Tower defence is more of a niche genre for a particular subset of gamers. The slow pace and constant, strategic management of resources that characterises the games may sound like either a fun time or a monotonous drag to you, but something like Anomaly 2 is, er, an anomaly. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to play as the attacking force – usually the “bad guys” – in a tower defence game? Speculate no further because 11 Bit Studios has answered that question with something it likes to call “tower offence”. We can certainly admire the aspirations of the developer in trying to design something where no game has gone before, but is this alien endeavour too ambitious and experimental for its own good, or is it a commendable push in invigorating its static genre with much-needed innovation?

It’s 2034. Most of the Earth has frozen over after a massive climate change when humanity lost a war against an alien race called the Machines. Desperate for a way to regain their home, the remaining military forces are fighting for mankind in the hope of creating an experimental weapon known as Project Shockwave. The sacrifices and bravery of soldiers in the events of the first game have given you, First Lieutenant Simon Lynx, the opportunity to end this conflict with the power of the Combat Suit as you lead your forces into battle.

As you can tell, there’s nothing that original about the premise, and the same goes for the rest of the story and characters. The narrative is straightforward and filled with clichés, which only becomes slightly interesting near the end with an unexpected mission where you actually have a say in how the story ends. The one-dimensional and stereotypical cast of individuals doesn’t help either; you’ve got the old German scientist, meathead American soldier, stubborn military commander, and so on that – while humorous and entertaining on rare occasions – have awful dialogue that’s neither written nor voiced well. We chuckled at how bad it was and groaned every time certain bits of dialogue would repeat far too often.

We must stress, though, that the lacklustre aspects of the game are outweighed by what it does right in every other area. The voice acting may be a dud, but the staticky, technological sound effects when selecting options and activating abilities provide cool, satisfactory aural feedback. Accompanied by the assorted noise of lasers, gunfire, and machinery that characterise futuristic warfare, the sound department gets the job done in creating a bit more tension and excitement during gameplay.

This particular reviewer isn’t particularly accustomed to playing tower defence games, but we’ve dabbled in titles like Dungeon Defenders and Toy Soldiers. That being said, we could still tell that Anomaly 2 was a special case upon our first hour with it. Rather than typically waiting for enemies to attack you while you’re setting up defences to ward them off and whatnot, you’re placed on a map with branching paths that have different types of fortified enemy “towers” alongside every route in varying quantities. While premeditating your path, you create a squad of up to six vehicular units that can be arranged in any order from front to back. Once they touch down, it’s your job to lead them as a lone soldier in the powerful Combat Suit, running around the battlefield and indicating where your squad should go and what they should do.

The units are fascinating in how balanced they are, and how uniquely important each one can be depending on your combat scenario. For example, the Assault Hound is the first unit that you have access to in the campaign, which may have low damage and an initially slow firing Gatling gun, but give this dog about ten seconds and it’ll bark out an unreal fire rate that lays waste to the Machines. In addition, it can morph into the Hell Hound, which is a bulky exoskeleton with two flamethrowers for arms. The fire may do less damage, but it has residual damage and can be used on two enemies. Even near the end of the game, we were constantly using this unit since it was one of our favourites. Brilliantly, the other units are no exception.

The Gripper Guard slows down enemies by distorting time and disrupting their abilities, but its morphed form grants a shield for up to four units. Meanwhile, the Supply Servant can provide you with more abilities of your choice (like Repair) or can change into the Shadow Servant, which makes all of your units invisible to enemies for short intervals. Whether you want offensive, defensive, or assistive units, it’s your job to figure out which ones you need on a constant basis by buying and selling them with currency that you earn by decimating towers or collecting it on random parts of the battlefield. It’s only one part of the stressful yet rewarding gameplay that will demand your undivided attention at all times. As a side note, you can also speed up the game, which is a great feature that allows you to quickly get through downtime moments.

When you’re rolling on through the three main settings of the US, South America, and Antarctica, you’re going to be impressed with the defined 3D visuals that bring all of the playing fields to life, which mostly range from dim and snow-laden streets of New York to lush, picturesque locales in Rio de Janeiro. Considering that this was originally an iOS title, though, the visuals aren’t as intricate in detail as they could be for the PlayStation 4, but nevertheless, we think that it holds up very well for a port; some of the sights we were treated to and the graphical fidelity of the weather and shadow effects are pretty impressive.

You’ll also encounter new models of Machines that can instantly ruin your chances of success. Enemies like Blasters are your typical fodder that can be easily destroyed, but the rest have a host of diverse strengths and weaknesses that play into what kind of units you’re using, what routes you’re taking, etc. For example, Scorchers emit a close-range, high-damage beam of fire at three-way intersections that can promptly take units out; Hackers may do no damage to you, but they shoot out an energy field that causes your squad to shoot you if you’re too close to them; and Predators are like mini Blasters that hide underground, which pop up in groups and can deplete shields faster than any other enemy. It goes without saying that, with all of these Machines together, you’ll not only be paying close attention to the status and effectiveness of your squad, but also planning ahead in a lot of heated moments where one enemy could turn the tide of battle.

Playing as Simon Lynx, we already said that you freely run around the map with his Combat Suit. He may be knocked out for a few seconds if he loses all of his health, but he’s indestructible – it’s your units that need to survive. Even though they move and fire by themselves, you play an active role in sifting through and making sense of the chaos to aid and guide them, which can be overwhelmingly difficult to do at times, but it’s mostly a fun test of your ability to stay sharp. The main way to accomplish this is by wisely using four Abilities you’ll gain over the course of the campaign, which are temporary, short-ranged fields of energy that you put on the battlefield to repair units, divert towers’ attention, focus your squad’s firepower on one area, or disable towers.

With the iOS version, you can immediately tap where they want these Abilities to go, but with the limitations of a console, you’ll need to run all over the place with Lynx to place them down, which can delay you precious seconds in repairing units or distracting a tower. However, we think that this actually adds an interesting layer of challenge, since you have to prioritise which abilities you use first. Two of the only issues that we encountered were when we got briefly stuck in the environment on occasion and the ability menu wouldn’t pop up quickly enough during intense situations. These were rare events, though, and didn’t affect our overall enjoyment of the game.

When it comes to the 14 levels that the campaign affords, they’re all fun in their own ways because each one brings something fresh to mix things up – whether it be new abilities, enemies, or units. Thankfully, the missions aren’t all strictly “get from point A to point B”, too, as some give you more loose objectives that allow for more freedom in how you strategise and traverse the maps. In total, it took us about 12 hours to beat the campaign on Normal, and we were quite shocked at how challenging the game is on the second lowest difficulty. As such, if you were expecting to plow through the towers with your squad, think again – this game can get pretty rousing for strategic minds.

Lastly, there’s an intriguing, online-only multiplayer that pits two players against each other with one as the humans and the other as the Machines. We unfortunately couldn’t find a session to participate in after multiple attempts, but we did complete the tutorial on how to play as the Machines, and it seems to offer an interesting, fantastic avenue for those who want to squeeze more replay value out of the game.

Conclusion

The charm of tower defence games can be limited, but Anomaly 2 steps beyond this threshold to not only give devoted followers something fresh, but also provides those curious about the genre an entry point that will undoubtedly entertain anyone’s fancy for a spell. The story and characters are nothing to write home about, but the innovative spin on the genre’s gameplay results in mentally engaging challenges that reward both quick thinking and deliberate planning, and the satisfactory visuals and sound effects don’t hurt in augmenting this amazing abnormality’s appeal either.