For most of the last decade, Japan has been home to the Chikyû Boueigun series — a line of games made on the cheap with miniscule budgets, specifically targeting parents unwilling to shell out $60 for the latest Final Fantasy. Unsurprisingly, the majority of the games have been utterly terrible. Still, despite being buggy, arguably unfinished and largely forgettable, the series struck that sweet spot of the quality-versus-price dynamic usually reserved for the McNugget and the ironic Snuggie.
Presumably driven by that very metaphor, D3Publisher decided to bring the series to America in the form of the third Chikyû Boueigun game. The game that would be renamed Earth Defense Force 2017 was easily the best in the series, though that's still faint praise. When I reviewed the game in May of 2007, I wrote it off as entertaining but forgettable; a momentary diversion for gamers on a budget.
This is where I apologize for that verdict. It's my own fault for playing the game completely sober, and as a result I missed its key selling point: Alongside a case of beer and a couple friends, Earth Defense Force 2017 is the most fun you can have on an Xbox 360. Period. Exclamation point.
Luckily the game found a boozy audience, and EDF2017 became a cult hit. Pleased with its success, D3Publisher commissioned a sequel, only instead of importing another Chikyû Boueigun entry, they tapped North Carolina's Vicious Cycle Software. The result is Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon. Think of it as an American take on a Japanese take on every child's take on how very cool it would be to hold off an entire army of ants, spiders and giant robots with only human pluck, an appetite for destruction and enough explosive weaponry to make George Patton dry hump a bald eagle.
Esoteric Japanese history lesson? Check. Explanation of convoluted lineage? Check. Unnecessarily sexual reference to a dead man? Double check. I think we can move on to the review now.
- God bless the EDF!
Oh wait, did I say it was review time? Forget that. I have to explain what the Earth Defense Force games are all about before I can start plucking their wings.
Imagine you're a human. In a city. On Earth. Still with me? Alright. So, your city is a bustling metropolis full of towering buildings and bucolic parks. Maybe your city has mountains nearby. Maybe a river. Maybe a stadium with a professional soccer team somewhere.
Then one day a group of aliens (we'll call them "Ravagers" both because that's what they do and also because that's what the game calls them) appears and starts raining down armies of two storey-tall ants, spiders the size of buses and all kinds of robots that want nothing more than to laser fuck you until your squishy meat parts burst into flames and your eyeballs explode and your tongue falls out and your hair looks just terrible.
This is the scenario you are given at the beginning of both Earth Defense Force titles.
What do you do? Well, this being America — the Land of the Free, the Home of the Whopper — you don your vaguely futuristic body armor, strap on an assault rifle and the biggest missile launcher your spinal column can support, and you teach those alien bastards why the British still spend every Fourth of July solemnly munching digestive crackers and sobbing quietly.
(Alright, admittedly, EDF2017 took place in Tokyo, not America, but mentioning that earlier would have ruined that digestive crackers reference. We have quotas to meet here, people.)
And that's the series in a nutshell. There's an army of insects, arachnids and spacemen and your job is to kill everything that moves.
- Welcome ta Erf!
Even with all its technical issues, that setting and the ability to cause explosive mayhem on a whim was perfectly intact in EDF2017. Despite braindead foes who could occasionally glitch right out of existence, the sheer visceral thrill of launching a cluster of heat-seeking, nuclear warheads into an office building and watching it collapse on a group of giant ants just never gets old. There's a primal part of the human brain that revels in massive, cataclysmic destruction, and the game has a summer home there, complete with indoor pool and heated toilet seats.
Likewise, Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon is all about splattering bug guts across the pavement. This game drops you into New Detroit, a city that exists for two reasons: First, so that the bugs can get their stomp on whenever they feel the need, and second, so that the developers can directly insult original recipe Detroit. Detonate the right building and one of your squad members will quip, "Couple more of those and this place will look like Old Detroit!"
Hilarious, right? (Note: I'm not being sarcastic here. I find this very funny. Detroit sucks.)
Past the games' thematic similarities, EDF:IA differentiates itself from its predecessor by expanding on the ideas its low budget made unfeasible. This game offers you four distinct character classes, each of which has its own line of weaponry to unlock. Prefer mobility over armor? Go with the "Jet" class, and you can fly around each level with a jet pack, dropping grenades on anything without wings. Prefer to spit tobacco and refer to yourself as a "goddamn sexual tyrannosaurus?" Choose the "Battle" class. What you'll lose in speed, you'll more than make up for in giant guns that can't help but suggest totally bitchin' things about your sexuality.
