Monday, December 10, 2007

Game Review: Earth Defense Force 2

Title: THE Chikyuu Boueigun 2 (The Earth Defense Force 2)
Publisher: Sandlot/D3 Publisher, 2005
System: Japanese Playstation 2
Type: third person sci-fi shooter, ages 12+, 1 Player/2 P split screen
Availability: NCS
Links: Official Site, Wikipedia, Youtube, Game FAQs

The year is 2019, and the Invaders have returned. Earth is overrun by millions of giant ants, alien walkers, Adamski UFOs, fire-breathing radioactive lizards, and hordes of other creatures straight out of a 1950s monster movie. Once again, the only thing standing between these terrors from Beyond and the good citizens of our world is the Earth Defense Force. So, strap on your motorcycle helmet, don your UN-issued gray coveralls or purple miniskirt/leather thigh-highs combo, grab a plasma rifle and join the fight.

Given that basic description and a few screen shots, some portion of my readership is already fumbling for their credit cards. My advice is: go with your instincts and buy EDF 2. Here is all you really need to know: the game is even more fun than it sounds, and it's a budget-priced Simple 2000 Series game, to boot. Visually, it's quite nice for last-gen, and gameplay is solid and stable. The number of different enemies and battlefields is adequate, and the arsenal of weapons potentially at your disposal is huge, as well as being entertainingly destructive.

The basic workings of EDF 2 are straightforward: select a mission, and kill everything with more than two legs. There are no epic cutscenes or wrenching moral choices, which is fine, because stuff like that would just get in the way of rocketing the hell out giant pillbugs and collecting cool loot. It is a PS2 game, so it is not going to have much in the way of dynamic particle lighting effects or realistic ragdoll physics, but the graphics are often surprisingly good looking: there is real menace in the mothership looming in the clouds, and things blow up in truly satisfying jets of smoke, flame, broken glass and green ichor. I'm pleased with the laser effects, too. They're graphically simple, but they just feel right in a way that's lacking in many a more sophisticated FPS. The pencil-thin beam, and the retina-searing halo of wavering diffraction patterns where it hits, seem to me to be exactly what you'd expect from a laser pointer hooked up to a dedicated nuclear power plant.

The American and Japanese monster movie ambiance of EDF 2 is pitch perfect, right down to the musical score, which includes pieces in the vein of the Godzilla March, and unless my ears deceive me, actual theremin music. The enemies and settings are drawn a range of TV and theatrical productions, from Them to ID4, as well as Fate Magazine alien mythology. For those who know a bit of Japanese, the radio chatter that goes on in the background during missions is a source of amusement unto itself: operators issue updates in clipped military jargon, veteran EDF soldiers make snarky comments, and green recruits run screaming at the sight of a few black ants. EDF 2 is well aware of the absurdities of its sources of inspiration, but it never degenerates into mere camp: the creators clearly love the material they're working with.

On a technical level, EDF 2 holds up well. Load times are fast, and I can't recall ever having the game crash. Slowdown does occur--the spider web effect, for example, makes the PS2 bleed, especially on higher difficulty levels where the webs get really thick--but it's not usually distracting. Clipping problems crop up here and there, so that you sometimes get attacked through a thin wall in underground stages, but overall the game seems reasonably polished.
Hope you remembered your sunscreen, invader scum. Tee hee. [weapon: ARC LAZR]

Before you get too deeply into EDF 2, I'd recommend messing around with the options, and switching from normal controls ("ノーマル,"which use an annoying auto-aiming system) to technical controls ("テクニカル,"which are standard console shooter controls). You can also turn off the cinematic camera angle that kicks in when you do something impressive, such as wasting a carrier UFO. The camera effect looks kind of neat, but the fixed angle makes aiming really difficult, just at the point where you're probably getting swarmed by whatever was escorting the carrier.

