While much of the western video game industry has become interested in pushing the boundaries of development budgets, Sandlot, a small studio in Japan, has been given a chance to prove games don’t need a bank-busting budget to be a blast. Have they succeeded or is Earth Defense Force 2017 a big steaming pile of alien bug crap?
As a member of the Earth Defense Force your mission is to help save Earth from destruction at the hands of the alien race known as the “Ravagers”. The story, setting, and aliens are very much inspired from many 1950s B-Movies like “Them!” and “Tarantula”. Everything is over the top ridiculous and campy, staying true to the movies of yesteryear. Though the narrator will often explain the current situation on the brewing war between humans and the Ravagers, the plot is shallow and completely unnecessary. It’s not that EDF would benefit much from a stronger story element, as it’d only end up taking a back seat to EDF’s unique brand of epic-scale shoot-em-up action.
That action spans over 53 missions that are well paced often tasking you with taking down a swarm of Ravager Ant nests working your way up to annihilating clusters of giant bipedal robots and various spacecraft. Over the course of the campaign the difficulty rises progressively, keeping you on your toes. Character advancement is given a boost with power-ups that can be collected from the corpses of enemies in each mission. Each armor power-up provides 1 additional health following the mission, while random weapon packs can also be collected, however it is mostly based on the difficulty and luck of the draw. You’ll often find yourself collecting weapons already unlocked. Even if a particular mission is giving you a bit of trouble, you have the ability to jump back to previous levels and harvest armor power-ups and new weapons on higher (or lower difficulties). Funny enough these power-ups appear as nasty-looking 2D sprites throughout the battlefield along.
There are a variety of vehicles available for many of the missions such as a helicopter, a tank, a speeder bike, and a mech. Unfortunately, they are so crudely developed that using them on the battlefield is extremely frustrating and practically a waste of time. For instance, the mech is far too slow to keep up with the surrounding aliens, and its firepower incapable of demonstrating any superiority over your other weapons. Of the vehicles, the helicopter is the best of the bunch, being equipped with missiles and a machine gun. It even boasts the ability to fly as high as possible, allowing you to stand on the skids taking down the alien invaders from above. If the helicopter is destroyed in mid-air, there’s no need to worry about plunging to your death, as there is no falling damage. There is a quality of ineptness that is shared among the remaining vehicles, each lacking intuitive controls or aiming reticules.
The ground combat is really where it’s at. On foot, EDF is very much a simplistic shooter and Sandlot makes no reservations about it. You’re pitted alongside fellow team members to take down the Ravagers in a third person perspective, borrowing conventional controls from popular action titles. The controls are simple, responsive, and easy to learn for the on foot combat. Besides the usual right trigger being mapped for shooting, rolling and strafing are the two best crutches for staying alive. The second of which is easy to abuse as you can quickly roll out of the way and continue running faster than any enemy can possibly reach you. Movement in the environments is handled well for the most part, though sometimes the crumbled foundations of blown-up buildings tend to stifle escaping from swarms of enemies. Which also brings up the intrusive shaking that accompanies a constant barrage of enemy attacks, which Sandlot have thankfully included an option to turn off.
Before jumping into a mission, two weapons can be selected. Here it boasts more than 150 variations of assault rifles, sniper rifles, shotguns, rockets, grenades, missiles, and other useful weaponry. The enemies will react differently to each weapon type and the varying stats and advantages to each weapon will provide EDF with quite a bit of depth. There’s no need to worry about ammunition here, as almost every weapon has an unlimited supply. All you need to be concerned with is which one you prefer. Seeing the evolution of the weapon advancement is part of what makes the gameplay enjoyable. At the start of the game you are equipped with a simple assault rifle and very soon can annihilate the Ravagers with mammoth missile launchers that can destroy almost an entire city block. Despite its shortcomings, EDF succeeds is providing an accessible epic-scaled battle against the alien invasion like no other. Not flawless in their efforts, they have crafted solid gameplay through the ridiculous destruction and swarms of enemies. However only if taken in small doses.
Defending Earth against the Ravagers’ attacks is not just a single player affair however. Any mission can be played with a second player in split screen co-op. Partnering up with a buddy definitely enhances the experience if they can stomach the EDF’s B-game vibe. The greatest omission is by far the lack of online play, which seemed like a perfect fit. Perhaps Sandlot wanted to embrace online play, but were hindered by a tiny development budget. In spite of this, it is an ideal starting point for improvement should the series continue. Split screen does suffice for the time being, but only hints at the potential EDF would have with many more players joining your team.
It is in playing split screen that you will be reminded that the game isn’t without its faults, as the framerate can be choppy quite often. Even playing alone EDF can struggle running smoothly with masses of ants and spiders cluttering the screen. The green ‘bug juice’ splattering from the alien insects seems to tax the machine the most and is by no means a great demonstration of the 360’s abilities. Barrages of enemy fire and explosions often cause hits to the framerate as well and can make play frustrating at times. It’s not all doom and gloom though, as you’ll likely be sucked into the impending destruction of the Ravagers that you’ll ignore problems like this.
There’s no beautiful graphics behind the game’s chugging, which is where EDF is a mess. One such example is the character models. To put it bluntly, the EDF team members are designed and animated so poorly that you may be forced to scratch your eyes out in no time. Luckily, some of the enemy types look far more pleasing - such as the space crafts and mammoth robots seemingly due to the excellent use of normal maps and lighting. Throughout the 53 missions, the environments rarely stray from the usual generic cityscape, beach, hillside, or cavern which all leave a lot to be desired. It’s in these city environments that the game can sometimes show signs of beauty only then marred by the occasional fps drops.
Beyond the characters and environments, the aesthetics continue to disappoint. Every object is literally weightless and a real physics engine is no where to be found. Shooting dead insects will send them flying around wildly often getting in your way in tight spaces. A several hundred foot long alien spaceship can come crashing down and won’t affect you or the environment. In addition, the 2D armor, health, and weapon icons that are littered throughout the environments clash against the well rendered 3D environments. These are just a few of the many tacky design decisions that litter the game. It’s by no means the worst looking Xbox 360, but you’ll get what you paid for.
Much like the cult classic monster B-movies that were flooding theaters decades ago, EDF is filled with cringe worthy dialogue and voice acting. Fellow soldiers constantly talk and cheer among themselves, enough to make you consider killing them first - until you learn to appreciate how ridiculously awful the dialogue is and just embrace it. Awful audio is consistent throughout the entire game, Sandlot has even reused a ton of canned sound effects for most weapons, enemies, and explosives. It’s almost as if playing the game on mute would have done the game justice. At the very least, enjoy the 360’s custom soundtrack feature, you certainly won’t want to hear EDF’s.
When it comes down to it, with the advent of next-generation hardware and graphics capabilities many recent games seem to live or die based on their visual prowess rather than their gameplay. EDF is a bit of an oddity. While almost every facet of this game is atrocious, there is a sort of charm that EDF carries that has so far been unseen on the platform. Perhaps it is because everyone loves to root for the underdog, for something that seems so unique, but there’s no denying that Sandlot’s game can be a blast. In the end, Earth Defense Force 2017 is one of those rare gems that will likely become a guilty pleasure for many Xbox 360 gamers.
Final Score: 5 out of 10 - Below Average (How do we rate games?)