Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain is Disappointing, and Mildly Insulting

Just four months after the release of Earth Defense Force 5 - by far the best EDF yet and our 2018 Game of the Year - comes even more giant bug and alien blasting in Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain. EDF Iron Rain was developed by Yuke's, rather than series creators Sandlot, with the goal of being more appealing to Western audiences than the traditional numbered EDF entries have been. Unfortunately, they missed the mark. Badly. So badly, in fact, that it is kind of insulting that they think this is what Western gamers want. Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain is still largely the same third-person blasting giant bugs and robots the series is known for at its core, but pretty much everything just feels off, particularly compared to EDF5. I'm really not a fan. Continue reading for all of the details.

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Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain is supposed to be the game that will finally elevate the series from cult hit to mainstream success in the West by focusing on the things that Western gamers (allegedly) value most. The main changes are a visual upgrade thanks to a switch to the Unreal Engine, a more streamlined progression system, and a more serious tone. The core third-person-shooter gameplay is still largely the same, but there are lots of little changes that add up to a rather different feeling game overall. These changes (and many others) have me thinking that if you have to remove the heart and soul from the series to try to appeal to Western players, it probably isn't worth it. I want as many people to play Earth Defense Force as possible, but this wasn't the way to do it.

First up, the visuals. The game now looks sharper and smoother than ever and doesn't have that sort of dithered "up-rezzed PS2" look anymore. The lighting and special effects are also spectacular and easily the best the series has had so far. This comes at a price, however, as instead of fighting hundreds of enemies at a time in massive battles, EDF Iron Rain throws smaller waves of dozens at you instead. The thing that I loved most about EDF5 was the crazy scale of some of the battles but you never really feel that in Iron Rain. It also has to be said that while the graphics are technically "better", all of the charm has been sucked out of it. More realistic enemies doesn't equal better. Bland gray and brown barren "American" cities and landscapes doesn't equal better. The game also still manages to run like a pig and have performance issues despite having far fewer enemies onscreen at a time. In other words, the big visual upgrade is kind of a flop.

Progression has seen a drastic change in Iron Rain as well though, again, the implementation is hit or miss. The game still has multiple classes to choose from - a normal trooper, the flying wing diver, an armored heavy weapon soldier, and a new class with a grappling hook that flies around like an Attack on Titan character (though nowhere near as smooth) and can also ride the giant bugs. This time around, all classes can use any weapon and health upgrades apply to all of the classes. This means you don't have to grind for specific class weapons, which is good, but it also takes away some of the things that previously made each class unique. The weapon unlock system itself has seen the most drastic change in that you no longer randomly unlock weapons during missions. Now completing each mission unlocks specific new weapons and items that you have to then buy with currency and gems you collect during missions. Again, this is nice because you can focus on your particular preferences and just buy whatever guns and items you actually want, but at the same time isn't optimal because part of the fun of past EDF games was the constant influx of new toys to try out and play with. In Iron Rain you are less likely to experiment because grinding for enough currency and gems to buy new stuff is a pain. Some missions basically require certain items and upgrades or they're too difficult, too, and if you don't already have them and need to grind it just ain't fun. The ideas behind the new progression system are solid, but the execution is off.

Speaking of "off", the gameplay isn't nearly as satisfying in Iron Rain as it is in past games. The core third-person-shooting itself is fine, but it just doesn't feel good anymore. The game is slower and clunkier somehow than before, presumably to be more "realistic" but it isn't as fun. In a bizarre move you also constantly get knocked down by enemies in Iron Rain and if you're facing enemies with projectiles it is extremely easy to get into an inescapable cycle of knockdown, get up, knockdown, get up, knockdown, death. This blows. Even blasting away at enemies isn't as fun as before, either, as it is hard to tell if you're actually doing any damage. In EDF5 the enemies all have distinct sound effects when they take damage, not to mention gigantic sprays of brightly colored blood all over the place, so you know you're actually doing something. In Iron Rain the enemies have basically no reaction, and there's no blood spray, so you just pour ammo into bullet sponge enemies until they suddenly keel over.

Read our full review of Earth Defense Force 5

It also needs to be said that Iron Rain seems to have been designed with co-op in mind at the expense of the solo experience as there are some surprisingly early massive difficulty jumps here. Past EDF games have had co-op, of course, but you could still play solo and have a good time, which is how I almost always played. In Iron Rain the enemy A.I. seems to zero in on your character almost exclusively so you have very little room to breathe and maneuver. Even if you fly to the top of a building almost all of the enemies will single-mindedly follow you up there. Couple that with the aforementioned constantly getting knocked down, and playing solo ain't so hot.

Topping all of this off is a more serious and dark and grim and gritty overall tone to the story that totally misses the mark. It isn't as if past games were all sunshine and rainbows - literally billions of people die in EDF5 - but the campy sci-fi schlock and lighthearted nature set the series apart from other games that take themselves far too seriously. 

You should be seeing a trend here. The way Yukes and Sandlot and D3 Publisher went about making a game that they think will appeal to Western gamers was to basically suck the fun out of everything. Let's count it off. Even slower and clunkier gameplay than before. Unsatisfying shooting. Only a fraction of the enemies onscreen at a time. Improved graphics that are still ugly. A grimdark story without any personality. All of the heart and soul has been ripped out of it and all that's left are the bare mechanics that don't hold up particularly well without the silly stuff that used to obscure it.

I know developers don't particularly appreciate armchair design notes from critics, but there have to be better ways to appeal to Western gamers than how Iron Rain turned out. Maybe making the gameplay smoother and less janky would help. Maybe lean even harder into the craziness and fun stuff rather than trying to tone it down. Deadly Premonition is arguably one of the worst games ever made, but it is beloved by many because it wasn't afraid to just be weird. I think the price point is also an issue. Mainstream folks don't like paying $60 (plus more for the super DLC edition) for a game that looks and plays like a budget title. EDF 2017 was a success on Xbox 360 all those years ago at a budget price point, after all.

In the end, I can't really recommend Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain. Fans of the franchise aren't going to like the changes, though there are some solid ideas that could be improved in future games, and new players are far, far, far better off just getting EDF5 instead. The cynic in me wonders if this was a calculated move - make a thoroughly mediocre EDF side game under the guise of being more appealing to Westerners in order to make the mainline games look better so people play them instead. At any rate, skip Iron Rain and buy Earth Defense Force 5 instead.

Disclosure: A review code was provided by the publisher.