As with the original EDF, you choose two weapons from your arsenal before joining the fray, and aquire additional weapons and armor from items dropped by defeated aliens. One of the features new in EDF 2 is that you can also choose between two character classes. The Ground Soldier (male) has heavy armor, can drive vehicles (tank, helicopter or hoverbike), and uses projectile weapons like rifles and grenades. Primitive, but effective. The Pale Wing Soldier (female) is equipped with a portable power plant, jet pack and energy weapons based on reverse-engineered alien technology, so you can go all Saikano on some Invader ass (as my pal BZ remarked). The balance between the two character classes is interesting. The Ground Soldier is slow, but gets most of the good long range and explosive weapons, and can absorb a lot of damage (he starts with more armor, and his armor increases by about 1.5 points per armor icon picked up, compared to less than 1.0 point for the Pale Wing). The Pale Wing Soldier gets the best short range weapons, and can jet into and out of combat quickly, but is more vulnerable to attack, and runs the risk of depleting her batteries and losing the ability to fly, as well as fire and reload weapons, until they recharge.
When you think about it, the subprime mortgage crisis is what really doomed those homes. [weapon: G Launcher UM-XA]

Solid third person shooter action and rampant allusions to science fiction movie classics will draw the gamer into EDF 2, but what keeps her attention through 71 missions at five difficulty levels is the addictive RPG thrill of collecting new weapons, and figuring out the strategies needed to make it through "Inferno" difficulty in one piece. My review is basically done at this point (buy it); the rest of this post will be me waxing nerdy about the EDF arsenal and its usage.

The Ground Soldier
Assault Rifles (column 1)
Assault rifles--or more properly, "fast acting second amendment home defense freedom rifles," as our friends in the NRA helpfully remind us--are your basic meat-and-potatoes weapons in the early and middle phases of EDF 2. The Ground Soldier can pretty much get through anything with a decent assault rifle, plus something long range like a rocket launcher, at least until Hardest and Inferno difficulties. Later in the game, assault rifles don't keep up so well, and have difficulty dealing out enough damage per second to justify continued usage. Still, the really high-end ones like the AS-22RR and the AS-99 are good options on stages with a lot of small fry, and quite usable against robotic walkers, even. Remember: short, controlled bursts.

Sniper Rifles (column 2)
In general, EDF 2 is not the sort of shooter where it pays to set up a pup tent and hump your sniper rifle: the enemies are too fast, aggressive, and numerous, and the instant you plug one of them, everything within half a mile comes running straight for you. Still, sniper rifles are good against bigger, slower enemies like the robotic walkers, excellent for taking down carrier UFOs, and indispensable for the climactic mothership battles. Among the different models, there are trade offs between firepower, accuracy, and the time it takes to chamber a new round. For most purposes, I favor the Lysander series (ライサンダー), which emphasizes destructive power over rate of fire.

Shotguns (column 3)
If years of playing survival horror games have taught us anything, it's that when weird creatures attack, you want to keep a shotgun handy... for close encounters. I was disappointed to find that the shotguns that crop up early in EDF 2 are kind of useless: too slow and random to make up for their paltry increase in firepower over a decent assault rifle. But, shotguns come into their own in the end game, where the extra seconds a Ground Soldier might spend plugging away at a giant spider with a rifle are likely to get him surrounded. The SG-99 is my favorite so far, with decent range and a tight shot spread, reasonable reload time, and abundant stopping power. It puts down most of the bugs in one hit, even in the last missions on Inferno, and tears robots apart from a fairly safe distance.

Rocket Launchers (column 4)
A good rocket launcher, paired with an assault rifle, will get you through the first three difficulty levels of EDF 2, though maybe not get you through in style. I mostly use the Goliath series (ゴリアス), which tend to do more damage, with a larger explosive radius, than other launcher types with more ammo per clip or faster firing. These weapons don't fare very well with the increasing hitpoints of enemies on the higher difficulty levels, though. When you fire your favorite rocket launcher into a swarm of black ants, and they just get thrown into the air with their little legs waving around, you'll know it's time to learn how to use grenade launchers.

Missiles (column 5)
Missiles in EDF 2 are all fire-and-forget; they automatically home in on the single enemy that is closest to the player when the trigger is pulled. I don't have much use for most of them; by and large they're either too weak or too slow to be practical. The Soaring series (ソルリング) multiple-missile launchers are not bad against quick, flying enemies like the gunships: the player can concentrate on rolling and dodging, so long as he remembers to pull the trigger whenever the launcher reloads. The Lucifer S (ルシフェルS), which is awarded for beating all missions on Hardest difficulty, is big fun: a single missile flies up into the stratosphere, then rains down 32 powerful guided bomblets. It takes forever to load, but is worthwhile when fighting large, single enemies (especially the giant centipedes, which it tends to keep at a distance by stunning and knocking them into the air). It's also amusing to set off a Lucifer S when you've mopped up a mission, and all that's left is one poor ant.

