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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Obscusion B-Side: Simple 2000 Series Vol. 31: The Earth Defense Force: Do You Like Death? Then Die!

Technically, this game isn't really "mecha"... But it still features giant robots, and it's very creation came from a game about controlling giant robots, so I'm going to count it. Plus, it's the game that birthed one of the absolute greatest video game franchises in history, so how can I not review it, especially when the timing is pretty good? First, though, let's (once again) look at a bit of history.

Video game developer Sandlot was founded back in March of 2001 by former employees of then-not-long-ago defunct Human Entertainment (creators of the Fire Pro Wrestling & Clock Tower series). Namely, the team had worked on 1999's Remote Control Dandy for the PlayStation, and was hoping to continue that game's concept of controlling a giant robot, limb by limb. The studio's debut game was 2002's Gigantic Drive, released in North America as Robot Alchemic Drive (which was also one of the last games released by Enix of America, months before the Square-Enix merger), which was acclaimed for its novel idea of controlling a human who has to find good viewpoints in order to control a giant robot for battle. Japanese gaming company D3 Publisher, intrigued by the engine powering the game, brought Sandlot on board for its very successful Simple Series of budget-priced video games. Sandlot's response, the 31st entry in the series' main PlayStation 2 line, was 2003's The Chikyuu Boueigun/Earth Defense Force, a game whose franchise is now celebrating 12 years of life & next month will see a simultaneous North American release of updated versions of its second & fourth entries by XSEED on the PlayStation Vita & PlayStation 4, respectively. What about the first game, though? Did it provide a proper basis for what would come later, and does it hold up well after more than a decade? Let's find out.

The year is 2017 & we now know that we aren't alone in the universe. Unfortunately, we only know this because we are being attacked the mysterious "Invaders", who have at their disposal giant ants, flying UFOs, giant walking versions of those UFOs, & even hulking behemoths that can breathe fire. The only possible way of surviving is to rely on the Earth Defense Force, EDF for short, who have at their disposal assault rifles, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, grenades, flamethrowers, & shotguns, among other weapons. With some skills, & maybe a little luck, the EDF may be able to save the world.

For those unfamiliar with the EDF games, the concept is true to D3's budget line by being, well, "simple". You play as a traditional soldier, no varying classes to be found here, & the objective for each stage is to simply eliminate any & all enemies to be found, with your only restriction being that you can only carry two weapons at a time. You can only select which weapons to use before starting a stage, & nearly every weapon features unlimited ammo (though there are still clip sizes & reload speeds to consider). While the game defaults to a more "traditional" control scheme, it's recommended to use the "Technical" control scheme, which is the de-facto way to play every game in this series. With this second scheme, you move around with the left analog stick, turn & look around with the right stick, jump with L1, shoot with R1, & swap weapons with R2. No other button is used other than the Start button to bring up the pause menu, which let's you resume, retry, return to the preparation menu, & adjust some options. While manual reloading is indeed impossible (& not made available until EDF 4/2025), it's rarely something that will result in cheap deaths. Overall, Technical is a simple but highly intuitive control scheme, giving you free range in terms of aiming (which the default scheme does not let you do), and having all actions done by the shoulder buttons lets you keep your thumbs on the analog sticks, which is awesome.

As you gun down any & all enemies in your path, icons will randomly drop from dead foes. Two types of med packs (small & large) recover your health, the Armor icon increases your max health after finishing the stage, & the Weapon box icon gives you a new weapon after clearing the stage. The Weapon icon in particular rewards you with a randomized weapon, so you'll often come across duplicates of weapons that you already found. Also, the strength of the weapon awarded depends on both the difficulty you played the stage on (Easy, Normal, Hard, Hardest, or Inferno) as well as how far into the campaign the stage you cleared is (a.k.a. the later [& more difficult] the stage, the better the loot). In order to claim any of these drops, you have to touch the icon with your soldier, so often you'll be making a stage go on for longer by keeping one last enemy alive just so that you can pick up every single Armor & Weapon drop. It sounds tedious, and it is to an extent, but you end up getting into a rhythm, especially once you realize that doing a continual evasion roll (by jumping while moving at an angle) is much faster than simply walking (there is no run button, after all). If you're familiar with games like Borderlands or Fallout, where you often try to pick up as much loot as possible, then you're already familiar with how EDF works in that regard.

There are also a trio of vehicles to drive around in, though they tend to not be quite as useful as you'd think. The Hover Bike is good for traveling long distances quickly, but takes damage just by bumping into things & is quickly destroyed. The Tank is the most useful of the vehicles, but its cannon fires slowly & works more as a way to start an attack than anything. Finally, there's the Helicopter, which flies high, but takes forever to start ascending & can be a pain to control. Luckily, they are just as destructible as the environment, which is another high point of the game (& series as a whole). While you are technically protecting the world from the alien threat, there is no penalty at all for causing more destruction than the enemy. As long as you have an explosive weapon of some sort (rockets, missile, grenades, etc.), you can destroy any building in your path, reducing it to ground rubble. There's just an excellent visceral feel to being allowed to just finish a stage however you want, with no worries about keeping the environment from being ravaged.

