Saturday, December 18, 2010
Review: Earth Defense Force 2017
Platform: Xbox 360
Publisher: D3Publisher of America
# of Players: 1 - 2
ESRB Rating: T (Teen)
One of those "cult classics" that, three years after its US release is still a hell of a lot more fun than certain bigger budgeted (and bigger hyped) games, Earth Defense Force 2017 is finally back on the Xbox 360, this time as a download only Games on Demand release. Whether you missed out on it the first time back in 2007 or you're replacing that copy you sold off on ebay, 2017 is still an absolute blast to play, mixing in dozens of hours of non-stop hardcore action with couch co-op and a grand, campy "B" movie aesthetic that permeates the game from start to finish. Sure, there's no online play, the character and vehicle controls are a tad quirky and the game isn't exactly "state of the art" in terms of presentation. On the other hand, the old school gameplay coupled with some truly and terrifyingly challenging levels go a long way in proving pure fun trumps innovation any damn day of the week. That twenty bucks might seem like a "premium" price for a game in these days of too many indie games going for a buck or few on XBLA, but trust me, you're getting easily three to four times that value in gameplay length alone.
In a nutshell, the game packs 53 levels to the brim with giant ants, spiders, and a few types of giant robots and mecha-lizards, tosses in an enemy air force and a gigantic end boss that's part Death Star, part death-spewing disco ball, puts you in the shows of a lone EDF trooper code-named Storm 1 (with occasional "assistance" from some AI troopers) and lets you have at it how you wish. You start off with two weapons, a basic machine gun and rocket launcher and it's up to you to kill every enemy you see and hope they drop better gear as you go. In fact, these random weapon, health and armor drops are one of the game's main draws (or main drawbacks if you were expecting an easy time) as sometimes sheer luck can play a factor in whether or not you survive some of the more difficult missions.
Granted, players more used to games that dole out great weapons or all sorts of rewards like clockwork for merely running past enemies to the end of a level, using cover creatively or tricky button combos to pull off special moves may find the more straight up extermination missions here somewhat lacking in "strategy". But there's a surprising amount of depth here that takes weeks to discover and once the game hooks you in, you'll find it hard to put down. There are NO cheat codes, NO tutorial stage and definitely No Help, No Hope and No Escape (but you get +20 geek points if you get the obscure movie reference I just made). EDF 2017 will grab you by the nose and wear you down as it forces you to play the game at first, the way it's meant to be played. As you come to grips with things, you'll find that taking advantage of elements and flaws in the game design can actually be helpful in beating some maps and some weapons can be used for purposes they probably weren't intended. The more outside the box you think, the more this otherwise straightforward shooter takes on a life of its own.
EDF is one hugely deceptive game experience, particularly if you simply blow through Easy mode in two or three days and toss the game aside as being too short and not that tough compared to certain other action shooters past and present. However, all one needs to do is look at the rather slim amount of Achievements (six, which DON'T stack, thanks for asking) and something in your brain should be saying "Ruh-roh...", but in a good way. No matter your skill level, you won't be notching up those six Achievements and 171 weapons until you spend an inordinate amount of time playing this game. I personally spent well over 150 hours the first time through the game, but that's more because I'd gotten obsessed with farming armor and there was one particular weapon I was having a LOT of trouble acquiring. More realistically, you can expect at least 40 hours of play time here, provided all the weapons drop on your first few attempts (good luck with that!) and you can
As a hardcore EDF veteran, let's just say it's not an easy task at all, particularly if you go through the game alone. No joke, 2017 will do its level best to completely break you if you're careless or expecting a simple romp in the woods. Even in co-op, the challenge increases geometrically from Easy to Inferno difficulty, making for a wildly frustrating time on some stages. Enemies become harder to kill, have added attack damage and some missions seem nigh impossible to defeat even with the best weapons in the game at your disposal. There are no doubt going to be many times when the more alpha types out there will want to throw the controller through the TV and punt that 360 through the nearest window. That's when you step away from the game and go play something less stressful for a bit until you're ready to bite the bullet, hop back in and get back to bug blasting.
You'll run around in a selection of massive outdoor maps with plenty of destructible real estate and a series of underground insect-created tunnels that force you to think creatively in some missions. Sure, it's goofy seeing a single rocket or missile send a building or two tumbling down into a pile of dust and rubble, but it's visceral and will make you crack a smile or laugh out loud each time. To counter that, those giant ants, spiders, robots and other alien menaces will relentlessly stalk you without remorse, forcing you at times to keep moving while using your best weapons to take them down as quickly as possible. Since drops are so random, you'll be replaying certain stages in order to "farm" new weapons and more armor.
You can only carry two weapons at a time, so choosing the proper loadout for each mission is key. While it's funny to have a rocket or missile send a pack of bugs flying into the air, if that shot doesn't kill the bulk of them (or all of them), it's entirely possible to have a scattered bunch of pissed off ants and spiders coming at you from six different directions instead of one or two. You'll learn this quickly on some of the more intense maps, that's for sure. As long as you're saving your progress manually before a mission, death only means replaying a stage from the beginning. granted, if you're easily frustrated, go read the end of the last paragraph a few times, I say.
