Lost in time
Almost everything in this world is made better when there is a gaggle of good friends by your side.
That’s true of so many things that you’ll encounter in life, regardless of whether you are running activities outdoors or teaming up to fight back an encroaching enemy threat online. In fact, this comes into a particularly sharp focus when considering the realms of online gaming, as even the most rote of multiplayer experiences can become transformed by the addition of a few friends to a game lobby – the lines of communication a muddled mess of in-jokes, bad tactical decisions and howls of laughter that echo long into the night. This is one of the reasons that judging an experience such as Earthfall
– a cooperative shooter by its very design – can become an exercise in expectation management. Get the right people together and you’ll certainly have an enjoyable enough time, though is that because of the game itself or because of the people you’re with? In the case of Earthfall, any good times that are to be found are largely in spite of the game itself rather than a direct result of anything it has to offer.
It is, truthfully, difficult to separate Earthfall
from the litany of genre games that have come before it. That was always to be expected. Left 4 Dead and its sequel cast such a monumental shadow over the co-op shooter space that any game that dares step into it will not only inevitably invite comparison but also come off worse because of it. A decade ago Valve South (Turtle Rock Studios) perfected the co-op shooter, setting a benchmark for AI design, expansive linear storytelling and dynamic interplay between characters that simply hasn’t been matched since.
Earthfall is no exception, falling short in just about every respect. It delivers surprisingly few new ideas, seeking to offer little more than a would-be Left 4 Dead experience with the zombies swapped out for invading aliens. While the template is certainly recognisable, the game itself fails to nail the basics, let alone innovate on them in any real or immediate sense.
Sending a group of four wayward survivors through ten linear missions, split across two campaigns, Earthfall ushers you into the outskirts of an alien invasion. You’re tasked with fending off wave after wave of threats, a sea of uncharacteristic drones occasionally punctuated by the appearance of ‘special’ enemies that seek to divide your group in a number of familiar ways. The Threshers are prone to pouncing, putting one of your crew temporarily out of commission. The Sappers explode, briefly disorientating anybody caught in the blast radius, while the Whiplashes have a tendency to pull one member out of the action until rescued by a buddy. They are practically one-for-one with the specials of Left 4 Dead, albeit with less personality or presence.
One of Earthfall’s biggest issues is that it doesn’t feel finely tuned. With 10 firearms to be found, you’ll find that the weapon handling for each ranges between ropey at best and downright tedious at worst. But if there is any one thing that all of the weapons have in common it’s that they all feel suitably underpowered; feedback is a huge issue here, with the sniper rifles and shotguns feeling decidedly floaty and ineffectual, even as you’re lopping off alien body parts and bursting heads. If you’re connecting bullets with an enemy you want to know about it, you want to feel it in your fingers, particularly as the bruisier bosses come into play.
Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity here, however, is that lack of any real sense of ingrained replayability. The enemy AI systems aren’t particularly smart, nor do they ever seem to react in any meaningful way to your successes or failures throughout a campaign; reactive AI is one piece of the L4D puzzle that made it such a genuine phenomenon and
“it delivers surprisingly few new ideas, offering little more than a would be left 4 dead experience”
its absence is almost immediately noticeable. It’s also somewhat surprising to find that Earthfall has very little in the way of randomised elements; weapon and item drops are always the same, the objectives never shift, nor does the placement or composition of the enemy waves. All of this only helps to foster a game environment that quickly grows stale, with Holospark offering little more than escalating difficulty modes to help keep players enticed.
All of these problems become somewhat exacerbated depending on how you choose to play. Play in solo and you’ll quickly begin to loathe the friendly AI, with its priorities seemingly laser focused on firing at enemies rather than helping you up off the floor. Attempt to jump online and you’ll likely encounter some pretty severe connection issues. Earthfall offers no easy way to filter games based on connection – in fact, it hides ping entirely – while the lack of any stable host migration means that, should the host drop out of the game for any reason and at any time, the entire campaign will come to an unceremonious end.
If you were to assemble the right group of friends online you would likely have a good time with Earthfall. Approached in a certain way, its numerous idiosyncrasies could give off a hokey B-movie vibe that’s easy enough to get behind for a few hours – and we do mean that literally, the two campaigns can be completed as quickly as five hours on regular difficulty.
But when it’s all said and done it’s difficult to escape the mindset that Earthfall has taken the template of a decade-old experience for inspiration and failed to replicate (or expand on) it in any meaningful way.
Earthfall can’t escape the shadows of the past
Earthfall has some nice ideas, but so many of them are inseparable from the decade-old Left 4 Dead. Holospark deserves credit for bringing this long-dormant formula back to the fore, but it clearly needed a little more time in development.
Weapon handling and feedback isn’t quite where it needs to be, particularly for an experience so heavily focused around shooting waves of enemies.