Thursday, December 29, 2011

Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon Review

Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon, developed by Vicious Cycle and published by D3Publisher.
The Good: Constant action, a number of different weapons, online cooperative play
The Not So Good: Extremely repetitive, limited enemy variety, linear level design, no online match browser, can't save progress mid-mission
What say you? This cooperative shoot-em-up is limited by its lack of variety: 5/8

Bugs are gross. In fact, there is an entire industry dedicated to their extermination (I think they are called…“bug squashing guys”). Thankfully, most bugs are small, so their level of annoyance is relatively minimal. However, as evidenced in the scientific documentary Starship Troopers, large bugs could be a problem, especially if they were to invade our home planet (Earth). The Earth Defense Force has repelled the alien invasion in Japan and on consoles for quite some time, but now it’s time for Insect Armageddon and we PC gamers must join the fight.

Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon has a decidedly bland presentation that fits the budget-level price of the game. It starts with the level design, which places the protagonists in an urban location of repeated buildings with weak, monochromatic textures. The enemies are a mixed bag: while the designs and models are quite nice, instead of exploding in a gory act of violence, enemies simply fade out when killed. The weapons are pretty generic, with small tracer lines and some explosions when appropriate. Subtle damage (other than entire buildings collapsing) is shown on-screen when enemies are shot, giving few visual clues to indicate when you are landing shots. Overall, I was unimpressed with the graphics Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon has to offer. The sound design is also pretty ho-hum, with (purposely?) exaggerated voice acting and generic weapon sounds. Taken as a whole, Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon delivers nothing visually beyond its budget price.

The bugs are coming, and it’s up to the Earth Defense Force to stop the Insect Armageddon. A campaign of fifteen levels must be unlocked in order, protecting a new section of town from the insect threat. The levels are checkpoint-based and all missions follow the same general trend: walk to the next waypoint, kill everything, walk to the next waypoint, kill everything, lather, rinse, repeat. The linear presentation requires you to fully complete each section before progressing, leaving you no room for innovation or advanced tactics (or enemy avoidance, for that matter). Some of the levels use the same locations more than once, sending you around in circles on the urban streets. Each mission lasts about twice as long as it should (and you can't save your progress at any time), usually throwing a large number of enemies at you near the end in several waves to slow the pace of the game down considerably. Typically, there will be an enemy spawner (like an ant hive or ship carrier) with high health that you'll need to destroy (only when opened, of course) while contending with the enemies it creates; this can take a while. A higher difficulty setting adds health to the enemies, making for a more challenging mission. If more direct action is desired, you can play a survival mode in four locations, where the bugs won’t stop until everyone is cold and dead. However, the survival mode doesn't appear to scale according to how many people are playing, making the mode a tough go in single player. Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon is meant to be played online with the help of other human-like creatures, and you can easily host a match if desired. However, finding other games is difficult: the matchmaking provides no way to see a list of joinable matches, and since you usually will choose a specific unlocked level to play, there may or may not be other people playing that particular chapter. Of course, you can choose to play “any” level, but then you might be stuck playing an earlier mission you’ve already beaten. A simple list of servers would go a long way towards making the online games easier to join.

Approaching a ten-foot-tall spider with only your bare hands would be a tricky proposition, so it’s a good thing Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon gives you a variety of weapons to assist in disposing of those pesky bugs. Assault rifles, rocket launchers, missile launchers, grenade launchers, shotguns, and sniper rifles are all included, separated into tiers that are unlocked with experience and cash earned during the campaign based on your score. While there are certainly a lot of guns included in the game, most of the differences are very minor, adding increased damage, fire rate, or ammunition capacities. In addition to the weapons choices, you can also pick a class of soldier: the regular trooper, the sniper-and-turret-based tactical, the scout-like jetpack, or the heavy battle. Each class can carry most weapons, allowing you to more fully customize your role on the battlefield. However, you can only equip two weapons at a time, so choices must be made carefully. Both of your weapons have unlimited ammunition, which is good considering you can only carry two into battle. You'll also gain access to the occasional fixed turret, tank, or mech to add some firepower to the defense.

Not surprisingly, Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon features insects as your enemies. These include ants, ticks, and spiders, which make up a majority of the antagonists. You will also encounter metallic gunships frequently, a strange choice when a gigantic mosquito or dragonfly would have made a lot more sense given the setting (there are wasps, but they are more rare). Bosses include really large bugs and robots, but the tactics remain the same: point and shoot. The number of enemies you encounter simultaneously aren’t too overwhelming (especially when compared to Serious Sam 3), but I did get inundated on a number of occasions. There are plenty of health packs to pick up, dropped by enemy units, and a fallen soldier can be revived to full health by an ally, so the level is never over until every partner dies. I was disappointed with the lack of enemy variety: essentially every insect just runs straight towards you (though the robotic adversaries have distinctive, slightly more advanced patterns), and considering the sheer number of insect species there are, I was expecting a more diverse selection of foes. The friendly AI is better than I expected: other soldiers keep pace with you and actively engage enemies, even if there is a pesky solid building in the way. I never felt like the AI soldiers were a detriment to the team, and I rarely had to rely solely on my skills to complete missions.

Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon delivers similar action-packed gameplay against overwhelming odds to titles such as Left 4 Dead 2 and Serious Sam 3, but with more restrictions. First off, the repetitive and linear combat becomes monotonous quickly, as the game provides only a small handful of enemies (ants, spiders, and the airships) with the occasional boss around similar urban locations. The game purports hundreds of different weapons, but more advanced items within the same category (rifles, rocket launchers) simply provide better damage or a faster firing rate instead of offering more complex strategic choices. Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon is intended to be played cooperatively online, but without a server browser, finding people to play against is hit-or-miss. The somewhat brief campaign and never-ending survival mode present a lot of bugs to shoot, but lack the choices and diversity necessary for extended long-term enjoyment.