for the next update to see where Chillingo is going.
Surviving in an endangered game ecosystem
Overall, Anomaly Warzone Earth HD manages to feel very original in this saturated genre using clever touch controls and making the command experience unique. I always take a step back when playing ports from other platforms, but this is as good as device-specific iOS development gets. The bite-sized missions, relaxed gameplay style and control scheme could make anyone believe that this game was originally designed with tablets in mind. It’s the epic soundtrack, introduction video and refined game menus that shows that 11 bit studios had a greater gamer base in mind and probably not larger budget than other devs working with Chillingo.
As a final though, it's sad to see a genuine premium title like this bounce on the App Store surrounded by 99c wannabes. Inevitably, this makes me question the quality that goes into small projects and free-to-play experiments that populate the charts. I’d like to see more Anomalies and less Smurfvilles: now give me some premium in app purchases with additional content and we’ll show everyone there’s a market for it.