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Earth Defense Force 5 Review

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The belle of the ugly-bug ball.

In real life, I don’t like creepy crawly things. I’m terrified of spiders, appalled by roaches, scared stupid of wasps, and refuse to touch any animal that might be deemed “slimy.” My wife kills all the bugs in our house. That fear adds a little gravity and catharsis to fighting the thousands of house-sized monstrosities in EDF 5 – and “thousands” is no hyperbole. During my playthrough of Earth Defense Force 5, I have thus far killed precisely 21,369 space aliens, murderous robots, and giant insects. I know this because the record-keeping department of the Earth Defense Force tells me so, and yet somehow even that astronomical number seems far too low for the amount of satisfaction I’ve derived from it – even before jumping into the excellent co-op multiplayer.

EDF 5 is fundamentally a solid wave-based arcade shooter built on top of a deep class-based loadout and leveling system, and both elements compliment one another nicely. Missions feature dozens of huge, sci-fi-tastic B-movie enemies attacking head-on in vast, fully destructible, and frightfully ugly city environments.

Exit Theatre Mode

Upon being blown up bad guys burst into loot explosions, spraying red and green upgrade boxes – a phenomenon I mentally dubbed “Christmastime.” Between missions, I looked over my new loot, tweaked my configuration in a few seconds, and then eagerly jumped back into battle to try it out.

How deep does the customization go? EDF boasts over a thousand weapons, including a number of pilotable vehicles, and the distinctive variety of equipment really does feel different. Some parts of my arsenal I barely touched, while other weapons I became so bonded with that I grieved to leave them behind when the emergence of more powerful foes required me to switch up.

Of the four classes available I gravitated most toward the Ranger, the bluntest instrument available, but I also enjoyed fooling around with the jetpack-equipped Wing Diver and zipping across the maps as I strafed battalions of bad guys. I was less drawn to the support and engineering-oriented Air Raider, though I did like its ability to call in big airstrikes. The shield-equipped Fencer class relied on a more complicated control scheme and just wasn’t my cup of tea, but I mostly lay that on my preference for a more straightforward approach. Each class had a niche to fill and felt very distinctive from the others, and I imagine many players will find one or two they really like and mostly stick to it.

Monster Party

EDF’s arenas are barren and ugly, and maps are sometimes reused throughout the 110 campaign missions, but I didn’t really mind as I was usually too busy happily spraying bullets and rockets to notice. The bugs and aliens are far more richly realized than the terrain, and the monster designs are consistently creative, terrifying, and even a little gruesome. The legions of winged, legless frogs that swooped down and swallowed me whole were positively unnerving, especially when they casually paused to chew on my head while my body hung limply out of their mouths.

The resulting orgy of gore and destruction is exhilarating and rarely gets old.

The considerable computing power of the PlayStation 4 is used not to render gorgeous graphics, but instead creatively harnessed to render enormous quantities of humongous enemies all attacking at the same time, like a tsunami of alien flesh and insect exoskeletons. Dozens of daunting foes typically appear at once, each ranging somewhere in size from that of a tank to a small town, and once the gunfire starts they’re all screaming, exploding, and bleeding all over everything. The resulting orgy of gore and destruction is exhilarating and rarely gets old.

Exit Theatre Mode

Despite the crowds and visual chaos, combat strategy is much deeper than it initially appears. Fighting different combinations of enemies requires different thoughtful approaches, and even the close-range guplay against swarms demands carefully balancing weapons, reload times, evasions, target prioritization, and movement toward health pickups. I dug the novelty of the mix up of big dumb insects trying to chew me up and roaring kaiju trying to flatten me with squads of 30-foot humanoid alien frogs and armored soldiers using office buildings for cover, acting in teams, and sniping from skyscraper rooftops. It rarely felt like I was just whacking away in the dark, and when that feeling did come down, it was usually a signal that I needed to either to quickly escape or switch up my mode of attack.

