Saturday, July 25, 2020

It Came From Japan: The Earth Defense Force & Earth Defense Force 2 (PS2)

It's crazy to think Earth Defense Force is almost two decades old.  Though the franchise is regarded as a cult classic for its manic sci-fi action, when the first game released for the PlayStation 2 in 2003, it was a simple shooter for a simple series.  The Simple Series 2000 was a line of budget titles put out by publisher D3.  Take a studio, develop a game on the cheap, release it for 2,000 yen (20 bucks in America) and make a profit, capitalism at its finest.  The Simple Series played host to a variety of games conventional and unconventional.  2003's The Earth Defense Force was developer Sandlot building off the concept of large-scale battles set in huge environments, which they previously toyed with in the mech sim Robot Alchemic Drive.

In the not-too distant future, next Sunday A.D., unusual signals are picked up by satellites.  Theorizing this might be an alien civilization trying to contact Earth, nations band together to create the Earth Defense Force.  Fast forward to 2017, and giant spaceships appear over the skies, bringing with them gifts of giant insects, robots, and more.  Valiantly and defiantly, the Earth Defense Force thwarts the invasion, and all that's left to do is clean up the mess.  Peace is only temporary, as in Earth Defense Force 2, the invaders return, and this time, they brought friends.

Considering both games were produced for a line of budget titles, plot is the least of worries.  What matters is what's being killed and what weapons you use to do so.  Thin plots are the norm for Earth Defense Force, so for the first two entries to not have much in the way of narrative is not surprising.  Where the stories shine, though, is through pacing.  Campaigns in Earth Defense Force thrive on gradual escalation, slowly but surely ramping up the insanity until the player is taking on giant frogs wielding plasma guns, all the while a giant monster stomps through the city.  The first game has few surprises, but the sequel throws curveballs like nobody's business.  

H.G. Wells called.  He wants his alien war machines back.

What starts out as a soft remake of the original becomes its own thing towards the half-way point when a bigger, deadlier mothership joins the fray, along with a host of new invaders big and gargantuan.  If it sounds familiar, it's because Earth Defense Force 2017 and Earth Defense Force 4.1 are remakes of the PlayStation 2 originals.  What the plots lack in originality, they make up for creatively.

Earth Defense Force is known for its basic but in-depth run-and-gun gameplay.  With lengthy campaigns, multiple characters, and a plethora of firearms to unlock, the games are never light on content.  Even in these early entries, you will recognize a lot of what defines the series.  Before starting the game proper, I recommend going into the options menu and switching control schemes.  The default lay-out is outdated, but the secondary choice makes for a smoother experience.  Also, while the two Earth Defense Force titles are in Japanese, getting past the language barrier is easy as the menus contain visuals to identify which tabs lead to what, just remember the circle button accepts while X is to go back.

The Earth Defense Force and Earth Defense Force 2 were released in Europe as Monster Attack and Global Defense Force respectively.  While voice acting is absent, all the menus and text are translated to English.  For U.S. players, the second game did get ported to the Vita in 2015, complete with English translations for text and voices, and a new character called the Air Raider was added.  Just remember if you want to play the original PlayStation 2 titles, you will need a Japanese/European PS2 to do so, plus you have to account for the different voltage of a European PS2 if you live in America.  With the technicalities out of the way, on to the games themselves.

The Earth Defense Forcce is the one that started it all, and it shows.  With only one character and a short campaign, there is not a lot of meat to the adventure.  Even the enemy variety is small.  There are ants, H.G. Wells-inspired mechs, gunships, dropships, a kaiju, a mothership, and that's it.  Spiders, the arch-nemesis of many an EDF veteran, are introduced in the sequel.  Earth Defense Force 2 not only adds new enemy types, but a new playable character.  Both games feature the soldier.  He moves, shoots, jumps, and rolls.  What he lacks in abilities he makes up for with his expansive arsenal.

Unlike later games, dropships can be downed simply by shooting them instead of waiting for the hatch to open. 

