Call me a pessimist. Go ahead. Really, it won’t bother me in the least. You would not be the first, and given that it’s completely true, you sure won’t be the last. I own my pessimism, and often wear it as a badge of experience. Pessimism is like a stereotype: sure, they’re unfair generalizations, but they come from somewhere. It’s not like no one has ever been lied to (or about) by a politician, right? Okay, that was a bad example because it’s anything but an unfair generalization, but the point is still valid: pessimism usually comes from somewhere, and when you’ve been around as long as I have you have had plenty of time for the cumulative burden of life’s constant little disappointments to erode your optimism. Strip away the veneer of optimism and you will find find a core of pessimism every time. Or, so believes every former optimist you’ll ever meet.
So, you will find it unsurprising that I never hold out much hope that a $10 game will be worth more than a quick glance and a muttered profanity. But every now and then.... it turns out to be worth the effort, and that was the case with Anomaly: Warzone Earth from 11 bit studios. Steam describes it as an Action/Strategy game which is nearly always the kiss of death for me. It’s not the “action” part that I struggle with; I just don’t have the time or attention span to dig into the intricacies of anything more strategically complex than Battleship. Luckily for me, the strategy involved with Anomaly isn’t the high-level positioning of hordes of troops, battalions of armor, or squadrons of aircraft that you find in many strategy games. With Anomaly, the strategic factor has primarily to do with the selection, outfitting, and positioning of vehicles in your convoy. I can handle that.
I’ve gotten a little ahead of the story, so I need to back track and pay at least a small homage to the underlying story line. For some reason, aliens have again decided that Earth is worth having, or at least worth mucking about with. These aliens have created immense domes over various cities and you as the player have been selected to lead the group that will figure out what’s going on and how to resolve it. The aliens are, naturally, opposed to your efforts and will fight you with many, many exotic weapon emplacements. At the end of the day, that means you will be running along outside being shot at while all of your compatriots are ensconced in armored vehicles. It might seem as if you got the short end of the stick with that assignment, but it’s not all that bad. You have a position of high importance in that you alone are responsible for determining the route of the convoy and managing the use of countermeasures. Oh, and you are on the hook for repairing any damage they may suffer as well. And if you get killed, you spring right back to life. If they get killed, they're dead. So you've get that going for you!
In the event, this all translates to a top-down view of the city from either a very high-level view that you can use for route planning, or a lower-level view that you can use to manage the tactics of moving the convoy past enemy emplacements. Shifting between the views is as simple as rolling the mouse wheel. Planning or changing routes (enemy actions will often disrupt your carefully plotted strategy) is as simple as toggling directional arrows at each intersection through the available options by clicking on them. Your convoy will follow the path you select without fail and, more importantly, without pause. The inexorable movement of the convoy is what provides the adrenalin rush; you have to keep an eye on what is happening out in front of the convoy and react before it can drive itself into mortal danger.
That sounds easier than it is because you are doing far more than just providing the same directions Capt. Garmin or Sgt. Tom-Tom could provide. No, you are also responsible for running around retrieving aid packages dropped by your air support. The types of these packages vary from countermeasures, like smoke screens and decoys, to packages that will repair damaged vehicles in your convoy, to offensive capabilities like air strikes. Left unanswered is the question of why airplanes that can drop supply packages couldn’t just as easily drop bombs on the enemy emplacements, but so go $10 games. Given how far you will have to run to retrieve some of the packages, it’s possible that they simply aren’t capable of aiming well enough to hit anything with a bomb. Either way, it’s a delicate balancing act between staying close enough to the convoy to support it and ranging far enough away to retrieve the supplies required to do so. All in all, it’s a tremendous amount of fun.
Another subtle balancing act that you, in your capacity as commander, will have to deal with is the decision between choosing the safest route or the most lucrative. War is tough on equipment, and equipment costs money. You can collect money by running your convoy past deposits of a crystalline element that can be converted to credits. These credits can be used to buy new vehicles for your convoy or upgrades to the vehicles you have. If you’re careless enough to have your damaged convoy limp across a waypoint line without having gathered sufficient crystals or aid packages to get through to the next waypoint, you have a real problem. Don’t ask me how I know - I’d prefer not to talk about it. Suffice it to say that I’ve seen the beginning of some of the stages more often than I would have liked.
In a world where $60 games are becoming the norm, it was refreshing to pick up and enjoy a well-crafted, solidly-built, adrenalin-pumping game that cost less than a good lunch. The learning curve is nearly flat, but the appeal of the pulse-pounding action steadily increases as you progress to the higher levels. You could (and probably have) do a lot worse for a sawbuck.