A bug hunt of epic proportions
I never quite understood the cult fascination behind the Earth Defense Force series. While my knowledge of the the titles was admittedly cursory at best, I had enough info on hand to make a judgment call that the the games wouldn’t quite strike my fancy. Fast forward to a few years in the future, and I finally had the opportunity to try the newest entry in the cult classic series, Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair. Now, I can finally understand what the hype is all about, and I have to admit I was not disappointed with my first foray into the franchise. For fans not familiar with the history of Earth Defense Force, it’s a series of low-budget third person shooters set in the near future. Earth receives an alien message about an impending visit. In response to this, the world’s powers combine to form a multinational military unit called the Earth Defense Force in the event that the alien visit turns out to be hostile. Of course, that guess ends up being correct, as the aliens send giant insects called Ravagers to kill everyone. As part of the Earth Defense Force, it’s you and your team’s job to stop the alien threat from wiping out all life on Earth.
Essentially an upgraded port of Earth Defense Force 2025 (Earth Defense Force 4 in Japan), EDF 4.1 takes place 8 years after Earth Defense Force 2017. After previously fighting off the invading Ravagers, they have somehow once again returned from underground to wreak havoc on the humans up above. Once more, the burden falls on the elite EDF’s shoulders to put a stop to the alien menace. Players have four classes available to choose from, each with their own unique attributes and abilities. There’s the well-rounded Ranger, the airborne Wing Diver, the support-based, vehicle-summoning Air Raider, and the heavy Fencer units. For most of my review, I ended up spending my time with the Wing Divers. Their ability to cover ground quickly and wreck house on multiple units at once made the game immensely enjoyable for me, although there’s plenty to support anyone’s preferred style of play on hand. No matter which unit you go with, the controls for each are very smooth and responsive, and should be immediately recognizable by anyone who has experienced a third person shooter before.
The first thing new players to this series will notice are the graphics, and they are very noticeably last gen. Sandlot is well known for developing extremely low-budget titles and it definitely shows through here. Character models are very basic, shaders are few and far between, the geometry on environments and objects is very simple, and ragdoll physics are like something you’d expect to see from one of the plethora of “Simulator” games. Even the dialogue sounds like something straight out of a low-budget PS1 game. However, that’s not where EDF’s core strengths lie. That award goes to the gameplay, and boy is it fun.
From the very first mission, players are treated to a very literal swarm of giant insects to mow down. There are dozens of giant insects on screen at once trying to kill anyone in sight, and with smooth controls guiding the player along this makes the experience very satisfying. I wasn’t sure what to expect going in to this game, but the instant I started shooting down bugs I could feel a smile creep across my face and I actually started laughing at how ridiculous and campy the entire premise was. The whole thing does come across as though you’re playing a movie that Joel and the Bots would have watched on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, it is honestly that absurd. Missions continually get more and more ridiculous as the game progresses, and there is plenty to go around, 89 missions in single player and 98 in multiplayer, to be exact.
In addition to the wealth of missions available, EDF 4.1 offers multiple difficulty levels to entice players to replay the game. Rewards for playing said higher difficulty levels give players increasingly better equipment for their units. Fair warning though, if you go in unprepared on the higher difficulty levels, you will definitely pay the price. Just out of curiosity I attempted the first mission on the highest difficulty with my then-new Wing Diver unit. I barely managed to kill a dozen bugs before I was slaughtered. To make things slightly easier, EDF does offer the aforementioned ability for multiplayer. Players have the option to go online with up to three other players to go bug hunting, or you can even go hunting with a friend on your couch via local splitscreen. I have to admit, having the ability to do couch co-op via splitscreen is very refreshing in an age where multiplayer is online only.
While my experience with EDF 4.1 was mostly positive, there are some points that do end up dragging the game down for me. While I understand that the EDF series and Sandlot’s games in general are supposed to be low-budget, campy goodness, the graphics can be very hard to take in at first. On top of this, there are numerous frame drops despite the game’s simple presentation. The game does its best to maintain a steady 60 FPS, but drops are most noticeable when the chaos gets really frantic on screen. Seeing drops like this on the PS4 on a game so simple is disheartening, to say the least. Additionally, I’d notice my AI squad mates doing some silly things every now and then, along with enemies getting stuck in buildings and other various bugs that while laughable, did effect my outlook on the game.
This is a game that certainly isn’t for everyone, but beneath its dated, buggy presentation lies a game that is honest about what it is and is genuinely fun. The Earth Defense Force series is one that proves you don’t need to have a multi-million dollar budget behind a title to make something enjoyable, and in most areas it certainly succeeds. So grab a controller and give this series a try, you might be missing out on something like I came to find out I did. Bring a friend along as well, as I hear the Ravagers have a Kaiju on their side this time. Actually, scratch that, bring along some giant robots. You’re probably going to need them.
Final Verdict: 4 / 5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (reviewed) ; Publisher: XSEED Games; Developer: Sandlot ; Release Date: December 8, 2015; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $49.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair provided by XSEED Games.