As for the presentation, given that this is basically a budget game franchise given a nice HD polish, you'll either like or hate the visuals depending on your tastes. Sandlot's PS2 EDF games, particularly the second installment, really showed off some impressive use of that console's hardware with what seemed like dozens of bugs onscreen at a time, completely destructible environments and a muted color palette that recalled classic Japanese sci-fi films of the 50's. The developer's talents with the 360 hardware, while impressive, aren't anywhere near what "today's standards' approach. Nevertheless, the same amount of destructibility and what seems like a larger amount of enemies are here and definitely impress. Sure, if you're THAT picky, the assorted insects aren't COMPLETELY anatomically correct (and so what!).
Still, if bugs scare you, more specifically spiders, you'll find the game a little more than scary in some missions where you're overwhelmed from the start of where King and Queen versions of those bugs pop up for a visit. The super-shiny robots and spaceships are cool, nicely mixing retro and modern styling as they dart or stomp around, sending white-hot death rays your way. For sheer scale, however, it's the gigantic half robot/half lizard bosses that steal the show. There are a few of them in the game and each encounter on Hard difficulty onward are absolutely nuts in terms of these big guys laying waste to entire blocks of real estate trying to get to you.
While your best weapons go a long way in dealing with these bosses and waves of other enemies, there are also vehicles to use in 2017, but they've got a bit of a learning curve. The speeder bike, tank, helicopter and walking mech suit are cool, but each has handling issues thanks to Sandlot adding "realistic" elements to their control schemes or durability. The speeder bike makes getting away from the hordes easy and fast, but if it grazes even a parked bicycle, it takes damage and can even be easily destroyed if you merely miss a corner and bump the side of a building. the tank handles like a tank, slow reload time on the main gun, the need to arc shots and not so speedy turning radius. That helicopter is great for dealing death from above (you can cheat in co-op by having player two drop bombs or fire missiles while ON the chopper), but has limited rocket ammo and isn't very accurate against ground enemies. Finally, the mech suit is awesome to look at and has some great weapons, but it's slower than the tank and on the higher difficulty levels can actually hinder you more than help.
Until you get enough time in them to appreciate their good points, the best thing one can say about the vehicles are they absorb damage instead of your character if you're in or on one. On the other hand, that speeder bike makes one REALLY annoying stage much easier if you use it to scoot around the map's outskirts singling out, then eliminating bug nests one by one. The chopper is great for getting to a faraway island on one map where you can drop turrets and used guided missiles to rain death from above down on bugs and lure stragglers into withering fire. That tank or mech suit can be lifesavers in a few maps where it's a flood of enemies coming your way and you need to get some breathing room. the key in each case is not to rely solely on any vehicle for survival, but to use it carefully and accurately as long as its armor holds out.
When you look up at that radar and see swarms of red dots in a few locations before looking at the screen and seeing an eye-popping amount of bugs, robots, patrol ships and whatever else the game throws at you, it's hard not to be impressed. Granted, there's some annoying clipping issues plus amazing slowdown (at least in the NTSC versions of the game) in outdoor maps when too much is happening at once. However, you generally won't die from this unless you're hopelessly trapped by a bunch of spiders with no way out. I'll have to admit that the final section of the final level, when the game turns into a slide show of epic proportions thanks to the mix of laser fire, explosions and buildings crashing to the ground can be extremely jarring, especially when you're not sure that the huge mothership boss is actually dead. Hell, it's entirely possible to NOT be sure you didn't die before or after you fired off that killing shot because the game chugs to a crawl as your final fate is decided.
From the many times going through the game since 2007, I'd say twice I didn't get the job done when I thought I had (booo!). Conversely, a few other times, the boss blew up and I died just as the Mission Cleared message hit the screen (YES!). Again, in co-op, the game is indeed easier, but your second player had better be well versed in the game's controls and have a good amount of armor. Since there's no online play, it's actually a great way to get a friend to buy and start playing the game on his or her own 360. hell, you don't want to end up having to sit next to someone who's bad at the game or doesn't know how to switch weapons when they need to.
Sounds and music are more or less the same or similar to the PS2 EDF games, but there's an intentionally serious (yet hilarious) vibe to the way the game presents its story. The "serious" part comes from the assorted radio chatter you'll hear as levels play out. Pay attention and you'll hear about other parts of the world falling to the alien attacks, with entire countries being wiped out, including some US locations (a great way of teasing the set up of events in Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon, if you think about it). Cut scenes present the alien invasion in a matter of fact manner while not dragging out longer than necessary. As Storm 1, you never utter a sound (other than that death scream you be hearing quite a lot of), but your fellow EDF troopers offer up some choice one-liners, often dialog that's seeming randomly mixed together to amusing effect. If you're a big fan of old kaiju movies or 50's sci-fi, you'll find elements of The Mysterians, THEM!, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers and a few other classics paid homage to as the game progresses.