While he is the only character to play as in the first one, the sequel adds Pale Wing.  A short skirt wearing, jetpack flying goddess of destruction, the Pale Wing's gimmick is her guns and jetpack are tied to the same energy source.  Her weapons include rapid-firing plasma rifles, homing lasers, and laser snipers, among others.  The jetpack is great for maneuverability and making hit-and-run attacks, but her fragile nature means you have to play it quick and smart with her or else.  Whether you play The Earth Defense Force or Earth Defense Force 2, both feature missions with one goal: kill all enemies.  Over the course of the 25+ missions in the first game or 70+ missions in the second one, you will blast through waves of vicious creatures.

Combat is satisfying thanks to the weapons and fun gameplay.  You are never accompanied by AI allies in either game, so unless a buddy is tagging along via split-screen co-op, you are a one-man army going up against a seemingly unstoppable threat.  As mentioned briefly, The Earth Defense Force features a small enemy roster, but Earth Defense Force 2 brings in a bevy of new foes.  In addition to the previously mentioned spiders, there are flying ants, a new gunship model where shooting anywhere but the glowing red spot causes bullets to bounce off, plus centipedes.  If you weren't afraid of centipedes now, you will be after playing this game.

Slain bad guys drop health, armor, or a weapon pick-up.  Health is self-explanatory, but collecting armor increases overall health.  Weapon pick-ups unlock new guns, and the higher the difficulty, the better the gun.  It's a grind long-time fans will be familiar with, but it's also a satisfying gameplay loop.  Hearing the "ping" an item emits when picked up never gets old, as does checking the results screen after a mission ends to see what loot you found.  Earth Defense Force thrives on replay value as much as it does its chaotic action, and the first game surprisingly lacks the former.  With only a small number of missions which can be completed in a few hours, there's not much reason to revisit the game once you finish it.

Giant centipedes?  Nothing freaky about that.

It also doesn't help the AI is not particularly bright, even on higher difficulties.  The limited roster of foes means the firefights aren't as hectic as one would expect.  Nearly every problem discussed is rectified in Earth Defense Force 2.  It's a stronger experience due to the added polish, increased mission count and enemy selection.  While a first-time playthrough of the first game takes three to four hours, the sequel will take roughly seven hours to beat.  Plus, things get ridiculous, with one level going as far to pit you against two giant ant queens, two king spiders, and two kaiju for good measure.  The scale of both games is also the straw that breaks the camel's back regarding performance.

Neither Earth Defense Force game is a technical marvel.  Textures are basic and everything lacks detail, especially the fleeing civilians, who look like they belong in a PS1 title.  Then, there is the atrocious framerate.  It fluctuates between tolerable to horrendous depending on how much is happening, and the latter happens so often I worried my Japanese PS2 was going to explode.  Even on an older generation of hardware, Sandlot was keen on pushing a system's capabilities.  While the graphics look bad from a technical perspective, they impress with the scope.

Locales are enormous and stretch as far as the eye can see.  Both games feature stages set in non-descript Japanese cities, vast hills and valleys, with the sequel adding underground caves and areas of London to blow up.  I was also impressed with the destruction system.  Buildings crumbled and collapse differently depending on where you hit them, which is impressive to witness.  Seeing a towering skyscraper fall down like a tree before shattering into pieces is quite a spectacle.  The Japanese voice acting is competent and the melodramatic music is great.

Experiencing Earth Defense Force's roots is like playing the original Guitar Hero and its sequel.  The first game establishes the premise people know and love, yet you can tell it's the first installment.  It's short nor does it have much of an incentive to play, aside from curiosity.  Then comes the sequel, which polishes what made the original work, but goes further by adding content and new mechanics which became the norm for the series in future entries.  Earth Defense Force 2 is an entertaining sequel, and though the visuals aren't the best, the entertaining action makes up for it.  Only hardcore fans curious about how it all started should track down the first game.  Everyone else should stick with Earth Defense Force 2017.

Final Scores:
5/10 (The Earth Defense Force)
7/10 (Earth Defense Force 2)

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