Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow Of New Despair
Oops. There goes another building. Our apologies to the family of the allied grunt who just took our misplaced RPG round to the noggin. And cripes, this is awkward, but when that other fellow was stuck in a giant spider’s web and we tried to save him by shooting it down, we instead blew his leg off and sent him cartwheeling toward the horizon. We should send some flowers. Earth Defense Force has never been a good game for an Englishman. Were the screen not constantly teeming with countless aggressive, fast-moving enemies, we’d spend more time apologising to those we’ve accidentally wronged than saving those who are still alive.
Earth Defense Force 4.1 is a remixed and expanded version of Earth Defense Force 2025, which was in turn a remixed and expanded version of Earth Defense Force 2017. Despite Sandlot spending a decade making pretty much the same game, and in one of the most overcrowded genres on the planet, there’s still nothing quite like EDF. There’s the scale of the thing, for a start; the hordes of giant bugs skittering around the side of skyscrapers, swarming down the street at you, gobbing acid at you from rooftops. The gigantic robot walkers, firing plasma cannons in great purple arcs from a mile away. Fleets of drones clogging the sky while transport ships rain down more giant spiders, ants and hornets.
Tonally, it’s a world apart from the sombre, portentous style employed by most of what you’d think of as its peers, with a cheesy B-movie feel to the script and its cheerily overdone delivery. EDF’s tone isn’t just a matter of scriptwriting, however, but of mechanics too. The beating heart of the game is its massive, massed enemy threat, allied to a comical physics model that sends foes, allies and even yourself ragdolling across the city from the force of an explosion, and buildings that crumble when hit by a single RPG round. It’s a recipe for absolute chaos – and also for absolute disaster. Given the overwhelming extent to which the odds are stacked against you, EDF should be the hardest game on the planet. And on the higher difficulties, it can sometimes feel like it. But Sandlot’s greatest trick is making ammo an infinite resource, your destructive abilities hemmed in only by your chosen loadout’s reload speed or cooldown time. Coming from a Destiny or a Halo – games that make the use of their most powerful weapons a risk, making you afraid that, if you use them now, you might not have any ammo when you need them most – this simple design choice is a revelation. The reason this is a game that makes us want to apologise every few seconds is that we’re flinging rockets about willy-nilly, knowing that if one misses, a fresh clip is only a second or two away, and splash damage means friendly fire is a given.
All this carnage has, in the past, meant that EDF had some low-budget technical issues to complement its B-movie action: visuals that were a generation off the pace, and a framerate that couldn’t keep up with the carnage. Well, no more: while far from the most handsome game, EDF 4.1 is the first in the series to run at a native 1080p on consoles, and the first to reach 60fps, where it remains the vast majority of the time. OK, sometimes it can’t hack the pace – a level with dozens of robots and a giant, laser-spewing walking fortress sees the refresh rate fall to more familiar levels – but it’s remarkably stable for the most part. To enjoy EDF, you’ve always needed to be willing to compromise; accepting that technical problems are a necessary sacrifice. Those days are gone. It’s never felt so fluid.
Well, relatively. The default Ranger class, with its stubby little jump and no sprint, is as ponderous as ever. Of the three other playable classes, the Wing Diver offers the most mobility, albeit at the cost of armour and destructive power, while the Fencer is a slow, hardhitting tank that’s now blessed with a rocket-powered jump to speed up its half-hour trudges across the game’s enormous levels. The Air Raider, meanwhile, is designed to fight from distance, laying traps and calling in airstrikes bound to minutes-long cooldowns. It, more than the others, is meant for fourplayer online co-op, though all can be retooled to play more supportive roles with weapons designed to strengthen and heal allies, rather than make giant hornets explode.
This is the biggest EDF to date, with a ludicrous 89 story missions to be played solo or with company, and a further nine co-op-only stages, all spread over five difficulty levels. It will take an age to see it all, but as ever, doing so requires an awful lot of patience, a stomach for repetition, and a willingness to endure some of the most infuriating RNG around. New weapons drop at what seems like a tremendous rate but many will be duplicates, and many more will be too low-level to be of much use. More powerful weapons drop on the higher difficulties, but only if you can finish a level – and the Level 0 rocket launcher we were still running around with after ten hours is of little use on Hard, never mind Hardest or Inferno, the game’s toughest challenge. As such, you’re left replaying levels on lower difficulties in the faint hope of getting a decent drop, and the appeal quickly wears off.
These are longstanding problems with EDF, however, and those lacking the stomach for the grind up through the difficulties will find more than enough on Normal to keep them going. It’s the same game as ever, then, but it’s never looked prettier or felt better. For fans, that will be plenty. For the uninitiated, there’s never been a better time to pick up an infinite rocket launcher and lay waste to a couple of thousand humongous wasps. Whoops! There goes another apartment building. We really are ever so sorry.
To enjoy EDF, you’ve always needed to be willing to compromise. Those days are gone. It’s never felt so fluid