As for the bad points, there are a few major and minor issues here, but again, the game has a way of mitigating most of its problems by its sheer addictive quality. The one-stick movement and no camera control will fluster those used to having the option to adjust the viewpoint. The game also cuts away in some levels as you're playing to show some nice cinematic cut scenes. This latter pain can (and should) be changed from the options screen as soon as you fire up the game. You may want to turn OFF the camera shake effect if you're prone to motion sickness, as some explosions and other effects can make you dizzy when the screen starts bouncing around. By the way, that clipping noted above can be a royal pain in maps where the legs and lasers of those huge metal robots lumbering after you clip through that tunnel you're trying to hunker down in.
Worse, spider web shots clip through cave walls and can flat out kill you on the higher difficulties when you think you're safely out of harm's way. Paradoxically, while buildings in the outdoor environments are indeed completely destructible, you'll find that a mere bicycle and sometimes the fence it's lying against or some rubble jutting out where a skyscraper once stood can impede your progress thanks to Storm 1's lousy jumping skills. That, or you'll sometimes get killed outright if you fire an explosive weapon that blasts a sturdy object too close to your character. Also, dead bugs stiffen up and become obstacles for brief periods, another thing that can be deadly in tight spots when you need to run or roll like hell away from an attack. In the first EDF game, you could run right through dead bugs before they vanished, but EDF 2 introduced that element of solid bugs that became roadblocks for a scant few seconds before vanishing. Again, the game's non-stop action allows most of these problems to be shot down, especially once you learn which weapons work best and how to make the most of them.
Speaking of EDF 2, while most new players and those who've only played 2017 as their gateway into the world of EDF won't care at all, those of us lucky enough to have imported the second game will note the lack of the lovely and talented Pale Wing. Clunky run/stop animations aside, she was a female character with her own set of energy-based weapons, and a great jet pack that made that game worth playing through with both characters just to see the drastic gameplay differences. Also missing in 2017 are the wasps, giant centipedes, rolling metal exploding pill bugs, even more gigantic mama mecha lizard stage and those really, really annoying flying saucers that could actually kill you when you shot them out of the sky by falling on you and lingered around as giant roadblocks for far too long once they did hit the ground.
With "only" 53 levels (EDF 2 had 71) EDF 2017 feels like a slight step backward to some fans of the import. The missing elements were most likely due to Sandlot's time and budget constraints more than the developer intentionally leaving things out to make a "lesser" experience. Interestingly enough, 2017 recycles some maps from EDF 2 where Pale Wing would have done quite well in using her jet pack and weapons more efficiently than Storm 1 does here. One of the great things 2017 does is allow you to use outdoor stairways on some buildings to gain a temporary tactical advantage once you're on a rooftop. Granted, that building isn't much protection against one of your own stray rocket shots, a Hector that can blast it to bits or a bug that can climb it behind you, but the ability to interact with the environment a bit more just adds to the fun.
The thing that will more likely divide and daunt new players is the random drop system plus the insane amount of trial and error in finding out which weapons work best for which enemies. While you do indeed get better weapon drops from playing the game on harder difficulties, you'll need to play at least a good portion of the game on Easy mode so you have a lot more (and better) gear than your starting guns. If you're skeptical, go play Mission 1 on Easy, them go to Hardest or Inferno with the same starting weapons (don't say you weren't warned, but expect a laugh or three in the process). Drops are so random that acquiring a few specific guns can be a total nightmare. Let's just say that if you get that Lysander Z the first time through, consider yourself the luckiest gamer on the planet. Additionally, as you never know what's going to drop, health pickups become like gold bars in the harder missions. You'll want to ONLY grab these if you need them, as they're useless if you're already at full armor. Speaking of armor, grabbing every drop is also key to survival as your total defense only goes up after a level is over. It's a great thing to complete a stage where you spend a chunk of time farming to get a few hundred or more drops and see a long list of additional armor gained plus a slew of new weapons added to your growing arsenal.
But I've rambled on enough - If you're an Xbox 360 owner, you NEED EDF 2017, period. Warts and all, It's a complete and utter wild ride of a game that will keep you up 'til the wee hours and beyond trying to nab that next weapon or beat the mission from hell (whichever ones they are for your particular case). As happy as I am to see the game back up for sale (even as a digital download), I'm hoping D3Publisher has some sort of interesting publishing plans for the PS2 EDF games. My thoughts here are simple: use the larger storage space of the Blu-Ray format to bring PS3 owners all the games in the series that in fact, began on a Sony platform. EDF 1, EDF 2 and the turn-based strategy game EDF Tactics were all localized and released in the UK, so English-language versions already exist (albeit in PAL format).
D3 would do some truly excellent fan service by making these older games available, hopefully ON the game disc, but as DLC or a standalone budget-priced release. The games don't have to get the whole 3D or HD treatment like SCEA's upcoming ICO/Shadow of the Colossus collection (although it would be spectacular to see them optimized in one way or the other) and I'm sure that if the publisher asks the fnas if they'd like to see these games in some form, they'd get a resounding thumbs up from the community. Anyway, go support D3 by buying EDF 2017 and let them know (if you're a PS3 owner as well) that you want to see the complete saga sometime this console generation.