Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Learning Curve

Shouldn't I be writing about Diablo III? Maybe some other time. Most of what I have to say about it is covered in various other articles.

Instead, let's cover Anomaly: Warzone Earth, a game I picked up on a whim during the Steam Summer Sale because it was only $2.49 and it had an interesting premise: reverse tower defense. Instead of preventing a bunch of little critters from reaching your castle by building towers all along the path, you are the bunch of little critters and you have to navigate past all the towers along the path. At least, that's what I imagined when I first heard the concept.

I don't know exactly what I expected out of the purchase, but what I got was decidedly not it. For those of you who are not familiar with the game, who I will assume is pretty much everyone, the gameplay is fairly simple. You get one commander unit who represents you. You can move him around the battlefield and deploy various strategic abilities. You can also buy and upgrade and reorder up to 6 units that will travel through the labyrinth in the path you select. Six? That's...awfully few. And if any of them die, it's pretty damning. They are relatively expensive compared to how much you can expect to earn over the course of a map, so it's a lot of money wasted.

Not really the tower defense kind of vibe I was imagining.

Whatever, though. My expectations hardly matter in the long run. All I'll remember is how the game plays. The game introduces units, abilities, and enemy towers to you slowly, over the course of many levels. The first ten levels are fairly straightforward. You get a healing ability, a smoke screen, a decoy, and you learn how to use these effectively against all types of enemy towers.

Then comes level eleven. I can't remember the names of any of the levels, because the plot is a weak excuse to put the gameplay together, but they are conveniently numbered, so at least that's unambiguous.

Level eleven introduces a new enemy tower that spits in the face of everything you've learned so far in your entire experience playing the game.

Towers are tough to take down; even the basic one requires a couple shots from your strongest offensive unit. Because of that, taking down a tower is one of the main satisfying things about the gameplay. The new tower in level eleven expands on the opposites of this feeling in what is in close contention for the worst game mechanic I have ever encountered.

If you use any abilities at all within range of the tower (which is massive), the tower fully restores all other towers within that same range. Every time you have to heal, decoy, or smokescreen (which is generally at least once per encounter with a tower and considerably more if you encounter a cluster of towers like you're greeted with on level eleven), every single tower you've killed in that area comes back and starts killing you again. Take too much damage so you have to heal? Well I guess that's a loss since now you're right in the thick of things with 8 towers shooting you instead of at the edge with only the first 2 in range.

I'm not sure the designer here is familiar with how a learning curve is supposed to work. Games should get progressively more difficult. As the player masters earlier concepts, more difficult ones should be introduced. That is essentially the basis for any good game that has ever been developed. And the first 10 levels of Anomaly: Warzone Earth follow that formula without much issue. A few snags on a few new towers but nothing game-breaking.

Then, in level eleven, these new towers undo everything you learned about tactics in the game. Every single piece of tactical knowledge that you have learned before is rendered worthless. Every action you can possibly take results in completely ruining your strategic positioning. So there's that; an overhanging cliff as you're climbing the difficulty curve, moving you along backwards and forcing you to unlearn things the game has specifically taught you were good things to do.

But there's also a snowball effect. When things start to get grim for your six or fewer attacking units, you have one and only one possibility for recourse: use an ability. Except now, using an ability only makes things even more grim. If things get bad against this new tower, then you have already lost. You need to play flawlessly, even on the easiest difficulty setting. And to be honest, I don't have the patience to figure out what that flawless play is.

I think this is another example of the classic "strategy game turned puzzle game" that turns me off so much. Strategy games are good when you can overcome problems by executing a well-thought-out plan. The plans don't have to all be the same; and it's important also to be able to adapt your plan on the fly. Once you add a mechanic that removes almost every viable option, the game stops being about strategy. It starts being about whether you can think the same way as the designer.

This game was not worth the $2.49 I spent on it. I wouldn't even recommend playing it if it were free.

I bought 16 other games during this Steam Sale. I expect every single one of them to be worlds better than this one.