Giving another studio the opportunity to work on a well-documented franchise, especially one whose most notable creations are its WWE 2K titles for the past six years, is always going to come with risks. When developer Yuke’s was given the keys to the Earth Defense Force series, it promised a more western take on things - one that would place an emphasis on narrative and multiplayer. Worry amongst the fanbase was easy to understand, but the final product proves that it was in haste. Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain is so, so much more fun that it has any real right to be. Despite its attempted grab for the western market, this is still the EDF we all know, and for some, love.
The differences between Sandlot’s traditional bug slaughtering experience and Yuke’s take on things are immediate as a character creation screen kicks off the campaign. Rather than taking up the role of a faceless soldier, you get the chance to craft your own hero with fairly basic options that’ll allow you to differentiate yourself from the rest of the pack - be that with an accurate as possible recreation of yourself or through a goofier take on proceedings. Once you’re ready for combat though, it’s time to get serious.
It’s the year 2033, and Earth is once again the victim of an alien invasion. Known as the Aggressors, the bug-like horde’s mothership hangs overhead before one of its attacks devastates the vicinity, leaving everyone dead except for you. With your life intact, you go on to destroy the enemy base before slipping into a coma as a result of the ensuing blast. Seven years later, you reawaken to a world overrun by Aggressors. Thanks to your previous heroics, many believe you are the key to winning the war and so with a new squad to command, you join the fight once again.
It’s not a particularly spectacular plot, notably so considering it was supposedly an area of importance for the dev team, but it makes up for that to a degree with some humorous and intriguing dialogue. The “EDF! EDF! EDF!” chant is never too far away, but dig a little deeper and you’ll uncover teammates that reminisce about their childhood playing wrestling games and an in-game radio that provides context and commentary on the world around you. While some fun little quips will keep you going, unfolding events aren’t especially noteworthy, but then narrative has never been a focus of the Earth Defense Force experience.
Gameplay has always been king, and that hasn’t changed with this latest spin-off. Once again we find ourselves facing off against an almost insurmountable army of bug-like creatures, and only two weapons to dispose of them with. The objective is almost always the same: Kill anything and everything that stands in your path. Occasionally diversity creeps in with a point to defend or a vehicle to escort, but the task at hand is always going to boil down to killing a lot of enemies.
That’s no bad thing though because the franchise has clearly uncovered a formula that just works. Carving your way through waves upon waves of ants, spiders, and scorpions is so mindlessly enjoyable - to the point where it’s enough to carry the game through to its conclusion. Weapons are easy to handle and fire, bullets deal a great amount of damage to even up the odds, and mobility is at an all-time high.
Gameplay feels like its cranked up to 11 for every single mission as blocks of buildings fall to the ground, hundreds of enemies swarm upon your position, and multiple larger foes lay down fire from a distance. Although, there’s nothing sweeter than rounding up a herd of bugs in a tight area and blowing them all up at once with a rocket launcher. There may be a whole nest of ants scuttling over with pincers at the ready, but you’ve got the tools and means to dispose of every last one.
Classes make a return, with three that can be found in previous titles and a new one that genuinely changed the game for us. Trooper is your generic infantryman with a dodge to get out of tight situations, Jet Lifters can fly through the air with a jet pack, and Heavy Strikers are tanks that can equip two weapons at once. And then there’s the Prowl Rider. Equipped with a grappling hook, we played the back half of the game’s 52 missions exclusively as the new class thanks to its incredible amount of mobility. You’ll be able to cover great distances in mere seconds thanks to the hook’s range, getting you into the action quicker and out of it if you need a breather and a health pack. But that’s not even the best part. Every class has an overdrive ability, and the Prowl Rider’s allows the user to mount and control their very own gigantic bug. Yeah, it’s absolutely incredible.
Despite further new mechanics such as a stamina meter that puts a cap on how often you can use abilities, active reloads that’ll get bullets into your weapons quicker, and a new way of unlocking weapons that does away with picking them up off of corpses, simplistic fun is still at the heart of the experience. It’s a perfect setup for jumping in for a handful of missions, or as a distraction from some of the more serious titles on the market.
Alongside the campaign, the series’ very first competitive multiplayer mode makes its debut with Iron Rain. Titled Mercenary, it’s a 2v2 grab for energy gems that can be sourced from the slaughtering of bugs. You’ll gain points by bringing those gems to certain points on the map while being wary of the enemy team who can steal what you’ve gathered if they kill you. Due to the small nature of the online environments though, this quickly descends into utter chaos. It’s tough to put any sort of strategy into practice due to the sheer amount of critters on-screen at any one time, to the point where just grabbing as many energy gems and banking them could be considered a major success. It’s successful as a quick dose of gratuitous fun, but it’s unlikely to hold your attention past an hour of anarchy.
The technical and presentational quality of an Earth Defense Force game has always been a contentious topic because for some, it adds to the charm. Indeed, this latest instalment wouldn’t look out of place on a PlayStation 3. Textures are poor, dated, and muddy. Environments are devoid of life and interesting landmarks, while buildings simply sink into the ground and disappear once they start to crumble. The frame rate freefalls into single digits when the action starts to get chaotic, and you’ll get stuck amongst the environmental rubble all too often. We could go on and on, but the more we think about, the more we edge on the side of this all being a slight net positive. It is a little frustrating on occasion, but the game’s commitment to its B-movie tone and vibe is impossible to ignore. It would be damning in any other game, but EDF embraces it.
Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain is some of the most pure, unadulterated fun we’ve had in 2019 so far. It’s not pretty and it’s not stable, but if you’re able to look past its technical drawbacks, then you’re in for a supremely wacky, boisterous, and delightful takedown of humanity’s greatest threat. Earth Defense Force is proud of its simplistic nature, and that’s probably the best thing about it.