Japanese firm Sandalot’s third person shooter, published in the West by D3 in 2007, Earth Defense Force 2017 is a 50s style sci-fi, seen through an 80s lens, set in 2017.
When they came to Earth in 2017 with their flying saucers and their spherical mother ship, we were not sure what to expect. We hoped they would be peaceful and friendly. We named them the Ravagers and then… hold on, hold on – we named them Ravagers before they attacked? Yes, yes we did. It’s almost like we were spoiling for a fight.
So the saucers dropped giant ants and spiders on our cities and the battle began in earnest. The Earth Defense Force is tasked with taking on the most ridiculous and inexplicable hordes of invaders imaginable. Along with the giant insects and the saucers and the mothership, there are small aerial fighters, a giant mechanical dinosaur and large robotic walkers.
“The bugs are spitting some kind of liquid… is it some kind of bodily fluid? Argh, it’s melting my armour!”
If ever there were a B-game, this is it. The production values are awful in places, the graphics simplistic, the plot incoherent. The game is also a classic, and I’d say one of the best games on the 360. Kieron Gillen stated that “Earth Defence Force 2017 is a better game than Gears of War” and I’d wholeheartedly agree. I’m not just rooting for the underdog or being deliberately alternative here, Earth Defence Force 2017 has the kind of qualities that shine through its obvious weaknesses, and it adds up to far more than the sum of its parts.
The basic looking models and textures allow the game to place you in a fairly sprawling, destructible cityscape and to throw scores and scores of enemies at you all at once. The sky can be blackened with flying robots or the streets can be literally filled with massive ants. This impressive sense of scale sets EDF apart and is apparent throughout — there are huge waves of enemies, a massive set of missions and more weapons than you can even begin to contemplate.
“From now on we will refer to the Ravagers robot fighters as Hectors. A large group of Hectors is heading towards the city.”
It has to be said, the buildings are destructible in the most basic way imaginable – shooting anything explosive at one will basically collapse it and make it more or less disappear. But everything can go, and despite any implications of destroying half the city yourself, you can flatten whole blocks to provide a better line of fire. I like to assume they evacuated the area already.
There are 52 levels, and five difficulties for each – so that’s 260 total if you want to count them all together, and the game does – finish five levels on one difficulty and it’ll inform you that you’ve completed around 1.9% of the game. It’s a devastating statistic, and the game complete percentage never failed to make me feel kind of exhausted – 260 sub-levels worth of giant bugs, do you have any idea how hard it is to take down one of those things?!
Well actually that depends on your weapon loadout, for in keeping with the epic vastness of the game, there are 150 weapons available. You start out with around half a dozen to choose from, the rest need to be collected throughout the game. This is where the addictive pickup gathering kicks in, and it’s the excitement of finding more weapons and the RPG-like mechanic of growing in strength as you progress that drives you onwards. When enemies are taken out, as well as instant health packs, they can also leave armour and weapons. If you survive to the end of the mission then you get to keep those that you collected throughout the level. The armour simply tops up your maximum health by one for each of these that you collect – you begin with 200 HP, you’ll likely to get way above a thousand before this thing is through.
“It’s an army of red giants!”
As for the weapons, you never know what you’re picking up at the time and when the level ends you’ll probably find that a lot of what you got was redundant copies of what you already had before. But some of it will be shiny new machinery of destruction, a novel super weapon that will turn the fight in the favour of humanity – or maybe an assault rifle so inaccurate that you can’t hit a 20 foot high ant when it’s running right at you. Playing through on higher difficulties means that you’ll pick up the higher quality weapons, so it’s a good idea to attempt them when you think you’re up to it.
There are guns of varying categories – along with your rifles you’ve got shotguns, grenades, sniper rifles, rocket and missile launchers and a mix of weird and wonderful specials (acid guns, mines, sentry guns, flame throwers…). Some of the weapons are so extreme and specialised as to be next to useless – a super powered sniper rifle that kills most things in one shot but takes five seconds to reload ain’t gonna help you when there are 100 red ants charging your way, buddy – but the sheer variety gives you many different approaches to take.
