The Earth Defense Force needs you! Sandlot’s series has come a long way from its budget game roots, and with Vicious Cycle taking over development with this latest installment, they’ve been very keen to ensure that fans of over the top bug blasting have their needs met. Join us as we take a closer look at just how they’ve done.
Game: Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon
Developer: Vicious Cycle
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Let’s not beat around the bush here – there is a story to EDF, but what you need to know of it is minimal. Set in a suitably generic ‘New Detroit’, you play a member of the Earth Defense Force’s Lightning squad, doing your bit in repelling an alien invasion. Not content with coming down in person, the Ravagers instead use a range of bio-engineered insects – ants, wasps, spiders, and the like. This may sound quite tame, however the most important part of understanding this threat is in understanding the size and quantity of these enemies. If you were to imagine leaving an exposed plate of sticky buns at a picnic site for a couple of hours you have perhaps got some understanding of the numbers, however to lure pests of this size you’d need jam sandwiches the size of football pitches. There are other non-insectoid enemies too – typically skycraper-sized robots, menacing gunships and the like, and whilst these are less common, they are somehow even more intimidating than an army of giant bugs. Whilst there is a specific purpose to your team’s misssion, we’ve no intention of spoiling it, and sticking to it rarely amounts to little more than reaching certain points on your map before the inevitable rallying call to destroy all of the ravagers. It’s a no-nonsense approach to story-telling, and the banter between your comrades and EDF HQ is light hearted enough to provide some mild amusement amidst the destruction. Fans of the series will be glad to know that the “EDF! EDF!” chant remains a common occurance, often at the most hilariously inappropriate moments.
A long way from it’s budget roots this may be, but for the most part the game remains very simple in its style and presentation. The majority of the game’s visual flare comes from the enemies – specifically the larger boss monsters, who dominate the screen and look pretty good about it in the process, whereas the rest of the game is notably more plain and uninteresting. Whilst run of the mill characters are understandable even if not excusable, perhaps the most disappointing fact is that no effort has been made to mix up the environments at all, with every single stage finding you in the same locale with the same by-the-numbers scenery. Whilst a sight-seeing tour is perhaps a bit too much to ask, some different set pieces would’ve been very welcome. Some would argue the pileup of insect corpses and subsequent framerate chug of the PS2 titles was charming, however efforts have been made to tidy this up, and the game does a decent job of getting a lot happening on screen without ever getting too bogged down. The split screen multiplayer mode of course adds to the framerate carnage, but again never really detracts from these manic moments in the game.
Huge explosions, over the top screaming, macho taunts and jibes – all of the B-movie cliches are here, and out in full force. Whilst all of the dialogue relevant to the story is taken with a slightly more serious approach, it’s still very easy to tune out and often doesn’t really add anything to the experience. Similarly, if you weren’t listening specifically for it you could be forgiven for completely forgetting there was any background music to IA, especially given it’s often drowned out by screams and explosions, or simply ignored as you focus on the task at hand. Still, it is there and does the job effortlessly of building tension in the quieter moments between the deafening tirade of bullets, lasers and rockets.
The one area of the game that is most certainly not plain is the most important: the fun factor. From the first moment you start, the action is thick and fast, and despite being quite a simple shooter, there is no denying that it’s engaging and above all else, incredibly satisfying. Shooting a 20-foot-tall ant in the face with a rocket launcher and watching it fly skywards is one of those guilty pleasures that even the most stoic gamer cannot deny the pleasures of, and even repeating the same process hundreds of times over will continue to raise a smile. The carefree destruction extends to your surroundings too, to the point where your casual destruction of the city is arguably more of a threat than the one you’re trying to stop. Perhaps the biggest improvement on other titles in the series is the expansion of co-op capabilities, allowing you to take play online instead of being confined to same-couch gameplay as per it’s predecessors. Even when playing on your own you can team up with AI-controlled bots, and whilst they will make some poor decisions – such as trying to shoot enemies through you rather than around you – they are also invaluable given they can bring you back after incapacitation. Without question though, multiplayer is the best way to play the game, and with the new Survival mode allowing up to 6-player co-op, the more people you can involve, the more you will get out of the game. Even if you don’t have any friends, it’s worth pretending to like people and making some just to play this game.
Developing one of the series’ better, yet most short-lived ideas, each player also has the option of 4 different classes; Trooper (a run of the mill soldier), Jet (a quick, airbound take on EDF2’s Pale Wing), Tactical (able to build turrets, mines and the like) and Battle (a slow, but tough human tank), with each one giving you a different selection of weapons and abilities to harness. Mission completion rewards you with experience and credits, and as you work your way up the tier system you get new abilities, and weapons to purchase, allowing you to scale your progression alongside those of the Ravagers. Some levels have turrets, mechs, tanks and the like for you to pilot too, giving you upgraded firepower to use to your advantage. Whilst each of the classes feels sufficiently different from the next, the core gameplay remains the same throughout – shoot accurately, reload quickly, dodge frequently. The number of enemies on screen at any time, and the ludicrous nature of the enemies is what makes the game stand out, and learning the most effective way to control the crowds is both hilarious and rewarding in ways that few other shooters can offer.
Moving away from the 50+ stages of its predecessors, it’s disappointing to see the number of stages shrink to a rather meagre 15. Whilst this is counter-balanced with these now being quite a bit longer, this trade-off isn’t really in the player’s favour given it’s still a drastically short campaign, and the lack of checkpoints within these longer levels can prove frustrating. There are 3 difficulty levels which really need to be tackled in order to give you sufficient experience to cope, and whilst there is a ‘Campaign Remix’ mode this merely sends different waves of enemies throughout the same sets of stages. Survival Mode is another fairly enjoyable distraction but doesn’t offer any selection of character class, making it more relevant for getting large groups of people together in a game rather than getting the most fun out of the game. Bringing your characters to maximum level will take an incredible amount of hours, but given the lack of variety in stages it will take a lot of dedication and a reliable selection of co-op buddies to make it a worthwhile pursuit.
Insect Armageddon is a simple, but enjoyable title. Initially feared as heretics by series loyalists, Vicious Cycle have done a respectful job in bringing the development of the series to the west. Although the length and variety of stages has suffered, the development team have captured the most important parts of the gameplay well, and made the grinding nature of long-term play slightly more palatable with some fresh ideas. If only played until the credits roll then it’s likely to be a very short, very fun, but ultimately underwhelming experience. The games technical shortcomings pale in comparison to the sheer pleasure it offers, but it’s still too much of a one-trick pony to be the shining example to appease new fans into the EDF die-hard.