Any iOS gamer knows that before physics puzzlers reigned, the App Store was all about tower defence games. I consider myself a big fan of the genre, loving titles like Fieldrunners or Sentinel, but the reality is that I deleted iPhone the dedicated folder just for these kind of games long time ago and I don't play them anymore. Tower defence games feel stale these days.
Approaching the genre with no originality will result in things like War Grimoire, a typical example of tedious uniform waves of enemies and repetitive gameplay. Since my last experiences with the genre left a bad aftertaste I was sceptic to try a new twist with a theme I'm not a big fan of. Fortunately, I was wrong.
Anthill: Tactical Trail Defense [iTunes Link] by Image & Form is a mashup mixing line drawing control schemes with the mechanics of traditional tower defence and RTS games. As the commander of a colony of ants, your job is to source food securing safe routes for your ant workers keeping all the threats away from the anthill.
Playing around with ant pheromone trails just makes a lot of sense and it's a very efficient way to move large amount of troops with touch controls. From a top-down perspective, simply drag a line from the colony core to your destination and the selected type of ants will follow the trail.
I can understand being an air traffic controller in Flight Control or commanding ships in Harbor Master. The genius of Anthill is that it borrows the controls and discards all the micromanagement that makes those line drawing games exciting. Here we'll be using those trails strategically to control the territory without having to control one unit at a time.
Unlike traditional tower defence games, Anthill is all about going out and exploring. Of course you'll get waves of enemies attacking your base or food resources but your troops are not static. In fact, they're always on the move. The campaign mode comes with four types of insects with their own abilities. Ant workers are only used to carry food and treasures to the colony, warriors fight with their powerful jaws, spitters shoot from the distance and can hide in trenches while flying ants are perfect for aerial attacks. You don't necessarily need to use them all at once although every campaign mission is tailored to teach you the basics for every type.
As you collect resources your food meter increases allowing you to produce more units. If you have set some trails, new units will follow these paths, otherwise they'll hide in the anthill until they're called. Aerial units can only drop one acid bomb on a single trip and will return to the base to recharge. There is a permanent upgrade system too but it's only available in between missions. Once you complete a map, the amount of kills, food an other metrics are calculated to earn the typical three star rewards, that can be later used to upgrade a type of unit.
The level design is extremely well balanced with difficulty ramping up quite fast. New types of enemies with their own behaviour will appear and you'll soon be familiar with random bugs and the threat they represent to your colony. The plants in the forest are the obstacles that create a natural maze-like space that you should use for your advantage. Unlike the classic tower defence games, the enemies won't go directly to your anthill and will instead defend their ground, attack your prey or steal your resources. This gives an extra dimension to the game, keeping the player changing the ant trails as the level progresses.
As I already mentioned, I'm not a fan of the insect theme - blame those movies from Dreamworks and Pixar - but the end result has convinced me. The graphics look neat on Retina Displays and the tiniest units are clearly recognisable even when there's a lot going on.
Having grown with real time strategy games for the PC, I can clearly notice similitudes in the resource collection vs. unit production and the challenges it involves. There's nothing better than nurturing a huge army and launching a concentrated attack on the enemy at the crucial point of the level. Anthill has some of that flavour too.
The latest update includes a new endless mode that addresses the limited amount of levels on the initial release and caters for the hardcore audience, as things get quite hard very quickly. I'd like to see some sort of enemy guide explaining weak points, since they look quite similar and it's difficult to asses their strength until you fight them. I wouldn't mind being able to sacrifice my own ants and use them as food when I run out or enemies organise a blockade to the resources.
Anthill: Tactical Trail Defense is a fantastic option for strategy fans who often struggle to find compelling titles on the platform. The last update addresses the re-playability issue and for the price and amount of work that went into it, I don't see any reason not to grab it. Don't judge it for the cute look and awkward theme - it's there for a reason - and it convinced me after five minutes playing.