Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon Review

Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon is a game that takes it's inspiration from low tech sci-fi monster movies of the 50's. Which is appropriate because EDF is a low budget game that offers similar shallow but heartfelt fun. This is the 5th game in the series, it's the first I've played but they seem to have a cult following.

In EDF, you take on the role of lightning squad and fight off an alien invasion...  that's about all the plot you're going to get. Exposition comes in loading screens and voiceovers but it all has to do with the mission at hand. You can play as a soldier, a heavy, a jetpack, or a tactician (this means setting turrets). Each has different moving speed, weapons, and special abilities. And you can choose your color, yay! Each class of soldier levels up independently, unlocking new weapon options and upgrading health and abilities.

EDF is non-stop action. The gameplay consists of being given a succession of waypoints in an open city environment with tasks like holding positions, activating beacons, and almost always destroy all enemies. You are supported by two AI bots who have a plain machine gun, rocket launcher, and no special ability, but will revive you if they are alive and can navigate the terrain. With swarming enemies and specialized classes and weapons, the experience has more in common with tower defense games than Gears of War. Rather than finding cover (there is no cover mechanic), the focus is on getting a good vantage point and crowd control. At first this can be tedious, but as the enemies become more varied and you unlock smarter weapons, the combat becomes much more enjoyable. There are hundreds of weapons to choose from that cater to many different play styles. Larger boss and sub-boss enemies drop weapon crates that add to your arsenal.

The game controls very intuitively, though moving across large levels can feel sluggish at times. The Jetpack trooper can move much faster but otherwise the jetpack feels underpowered and quickly runs out of fuel.

The enemy AI is not a strong point, ants and spiders just swarm you, robots and other larger enemies will follow simple patterns, their attacks are very obvious and easy to avoid. This combined with infinite ammo and generous health leads to there not being a significant sense of threat. Even if you're completely surrounded, it just takes a few shots to clear space. There is an out of place active reload mechanic similar to Gears of War except with much less risk and reward. This is especially unnecessary in a game that lacks the physicality to make the act of reloading fun. It feels as if in order to make this function work, some of the weapons’ reload times were increased to far beyond what is warranted. This combined with the close quarters nature of the enemy makes melee attacks a peculiar omission.

In a way, EDF is similar to Warhawk in that it also has relatively simple graphics but is smooth, clean and stylish in a way that can be quite beautiful at times. The lightning squad has slick armor designs and moves really well. The enemies are cartoony like the films they reference, and it seems almost appropriate when spiders cling awkwardly on the corner of a building with legs resting on an invisible plane. And there are some seriously huge enemies, hundreds of feet tall in some cases.

There are only 3 chapters with 5 missions each. The levels are set in a large indistinct city and vary from a New England style coastal area, through industrial zones, to a downtown populated by tall skyscrapers. The guns and vehicles don't feel very powerful, but the large selection and colorful effects keep the combat interesting to look at. The sound design is good for the most part, weapon sounds are underwhelming but some of the creatures' shrill shrieks are special and take me back to my childhood watching Godzilla movies. The dialogue is cheesy but it can sometimes get pretty funny listening to the banter between "operations" and the hopelessly incompetent "intel".

You can choose to play through the campaign with online or local multiplayer. With other players, the difficulty increases, introducing more enemies. This is balanced by your teammates being better armed than the AI bots. The survival mode seems to be where most of the multiplayer action is. Up to six players join up to fight off increasingly difficult waves of enemies in a limited space with an occasional vehicle. As most of the buildings get leveled early on, this mode quickly becomes running around a relatively flat space, killing bugs and reviving teammates (you can only be revived a limited number of times). This is fun in short bursts and is also a great way to get some of the more daunting trophies (kill 25000 enemies).

EDF is frantic but lighthearted fun and the best parts of the game have to do with it’s presentation of scale, whether it's fighting of hordes of giant spiders and ants, or seeing a skyscraper topple and a monolithic robot step out from behind it. The gargantuan bosses are the most fun to fight and you get a great sense of accomplishment seeing a giant space ship burst into flame and crash.

It’s a little on the short side, the campaign will take you 4 to 6 hours, but the leveling, weapon unlocks, and survival modes will have you playing through the game multiple times. EDF is not only a throwback to 50’s monster flicks but 90’s arcade games where you and your friends can have a blast teaming up against endless hordes of aliens, insects and robots.

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