“Do it yourself!”
Many of the weapons are a lot of fun to handle: a missile launcher that launches 30 heat seeking projectiles in the space of about three seconds, a grenade launcher that fires a score of grenades in a massive spread, a super powered launcher that can take down a huge killer robot in one shot, an assault rifle that has bouncing bullets, a shotgun so powerful it sends the ants literally flying! Then there are the weapons that you think will be amazing but turn out to be disastrous: the mines that take ages to place and then you detonate them all and make a huge dent in a wave of ants… and then you realize you’re down to just your other weapon and have no chance. The sentry guns that you become far too reliant upon but take up a precious weapon slot and burn through limited ammo in a hurry, taking an interminable time to redeploy afterward. Also the aforementioned bounce guns. The repair kit, that’s a luxury you can’t afford man, we’re being overrun by giant spiders!
“Hey lets hurry back and get a bite to eat!”
The variable difficulty system for all the levels provides a nice, flexible difficulty curve to match. You can choose to play through in, say, the middle of the five difficulties (it says a lot that this is termed as “hard”), if you get horribly stuck on one level part way through, then just take the difficulty down a notch for that level and you’ll probably fly through it first time, or go back to the earlier levels and crush them on easier settings to grab some more armour pickups and give your soldier more of a fighting chance for later levels. It would be a grind if it didn’t always remain a lot of fun. That’s the genius of the game, it throws a lot of fairly repetitive levels and enemies at you, but it never stops being enjoyable somehow, – the fast paced combat is just always worth it.
“There, those silver giants!”
“It’s time to welcome our silver friends!”
EDF 2017 offers local co-op, and its one of those rare games that really feels like it should only ever be played that way. Partly because it’s a lot more fun, but also because it feels balanced and tailored to a two man team. You really want to be carrying four weapons total instead of just two, having a duo allows you both to specialise a little in what you’re carrying, maybe one guy has a rocket launcher to focus on the more robotic of foes, while the other takes along a quick firing grenade launcher to chew holes in waves of ants. Or you can both load up on launchers with multiple heat seeking missiles and just stand back and watch the fireworks. Be sure to throw some lines from Aliens back and forth between yourselves too — it’s valuable and effective.
There are vehicles — they’re almost impossible to control. I don’t know why, but you’ll end up crashing all of them within a few seconds of hopping onboard. You have AI allies too (the red-shirt like ranger teams) — they join up with you if you walk into a group of them and sometimes you start off with a large force of them from the get-go. They’re not great, but sheer weight of numbers can make them helpful. Oh, and it has to be said that the inclusion of achievements in the game seems almost dismissively silly — for each difficulty setting there is a single achievement for completing all the levels, and one for collecting all 150 weapons, and that’s it. So it’s a challenge, anyway.
“I’ll never forgive them for this!”
The story? The story doesn’t even try to get in the way; the plot is as non-sensical as you could hope. The voice acting is the most terrible and wonderful there has ever been, I feel confident in making that statement. They’ll never better the voice acting in EDF, it matches the mood of the game perfectly, strangely translated lines delivered by people who were obviously only given one take and were like “What does this mean? What do you mean by…” just before delivering them.
In many ways then, it’s the opposite of a game like Gears of War. Where that was incredibly polished, fairly short, monochrome and precise, EDF 2017 is rough around the edges, quite basic, but at the same time huge, expansive, colourful and light hearted. Don’t get me wrong, Gears is great, but I think a lot of developers would do well to follow EDF’s approach rather than just blindly heading down the war-torn grey -everywhere and overly serious route. If games are going to model themselves after films, then Earth Defense Force is modeled on the kind of films that I want to play a part in.
One more thing about Earth Defence Force 2017 — as the various lines interspersed throughout this article might suggest, it offers up more quotable lines than the entire 80s, that whole decade, put together. The battle chatter that your fellow soldiers engage in never fails to thrill and amaze.
“Why don’t you go back home to space!”
Now that sounds like the anthem for a generation.