- The ant, apparently, has time to bleed.
"But Nex! If I'm wandering around a city full of bugs, won't I get bug poo all over my nice, clean uniform?" Yes, dear reader, you will. Which is why EDF:IA also includes a nice complement of vehicles to pilot. Tanks, stationary guided missile platforms, even mechanized walkers are at your disposal, each with wildly destructive arguments for why you ought to strap yourself into the cockpit.
Continuing this theme of "bigger equals better" are the game's missions. Each mission in EDF2017 could be completed in a matter of minutes. In EDF:IA however, the missions offer multiple checkpoints and maps that are easily two to three times larger than the previous game. Even skilled players can spend half an hour on a single mission.
This is obviously a boon for those who were hoping for a more robust mission structure, but it sacrifices a bit of the game's inherent "pick up and play" ability. If you sit down for a bit of bug smashing in EDF:IA, you'd better have a solid chunk of free time, lest you be called away in the midst of a firefight.
- It's like a Heinlein wet dream.
One of the bigger draws for EDF2017 was the game's 100+ unlockable weapons, each of which caused destruction in new and interesting ways. EDF:IA laughs at that figure and presents players with over 300 weapons to be found or unlocked via the game's vaguely roleplaying game-esque experience system.
Whoa whoa whoa action game fans! Don't get scared! You won't have to crunch numbers or sit through 20-minute cutscenes here. The experience system in EDF:IA is very, very simple. Kill a bug, get a point. Get enough points and you go up a level. Each time you go up a level, you get a bit more life, a bit more armor and you can run a bit faster. And, best of all, the armory has a few new guns to offer you.
Up towards the top somewhere I mentioned that one of the prerequisites for enjoying EDF2017 to the fullest was a few drunk friends. Those pals will come in handy in EDF:IA also. The game features split-screen co-op multiplayer if your companion is sitting next to you, 3-person multiplayer co-op over Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network and a 6-person online survival mode that pits your group against endless waves of bugs until either they overwhelm your force or someone has to go to the store for more beer.
All of that is pretty standard, and pretty much what you'd expect from a sequel, right? "Like the first one, but with more of everything people liked" is a pretty solid design philosophy given the original game's simplicity. Vicious Cycle however, was not content with just building on its predecessor. Instead, the developer went back to all those rough spots in EDF2017 and attempted to polish them to a high sheen for the sequel.
No longer do enemies vanish without warning. No longer will bugs be content just chilling on top of a nearby apartment building while you're wasting all their pals. No longer will your surroundings go kaleidoscopic, and if you stare off into the distance, you can actually see everything where it's supposed to be. EDF:IA fixes almost every issue that made EDF2017 a "technically terrible" game.
That's good, right? I should be happy here, no? I mean, those technical issues were the main reason why my original review wasn't totally glowing, so their removal should, logically, make me love this new game, shouldn't it?
Yes and no. Don't get me wrong, EDF:IA is a blast with other people, and is far more playable than its predecessor when you're all by your lonesome. That said, the removal of those technical issues makes the game world seem almost too sterile. I realize that a critic complaining about a lack of bugs is probably going to drive a few developers to suicide, but when you're playing EDF2017 and random shit happens just because the game is broken in a certain way, more often than not, it's hilarious. I never once experienced a bug that broke the gameplay, but I routinely saw things that made me laugh my ass off at the insanity of everything going on around me.
- Gordon Douglas was right!
EDF2017 was broken in a very charming way. Like a pretty girl with glasses or a scorpion with laser claws.
By removing those elements, Vicious Cycle has created "another shooter." This particular shooter has a lot of gameplay options and an addictive weapon unlocking system, but what really sets it apart from any other shooter out there?
Don't get me wrong, I fully recommend action game fans pick up EDF:IA (especially since it sports a $40 price tag), but don't expect anything weird from this game. During its American immigration, the EDF series learned how to appeal to the typical American gamer, and while I'm sure that makes some bean counter very happy, I'm going to miss my teleporting ant pals.