Lost in time

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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.

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