Nuke 'em from orbit. It's the only way to be sure. [weapons: Lucifer S, SG-99]

Grenades (column 6)
Grenades are not for the faint of heart, requiring skill to aim and avoid friendly-fire injuries, but they become critical in the endgame of EDF 2. The Sucker Grenade D (サッカーグレネードD) is one of the Ground Soldier's best weapons against hordes of ants, and really his only decent method of dealing with red ant swarms: just shoot one on the ground right in front of you, and back away before the five-second fuse burns down. The G Launcher UM-4A (GランチャーUM-4A), and its upgrade the UM-XA, are some of the best weapons in the game, against pretty much anything. Both do tons of damage, with a wide splash, and have good reload times. The grenades are spat out at high velocity, so their arc is pretty minimal, and detonate on impact, so that they can be used almost like rockets. The UM-XA is devastating against anything from underground spider infestations, to carriers on the opposite side of the city, once you get good at compensating for the projectile's arc, and a develop a sense for the space needed to avoid getting caught within the blast radius. Oh man, I love me some UM-XA.

Special Weapons (column 7)
This category includes a lot of miscellaneous oddball devices, none of them very practical, but with a few that are worth messing around with on easier missions. The Firecracker (かんしゃく玉) series weapons are tiny impact grenades that the Ground Soldier tosses out by the handfull. They're entertaining, but not very powerful. Bound Guns (バウンドガン ) are assault rifles with bullets that ricochet all over the place. They're usable in tunnel missions, but there are probably better options. And then there are the Repair Sprays (リペア ースプ レ ー), which fix small amounts of damage to vehicles, take forever to reload, and are completely pointless.

The Pale Wing Soldier
Short Range Weapons (column 1)
This category includes the most ridiculously overpowered weapons in EDF 2, with the catch that you have to be standing toe-to-toe with the Invader menace to use them. Most short range weapons have the added bonus of loading multiple shots at once, so that you can fire for quite a while without draining your batteries (power is only consumed when a round is loaded, but most other Pale Wing weapons load only one round at a time, and so eat into your energy reserves whenever fired). The Rapier (レイピア ) series includes some of the best weapons in the game; a good Rapier will kill bugs almost instantly, and robots with a few seconds of exposure. Try farming for weapons on red-ant-only stages on Inferno with duel Rapiers (Pale Wing weapons reload passively, so you can be using one while the other is recharging), hopping backward when the ants get close; you can succeed surprisingly early in the game, and pick up crazy loot you shouldn't have access to until much later. Bring along a Ground Soldier friend in 2P mode, and he can share in the advanced weapon bounty, even if he doesn't survive (weapons are distributed evenly between players, regardless of who picks them up). Which he almost certainly won't. Some of the high-end Lances (ランス), such as the Demonic Lance (デモニック・ランス), are also quite good, dealing out huge amounts of damage in single shots.

Fun in the sun, with the Plasma Broom (a Rapier series weapon).

Mid-Range Weapons: Laser (column 2)
As with the short range weapons, these load a supply of shots all at once, and can be used without draining energy until the supply is exhausted. They're good as back up weapons, for use in self-defense in case a more power-hungry primary weapon gets the Pale Wing's batteries low or into recharge mode. However, their range and destructive potential are somewhat disappointing. The LAZR series includes most of the weapons in this category that I have found worthwhile.

Mid-Range Weapons: Electrical (column 3)
The weapons in this category acquired early in EDF 2 are uninspiring: energy hogs that don't do much damage, and are prone to reflecting off of surfaces and zapping the player. A couple of the more advanced lightning weapons are truly excellent, however. The Eclaire-LIM (エ クレ ール-LIM) is still an energy hog that will reflect and instantly kill a player who fires on a target point-blank, but it metes out so much punishment that it's absolutely essential equipment for many Inferno stages. It's better than any other weapon in the game for dispatching fleets of gunships, small UFOs and flying ants, for example, and it's absurdly effective in tunnels, where the shots bounce along the walls frying everything in their path. The Thunderbow 30 (サンダ ーボウ30) is quite similar to the Eclaire-LIM; weaker, but with a capacity to load multiple shots that makes energy budget management easier.

