Sunday, April 3, 2011

Earth Defense Force Insect Armageddon Hands-On

D3Publisher of America brought along bullet hell, beast hell and bug hell to their recent NYC press event and fans of insanely deep dungeon crawlers, trippy arcade shooters and giant bug blasting will all be well-served soon enough with a few key releases. I'm working on a separate hands-on for Dream Trigger, Bangai-o and Gods Eater Burst - from this point onward... this article is all about Earth Defense Force Insect Armageddon and how much it simply rocks.

I've been waiting patiently for D3Publisher of America to drop into NYC with a build of Earth Defense Force Insect Armageddon and after playing a bit of the very solid, very fun three-player online co-op and a bit of the intense Survival Mode, I can very safely say that the game's going to be a keeper for EDF fans old and new. The missions are lengthy and challenging even on the easiest setting with bugs appearing in differently sized packs that come from multiple directions, often mixing in different types of pests that end up being more than enough to keep you on your toes. I'm getting ahead of myself here, so I'll break it down from the beginning.

At the start of the multiplayer mode demo, each player selected their EDF soldier from one of four armor types: Trooper, Battle Armor, Jet Armor and Tactical. Each armor is nicely battle worn and has its own pros and cons. The bulky Battle Armor is slow but can absorb more damage and allows for a shield bash move, Tactical Armor allows access to turrets, Jet Armor is nimble and allows energy weapon usage and Trooper is your basic EDF grunt gear with no big pluses or minuses. Armor color can be changed with a tap of the Y button if you like, but this is only a cosmetic tweak. While each player can choose the same armor types, you'll find that the weaker Jet Armor, for example, can't stand up to too many direct hits from more powerful enemies, while Battle Armor gives you a better chance when a boss is stomping around.

I chose the Jet Armor, as I prefer quicker characters (and NO, there are no female EDF troopers nor will we see the return of Pale Wing in this installment), and then it was weapons selection time. Weapons are listed by tiers from 1 to 5, but we were only able to choose from up to Tier 4, as only a few weapons were unlocked. You unlock new weapons by grabbing them on the battlefield or buying them with credits earned at the end of each stage. Similar to the older EDF games, weapons drops are random, so you may end up grabbing a few guns your selected armor class can't use. On the other hand, as you can swap out classes between levels, you'll be able to use what you found as well as try out a class you might not have wanted to (and like it).

Once everyone picked their armor and gear, the mission began with a run forward for a quick assault on some ants, followed by some audio direction that led the three member team team to a crash site. The downed plane was in pieces with no survivors, and while waiting for new waypoint info, we were attacked by one of the new bugs in the game, an over-sized mama tick that kept popping out babies every few seconds. Now, babies are cute and all (although most of them do indeed look like Winston Churchill), but these newborn (yet still rather large) ticks were pretty annoying pests, latching on and draining heath. Jamming on the Y button slammed them away, but it was best to shoot them before they got close enough. While dancing around the little ones, there was still big mama to deal with PLUS more ants that showed up out of nowhere.

Fans of the older games have been concerned that gameplay videos don't show the massive swarms found in previous EDF installments, but when you actually play the game, you'll see that developer Vicious Cycle has rejiggered the enemy into a more focused force that constantly appears from every conceivable angle. The game's difficulty was set to Easy for the demo, but this early level was hardly a breeze. D3Publisher's Michael Cerven noted that while players can go through the entire game solo, they'll find it very challenging thanks to the different types of bugs and other enemies that appear together to keep players on their toes.

Of course, to prove him 110% right, while we were dealing with ticks and ants, a huge metal praying mantis boss (also new to the series) decided to drop in for a bite to eat. Between its huge claws, wide laser cutter weapon blasting every few seconds and a nasty rushing move, it as a pretty tough bug to beat. Fortunately, that Jet Armor handles fantastically, by the way. In it, you're always levitating a bit off the ground by default, there's a cool dash move while running and an even cooler roll move while airborne that great for dodging anything coming your way. The trade-off here is the same as in EDF 2 - your weapons and jet pack consume energy, so you need to watch your energy meter in hectic battles.

Unlike previous EDF games, you can revive downed co-op players on any map by running up and administering first aid. This keeps the gameplay flowing while adding tension as opposed to leaving you flying solo while your couch buddy has to sit and watch you play. Again, some EDF diehards might not like this at first, but it's actually a great touch I wish the older games had. Besides, it would make for a truly lousy online experience if you had two out of three players twiddling their thumbs off while waiting for you or someone else to complete that last wave of angry bugs.

As for the other armors, they're wickedly fun to play with and as noted, each has its benefits good players will learn to fully exploit. Everyone has the ability to do a quick reload move (as in Gears of War), but it's not really necessary unless you're in a real jam (or want yet another cool move to pull off). After this zone was cleared, it was off to a new location via an airship that allowed for an all new gameplay addition in the form of a fun first-person turret shooting sequence. Here, each player got to fire away at bugs as the airship tilted and weaved through the half destroyed cityscape. This portion was pretty short and sweet, but it was also nice to see Vicious Cycle showing off more of what its engine could do.

The next area was another landing zone that was smaller and yes, tougher to defend once the bugs started appearing. It too a few revivals, but this time the EDF was victorious and I had a good sweat going. We tackled another mission after this that featured those redesigned Hectors you may have glimpsed in trailers a little while back, plus turrets and a nice, big tank to drive. The Hectors are fast and while they shoot those familiar arcing plasma balls EDF fans all hate, they have a new dash move that's really annoying if you get steamrolled. That Jet Armor's weaker defense had me heading for the map's turret, where thanks to some well-placed shots and teamwork from my two partners, we took down one Hector and a small army of bugs before our position was overrun. That tank that happened to be nearby was a great backup plan, as it was a lot sturdier and easier to control than in previous EDF games.

By this point, my two live buddies had been separated by a combination of dashing Hectors, Ravager airships dropping bugs and a big metal spider dropping more spiders, so yes, we all died and that mission was over and done. Survival Mode was up next and here, things were even tougher. For starters, each player is limited to the basic EDF Trooper armor, which evens the playing field while keeping things challenging) and a handful of weapons. I got so caught up in jumping into Survival that I forgot to ask if players will be able to use some of the better guns as this mode progresses or if any unlocked gear from the campaign will be allowed - oops. Let's just say that we all lasted until the fifth wave when those darn wasps and spiders got the better of the team, picking off the two remaining troopers as both were rushing to revive our downed comrade.

Overall, the game looks quite good and the visuals are packed with nice little details such pedestrians scrambling over parts of the environments and debris scattering all about. As noted, all the armors, bugs and 'bots look fantastic and overall, for a budget release, what's here is quite respectable indeed. While we didn't get to try out the couch co-op mode requested by the hardcore fans, those movies posted earlier plus the smooth online play do a good job of assuring it'll be equally impressive. Vicious Cycle is polishing up the game to what's looking like a fine finish and with the new release date (July 5, 2011), this is one of those games action fans should absolutely look into snapping up without hesitation.

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