Anyway, that's the basic gist of how EDF plays, and this is true for not just the first game but the series as a whole. It's simply been a very consistent series in terms of gameplay, and while new gameplay elements have been added, like new vehicles, character class types, & more enemies, the gameplay itself hasn't changed greatly. Therefore, is there anything different about The EDF when compared to its successors? Actually, & surprisingly, the answer is "Yes" in some ways. First of all, compared to the lengthy campaigns of its sequels, which vary from ~50-90 stages (depending on the game), this first game is a paltry 25 stages long; likewise, there are only 100 weapons to acquire, compared to the literal hundreds in later games. In terms of gameplay, the changes are more quirky than anything else. For example, you can actually hit civilians in this game, with explosive weapons sending them flying all over; they're immortal, though, so don't feel guilty if you hit one. Also, larger buildings & structures like bridges require more than one hit to destroy, likely a carry over from Robot Alchemic Drive; later games' structures fall apart with a single blast. It's also much easier to destroy enemy vehicles like dropships & the Mothership, as there is no weak spot (usually the hatch where enemies come out of) to target; hitting the broadside works just as well here. Finally, & most shockingly, each Armor drop adds four to your max HP, which makes increasing your health insanely easy. Later games would drop this increase to only one, with the fourth game having varying increases depending on which class you're using, though none of them are close to one HP per drop. It definitely is proof that Sandlot was experimenting with this game, and would fine tune & refine everything following it. Still, all of these quirks are enough to make you forget that, unlike later entries, every stage has you going it alone, as there are no computer-controlled allies; unless you're playing local co-op with a friend, you're an EDF of one here.

Graphically, the game doesn't look much different from its sequels, which is likely due to a shared engine for the most part. Your character animates just enough to get by, when in non-city areas things like tufts of grass pop up only when nearby, and when things get hectic the framerate can easily drop into what feels like the single digits. Still, that's admittedly par for the course for the EDF games (only the upcoming EDF 4.1 actually fixes the framerate), and it's something that fans of the series have learned to live with because the gameplay is just so fun; even if the framerate dips hard, it's never game-breaking by any means. In fact, larger structures look to crumble slightly differently here than in later games, also likely a carry over from RAD. The giant ants still look appropriately freakish in the way I'm sure anyone would react to seeing an ant that towers over them. Flying units, dropships, & the Mothership are all purple-hued, rounded UFOs that easily remind one of the 50s B-Movies that the game was obvious inspired by, while the giant walkers are nothing more than flying units that sport giant legs & extra weaponry; a far cry from the "Hectors" of later games. Finally, the giant monsters, called Solas, are very blatant Godizlla rip-offs which would be altered in later games. Still, it's the sheer scale that makes everything work, and is the biggest benefit to Sandlot re-using the RAD engine. Every enemy unit is gigantic compared to you, and when you're up close to something like a walker the simple fact that you can look straight upwards to see the base never stops feeling awe-inspiring. Finally, unlike later games, defeated ants don't become dead weight that can interrupt shots & become a nuisance; upon death they can be walked through, shot through, & disappear relatively quickly.

The music by Masafumi Takada (RAD, God Hand, the Danganronpa series) is simple but very fitting for the game in general, relying on numerous orchestral beats with a variety of emotions. The menu theme, however, is easily the best song, sounding appropriately 50s/60s (or, at least, the way we think of that time in terms of sci-fi) yet with an addictive back beat that you want to dance to. Takada has gone on to score every game in the series, resulting in plenty of songs that are simple in composition, but stick in your head well after you've stopped playing. In terms of voice work there isn't much in general, mainly due to the lack of computer allies. On some missions you hear radio transmissions from the EDF, which sound fine, but for the most part it's nothing but the music & the now-familiar (&, dare I say, iconic) sound effects that have been used in every game in the series; the sound your soldier makes when he dies is pretty gut-wrenching, though.

The Earth Defense Force is a game that will feel instantly familiar to anyone who's played any of the later entries. The general gameplay hasn't changed since the beginning, the enemies operate very much like they do now (even if some of them do look different), and it's nothing but fun to play, which has always been the key to EDF's success. Even if it's never a grand game in terms of graphics & the like, it's still some of the most fun you'll ever have with a video game made in the past 10 years or so. If anything, The EDF is simply a very lean version of what would come later, with only a small fraction of the number of stages we're accustomed to (usually ending with only a single wave of foes), a highly truncated variety of enemy units (black & red ants, purple & red UFOs, walkers, dropships, Solas, & the Mothership), & a reduced armory. The lack of chatter from your fellow soldiers, & lack of any AI partners in general, is sad, but the core gameplay is still EDF through & through, which is excellent. The EDF isn't exactly a must-play, but if you're a fan of the series & have the chance to play this original game, then by all means do so, if only to see where it all started; it may be lean, but it's still great fun.

While all of the other games have since been updated with extra content on newer consoles & handhelds, the original has stayed exclusive to the PS2, and I have wondered why exactly. After playing it, I finally see why: It's already been remade, in a sense. 2006's Earth Defense Force 3/2017 on the Xbox 360 is essentially a complete & expanded remake of The EDF. You can only play as the "Ranger" (though the Vita port adds in the flying "Pale Wing" class), the game takes place in the same exact year as the original (2017), and both games even use the same cinematic camera angles at times. The best example of that is in the pre-stage cutscene for when you fight the giant monster the first time, as both games utilize the exact same camera angles & framing; both even start with a view from between two buildings. That does make the original game a bit redundant, but it still doesn't dilute the fact that this series has been great from the very beginning, & I'm glad to reassure that.

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