Sunday, March 21, 2010

Earth Defense Force 2017

To date, Japanese developer Sandlot has made nine games released by six publishers. That just covers their Japanese releases, although it so happens that very little of their output has made it out of Japan. Far from being hired muscle, they really only develop games in a very peculiar genre that they themselves created on the PS1 with Remote Control Dandy. Remote Control Dandy cast players in the role of a human character who would have to defend the city by remotely controlling a giant robot. That design was expanded upon in Robot Alchemic Drive, Sandlot's first North American release and also my favorite PS2 game. More fully realized in its ambitious design than any other game I've played, RAD pit giant mechs against giant aliens in colossal clashes that always left the urban environment utterly devastated. It went largely unnoticed in America, but Japan would get a few more remote-controlled city-destroying robot games out of Sandlot. Perhaps the developer's most successful games, however, have been the Chikyuu Boueigun or "Earth Defense Force" titles, which basically took the RAD engine and removed the robots. The first two installments quietly posted up some decent figures as budget-priced releases in Japan and Europe, but only the third Chikyuu Boueigun title made it to North America, where it again became a sort of sleeper hit budget title as Earth Defense Force 2017 for the Xbox 360.

So, how does Sandlot's signature design work in a game that is missing the one element--the giant robots--that it was built around in the first place? Well, although the remote-controlled robots are gone in EDF 2017, you can definitely trace the game's lineage back to RAD and Sandlot's other robot games. The game's most notable aspect is its sense of scale--not just the size of the enemies but the extent of the destruction that enemies and players alike can wreak. As players battle as human soldiers on foot against giant ants, as well as sinister robots that tower forty stories tall, the real delight is in seeing how much of the city you can level within a stage (before it is all miraculously rebuilt for the next level). Even small arms tear into skyscrapers as though ripping through paper, and city blocks collapse like houses of cards into smoke and rubble which you can then walk triumphantly over. Yeah, the game's flimsy, almost nonexistent story tasks you with defending the earth from alien invaders, but, unlike in RAD, nobody keeps a tally of the collateral damage, and when the robots start dropping from those UFOs right into the middle of the city and begin unleashing their rapid-fire laser cannons, the urgency of the situation does not afford us the luxury of choosing where we bring them down. They fall where they fall, and if that happens to be on top of the residential district, then we can't really be held accountable for the losses of life and property. Or if a shopping complex gets between you and your target, you're not seriously going to waste time making that long walk around, are you?

For sure, it's an impressive game for its budget, and the spectacle of Gort's big brothers laying waste to the city during actual gameplay consistently inspires awe as perhaps no other game does. Even without great production values, Sandlot has no equal when it comes to depicting outlandish sci-fi titans enacting over-the-top violence upon a startlingly realistic setting. But let there be no delusions that this is more than a budget release. EDF 2017 boasts a similar commitment to its gameplay premise as RAD, but that premise in this case is far simpler. This is a game about the purity of blasting alien bugs that go flying on impact and explode into massive clouds of green goo. With nothing else to distract from the arcade-style experience, the game promises a sort of primal satisfaction but is overly shallow. Whereas RAD stood out because of its ludicrously convoluted yet incomparably brilliant control scheme, EDF 2017 is about as simple as it gets (which is probably appropriate, given that the series is part of D3 Publisher's "Simple" line in Japan). It's an exceedingly spartan third-person shooter, where you run around a city and wield some clumsy but explosive firearms against hordes of bugs and robots. Against these enemies with little AI but great numbers and/or health, you just fire away as rapidly as you can in their general direction. It's ultimately an even more mindless version of Dynasty Warriors, with bigger effects and better draw distance but fewer meaningful characters or objectives. With over fifty levels and five difficulty settings, it's a value package with a lot of content to keep players busy for a long time, but most of the missions offer exactly the same experience. In nearly every stage, the only goal is to eliminate all enemies, which doesn't require any great skill or strategy. Knocking down buildings is fun at first, but the lack of any related score, even a negative one as in RAD, makes it all kind of pointless pretty quickly.

As disappointing as the lack of depth to the gameplay is the absence of any zany anime-inspired story as found in RAD. It starts out promising with a quaint cinematic of some alien spacecraft ominously descending upon the city. Before any alien life forms are even visible, the government dubs them "Ravagers" while wondering if they might be friendly. They're not, of course, and first contact is made with missiles. That's the extent of the story, however, and from there it's just mission after mission of the nameless "Earth Defense Force" troops dispatched to intercept the alien invaders with little in the way of exposition. Frequent hammy background chatter from unspecified EDF comrades ("They're huge!" "We can win this!" "Now let's go kick some alien butt!") adds charm and completes the cheesy presentation, but the incessant explosion and gunfire noises wear on the ears.

Backed by Enix's money, Sandlot showed that it could do great things with RAD. EDF 2017 exhibits flashes of brilliance that you wouldn't expect in the budget range, but it feels like a minor project to keep the developer going between its "real" releases, much in the way that Square Enix keeps the Kingdom Hearts series active via portable side story games between major console titles. Sandlot's latest game is Nintendo's Zangeki no Reginleiv, notable as the first game to be packaged in Japan with the new black Wii case for releases rated at CERO C (15+) or over. By all accounts, the game is Chikyuu Boueigun with Wii MotionPlus controls and a vaguely Norse mythological theme. It's a decidedly Sandlot game, which doesn't give it very good chances for a North American release, but, after playing EDF 2017, I'm not planning to start any petitions. Of course I'll play it if Nintendo does decide to bring it over, but I'd be much more interested in seeing Sandlot going back to its more complex and experimental robot games.

1 comment:

Sam Kahn said...

I'm gonna see if I can get RAD. You've written about it before and I meant to try it out but forgot.