Mid-Range Weapons: Particle Cannons (column 4)
Particle cannons are the Pale Wing equivalent of shotguns and assault rifles; they rapidly dispense discreet shots with so-so accuracy and range. There's a lot of garbage filling out this column, with a couple of minor gems in the mix. The Ixion Mark 4 (イ クシオン・マー ク4) holds its own pretty well, for example, with rapid firing, very powerful shots, and energy consumption so low that it's equal to the battery recharge rate (so, you can hold the fire button down indefinitely without running out of juice). The Ixion and other particle weapons have the property of becoming wildly inaccurate in flight mode, so jet-pack use has to be kept to a minimum when these are equipped.

Long Range Weapons (column 5)
Long range combat options for the Pale Wing are relatively weak and energy-intensive. In situations where it's essential to attack from a distance (for example, shooting down high flying carrier UFOs), the LRSL series of long-range lasers is often the best choice, particularly the LRSL-S and LRSL-AC, if you have them available. The MONSTER-S is tricky, but quite effective in certain special conditions. It's a laser that completely exhausts the batteries in a fraction of a second of firing, but it does such huge amounts of damage that it can be worthwhile to carry for use against distant carriers and queen insects, if the player has got a safe spot to hide out in while she recharges.

Plasma Weapons (column 6)
These are the energy equivalents of the Ground Soldier's grenades and rocket launchers; they're Pale Wing weapons with splash damage. The Plasma Launchers (プラズマ・ランチャー) and related weapons are nice in concept, but there is really nothing in this category that I use, except for messing around on easy missions. They've got good range, but chew up huge chunks of your battery reserves while doing mediocre damage.

Homing Weapons (column 7)
Like missiles, shots fired from these weapons automatically seek out the nearest target, and do some (usually limited) splash damage. The Sai Blade (サイ・ブレード ) series, and especially Sai Blade α, are fun, traveling in a straight line for a kilometer or so, then curving around to blast the heck out of some aliens. You can fire a Sai Blade up in the air and let it find distant enemies, or use it like a rocket against foes in your line of sight. The Mirage (ミラージュ) series of multiple homing lasers (the Mirage 15S may be the best) is good against agile airborne targets, though a bit weak for Inferno difficulty purposes. The Mirage series is also good for executing the "cheese technique," in which the player knocks herself down by shooting at her own feet, in order to gain a period of invincibility. Sometimes, it pays to take a break from the action, if really nasty stuff is incoming or weapons and batteries need to be recharged, or even for distracting an overwhelming wave of enemies, while a buddy lobs grenades into the fray from a safe distance. I dislike making use of methods like the cheese technique, but some particularly intense Inferno missions virtually require it.

Special Weapons (column 8)
These are all devices that create a stationary ball of plasma that emits lightning or beams. They are not aimed, so you have to hope that an enemy stumbles into the wrong place. Pale Wing special weapons are generally pointless, though Heaven's Gate α (ヘ ブンズ・ゲートα) can be surprisingly good against the large swarms of gunships that appear in some missions: just set it off and hang out where the beams are coming down, using the cheese technique to avoid taking damage if necessary. And, how can you pass up using a weapon called Heaven's Gate, at least once in a while?

Overall, EDF 2 gets the strongest possible recommendation from the M.J. Console Gaming Staff: there's no reason not to own this game if you have a Japanese PS2, and it may even be a reason to buy the system if, like me, you have fond memories of Saturday afternoons spent watching Godzilla spinoffs and low budget cold war invasion flicks. There's a European version of EDF 2, but the game hasn't been licensed in the US. Those in the US with an XBox 360 can, however, easily obtain EDF 3, known here as Earth Defense Force 2017. Graphics are much improved in the 360 version, of course, and there are some cool additions, like CPU support troops and a series of autonomous turret weapons. Unfortunately the game is basically a remake of the original EDF, with fewer stages and enemy types than EDF 2, and no Pale Wing Soldier at all. It's still a blast, but the definitive Earth Defense Force game is really EDF 2.

The final battle against the Mothership. Fission mailed.

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