Mission difficulty can be a little uneven, but at most of the customizable difficulty levels EDF allowed me to keep a generous portion of the loot I picked up even when I died. Every time I tried again I was a little tougher, and if worse came to worst I could always opt to dial a single battle down to easy mode, move on to the next fight at standard difficulty, and come back later and tackle the sticking point when I was better equipped. I rarely choose to do so, but I very much appreciated the option as a safety net.

There are some notable rough edges to EDF 5.

There are some notable rough edges to EDF 5. Frame rates don’t stutter all that often on a standard PS4, but when they do dial down it’s certainly noticeable. Occasionally, a bizarre design choice jerked my camera control away from me and forced the perspective toward very important cinematic-style events. When this happened during a gunfight, it sometimes resulted in my taking unnecessary hits since the action around me didn’t pause. It didn’t happen much, but was deeply annoying when it did. A simple cutscene or temporary invincibility during these moments would have been much better. EFF also starts a little slow… it takes 3 or 4 missions to start getting to the meat of what Earth Defense Force is really about.

A Little Bugged

I was let down at the end when the last few missions of EDF 5 veered away from the core feeling of the campaign. There are so many powerful enemies scattered about in such close proximity that I had to exercise extraordinary caution in how I approached battles, often replaying them after dying to learn when triggered events took place and adjust my strategy accordingly. The guesswork in these last stages didn’t feel tactical; instead, it reminded me of some old bullet hell shmups where memorization is absolutely necessary to defeat the stage, and the comparison wasn’t a favorable one in my mind. With no mid-mission checkpoints, starting over and over just to figure out precisely when a certain sniper unit would spawn drew tedious and frustrating, and sucked a lot of the joy out of an otherwise rewarding experience.

These frustrations came to a head in the penultimate mission against an alien mothership, which was among the more annoying boss battles I’ve ever fought. It’s a long mission and demanded a lot of time-consuming, trial-and-error restarts that turned what should have been an epic battle into a slog. Even on easy, it’s a dreadfully obtuse stage. I reduced myself to the practice of loot-cave style grinding replays of earlier missions to power up for it, hiding in a corner firing into a narrow corridor at a high difficulty level and harvesting better weapon drops to gain an eventual edge against the mothership. In the end, overcoming it had more to do with stumbling upon a very specific order of activating friendly units and pattern of attack than any logical progression. Go to Hell, mission 109.

Go to Hell, mission 109.

So maybe you shouldn’t bother to finish it if you value your sanity, but so much of EDF 5 prior to the end was such great fun that I’m still happy to recommend it. The whole thing has a wild-west quality that’s remarkably evocative of some older mid-budget PC and console games where a collection of great ideas was thrown into a creative stewpot and came out pretty darn tasty, even if not every ingredient was perfectly balanced.

I was pretty blown away by how much EDF 5’s online multiplayer changes things in a seamless and delightfully smooth cooperative journey through the main campaign missions. Teaming up with up to three other players and talking strategy adds a whole new dimension to the huge battles. I paired up with a partner and found that some vehicles and weapons became far more useful, and the ability to select complimentary classes and loadouts added flavor to some missions without sacrificing challenge. The true potential of the Air Raider really shined, as his support-oriented abilities completely changed strategies on approaching some encounters together and his laser targeting gear made the Ranger’s missiles far more effective. I could come to the aid of fallen allies and revive them or be rescued by an ally from the jaws of giant ants. Every player’s kills fed a communal ticketing system to summon high-powered vehicles. And I loved that everybody shares loot after missions in a common pool. Online with a friend is now easily my favorite way to play EDF.

The Verdict

Even after 60 hours of bug hunting with a huge assortment of weapons and abilities, the mass bug-slaughter that EDF 5 does well is deliciously unique and keeps me coming back. It looks and feels like a throwback to a simpler age of gaming and and suffers from some unpolished technical decisions and sometimes less-than-stellar late-game balance, but the vast majority of EDF 5’s missions are energetic essays on a largely forgotten philosophy of action game that deserves further exploration. And when you’re joined by others, it becomes way too much fun to miss.

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