Sunday, January 15, 2017

Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair - Thoughts

[contains spoilers]

I don't think Sandlot understands what makes Earth Defense Force so special. Mind you, this is not an easy claim to make: Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair is the biggest, craziest, most action-packed bug-blasting game they've made yet. It has four different classes with hundreds of weapons each, over twenty enemy variants, 4-player online co-op, and a staggering 80+ missions to complete across five difficulties—but quantity is not a good indicator of quality. The EDF series treads a thin line between being arcadey fun and mindless monotony, and the more time you spend with it the more you're likely to realize the games belongs to the latter category. There's nothing wrong with that per se, but the design decisions of EDF 4.1 serve only to bring its worst qualities to the surface.

This is a huge disappointment for me considering that I love Earth Defense Force 2017: it had the honor of being one of my first Xbox 360 titles and my virgin experience with EDF. I adored its bald-faced silliness and schlocky presentation, the game blatantly mimicking the melodramatic (and secretly patriotic?) tone of the kaiju genre. I played it in those cherished years where I could blissfully waste afternoons farming for a single weapon drop on the couch with my brother, before hundreds of miles separated us and time became a rapidly diminishing resource. Earth Defense Force 2017 is a game that I admit is fully submerged in rosy nostalgia for me, but I had anticipated that my avidity for the series would carry me through Earth Defense Force 4.1 unmarred.

The first warning sign that EDF4.1 gave me was that nearly half of the game was an uncanny retread of the previous one. And I don't just mean EDF4.1 was following its themes or anything—enemies, locales, and mission structure were basically lifted straight out of the old game, the story eventually culminating in the same final fight against EDF2017's mothership orb. I understand that the entire series has always followed a similar story arc ("We're being invaded" -> "We can't beat them!" -> "We beat them!" [with a Godzilla knockoff somewhere in there]), but I expected a little more from EDF4.1 outside of fighting a couple of new enemy types; instead of continuing what EDF2017 had built, EDF4.1 was content on regurgitating it ad verbatim, making me wonder what exactly I had spent my money on.

But thankfully, after Mission 40, a new menace had appeared! Covering the skies was a mighty iron curtain that dropped terrifying new enemies accompanied by a new type of dropship too! This is where the EDF4.1 gets considerably more exciting!... except that the game had been going on for so long that fatigue began to set in. Not only that, but the beats of the previous story arc were repeating once again here, the various "new" enemies replacing the role of the old ones (voidships instead of dropships, blue Hectors instead of regular ones, giant wasp queen instead of giant ant queen). The Deroys and Argo are super cool foes that are fun to fight, but I still feel the pacing o the game would've been improved had EDF4.1 started at the reign of the Earth Eaters, instead of piggybacking off of an experience I had already played to death.

Plus, the Earth Eaters are super lame. EDF 2017's mothership intimidated players with its screen-filling presence, the absurdly-named "Genocide Gun" on its underbelly able to destroy the player in a single hit if they got caught in its sweeping laser wave of death. The Earth Eaters on the other hand do... what exactly? They fill the sky above you, fire a handful of stationary beams, and release flying vehicles from a hatch... none of which capture "despair" as the game's title so readily implies (plus the latter two cells are easily destroyed). Only in two stages do the Earth Eaters come equipped with any sort of useful weapons, the second of which is the final battle of the entire game! It may seem silly to criticize a single enemy type so harshly, but part of what makes EDF great is that it captures the desperation of fighting off a purely malevolent alien army—so when you hear something like "the Earth Eaters have destroyed over half of the world!" and they're lazily sitting there on your screen ineffectually shooting two green lasers at a hillside, it shatters the absurd plausibility the game is aiming for. And don't get me started on how disappointingly flaccid the final boss is—the only good thing about it is the eerie sound it makes whenever you inflict damage.

While I've bemoaned a lot about the structure of the game, there are two additions to EDF4.1 that are extremely welcome: multiple classes and online coop. Thanks to these features I was able to play online with my brother as a Wingdiver, reliving the glory days of squashing giant insects together this time from high above in the sky. It's really neat that each of the classes significantly changes how you approach the game and its enemies (when you can fly dragons become harmless critters while Deroys can now melt you like butter), the Air Raider perhaps being the only class that's at an obvious disadvantage (air strikes still look rad, however). Unfortunately Sandlot even finds a way to pad the multiplayer out, separating the levels you complete in single player from the multiplayer campaign and restricting you from sharing your weapon & armor upgrades across classes. To 100% EDF2017, you need to play through the game 5 times in either single player and/or multiplayer, a task that took me 47 hours to complete; to 100% EDF4.1, you need to finish the game 20 times in both single player and multiplayer, of which a scant 2 playthroughs had already brought me to 37 hours. Couple this with the fact that the multiplayer feels skewed for four players instead of two (the final mission is a monster) and I could not clean my hands of this game fast enough.

It saddens me that I spent so much time airing my grievances for Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair rather than singing its praises. There's merit in EDF that's akin to the Dynasty Warriors series, offering the player a chance to turn off their brain and fight legions of baddies to their hearts content, the game's self-serious attitude being another huge selling point. And to its credit EDF4.1 offers quite a bang for your buck, and at a stable framerate to boot (a first for the series!) It's just a damn shame that so much potential here is worn thin due to an excessive run time and retracing of old steps. Had half the levels been lopped off and a few tweaks made to the multiplayer, I probably would've been singing a different tune. As foolish as it may be, I earnestly hope that EDF5 takes a fresh approach to the series.

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