New looks don’t hide good, old-fashioned fun.
I have this thing. I hate cucumber. I hate it so much. But no matter how much I explain why, most people don’t understand. I must just taste it differently than other people. It’s a fundamental, maybe even genetic difference. I get it, others don’t. I think D3 Publisher might have realised that there’s a similar problem at the heart of the Earth Defense Force series – one Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain only somewhat successfully attempts to fix.
EDF is the anti-cucumber. Fans love its quantity-over-quality approach to content; its enormous, gorgeously mindless combat scenarios; its ‘is this supposed to be funny?’ storytelling and voiceovers; and even the way the series’ wildly outdated looks skitter across the screen with a perverse, stubborn charm. You might be able to tell that I am one of these people. But no matter how much you show it to friends and try to demonstrate its janky charms, most take one look and go, “It looks like a PS2 game, leave me alone please. I’m trying to sleep.”
Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain, it seems to me, is a conscious attempt to see if a few more people could be convinced to enjoy this cult favourite if it filtered a little of that essence de cucumber out. D3 has yanked the EDF license (hopefully temporarily) from mainline developer Sandlot and handed it to Yuke’s, most famous for its work on the WWE 2K series, for a spin-off that’s arrived just months after the last western release, Earth Defense Force 5. It employs a whole new engine, a more flexible approach to its class system, and a more seriously told story (well, as serious as alien invasions and genetically modified ants can be).
What Yuke’s doesn’t change is the core concept: This is still a game in which, over the course of 52 missions, you consistently arrive in a large-ish square of land with some pre-picked weapons and proceed to shoot the absolute shit out of an assortment of giant insects, B-movie aliens, and the occasional kaiju knock-off. And, honestly, if Iron Rain is an attempt to make EDF more palatable to the mainstream, it’s probably failed. But that’s because it’s playing things a bit safe – which means it’s also extremely good fun, almost the entire time, for basically the same reasons as the mainline games.
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
The most immediately noticeable change is, naturally, how it all looks. Unreal Engine has been wheeled in to provide Iron Rain with a slick, if somewhat anaemic, facelift relative to what we saw a few months ago. The results are a little uneven. Lighting is frequently lovely, and your (newly customisable) character is a real joy to watch as they sweep onto the screen during miniature intro cutscenes. The first time I saw my own custom soldier air-drop onto the battlefield I felt a twinge of delight. When, hours of play later, I saw him do the same thing except wearing the orange hot pants I’d bought him and toting a laser cannon the size of a moped, I felt even happier.
On the other hand, better character models for the many, many enemies only serve to highlight quite how ramshackle the low-quality animation looks. Worse, Iron Rain performs badly. The Devil’s bargain behind EDF is that its bad looks have historically allowed for literally hundreds of enemies and allies to sweep across levels with minimal impact on the frame rate, but Iron Rain can’t manage the same feat. On a PS4 Pro running in 4K there’s the occasional stutter, particularly when buildings collapse and explode. On a standard PS4, frame rate suffers regularly, sadly. That many levels feel a little less populated than returning fans would expect, seemingly for fear of that strain, is perhaps the biggest indictment of Yuke’s changes.
Embittered fans might feel similarly about how Iron Rain tells its story. Older games breeze past the idea of such things as ‘reasons for any of this to be happening’ with complete carelessness, instead dropping you without much interruption into ludicrous battle after ludicrous battle. Yuke’s, on the other hand, has made a conscious effort to place the story of EDF in some sort of context, introducing a recurring cast of characters you fight alongside, a more involved plot, even a socio-political backdrop (told mostly through loading screens and incidental dialogue) in which corporations now bankroll the world’s last remaining armies in return for soldiers having to buy their weapons with scavenged materials.
While I’m a little sad that what we’ve lost along the way is the blank strangeness of fighting as and alongside generic soldiers (and the ability to make them all sing on command), as Iron Rain continued I started to love how much effort had been put in here. In trying to take itself seriously, EDF becomes even funnier, particularly as English voiceover artists throw themselves wholeheartedly into hammy performances. The unfortunately named German scientist Dr. Mengel has to be heard to be believed.
It’s in those twists and additions to the expected that I think Yuke’s has excelled, most obviously in how it’s altered how you pick a playstyle. Traditionally, EDF’s classes lock you into a style of play, with weapons unlocked semi-randomly and on a per-class basis. Iron Rain flattens that system out somewhat. Unlocks are given based on the mission completed, and your character can freely switch between different exoskeleton rigs (called PA Gear), each with distinct strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities.
You can equip any two weapons and a set of limited-use items to any PA Gear loadout. This means you can build a character that can fly, taking advantage of that innate added escape option to exclusively use heavy weapons with absurdly long reload times. Equally, a heavy PA Gear option that lengthens reload times can more than make up for that drawback by letting you dual-wield weapons – who cares about long reloads if you have two miniguns with gigantic clips? It feels like a real freedom of violent expression, and becomes all the better in 6-player co-op multiplayer, with everybody using the same pool of items to wildly different effect.
It does mean that the sheer madness of a traditional EDF’s classes has been chipped away somewhat. Gone, for example, is the silliness of the Air Raider, a class built almost solely around calling in airstrikes or skyscraper-sized mechs. But Iron Rain does mitigate that with breadth of choice. Having finished the campaign once, I’m still not close to unlocking every one of its hundreds of weapons. And yet my arsenal includes a shotgun that, for some reason does more damage if its bullets hit the floor around an enemy, a rocket launcher that splits a single missile into 30 if fired over enough distance, satellite spotters that call in orbital bombardments, and one laser cannon that (and this is per the menu’s description, by the way) can fire a projectile every 30 seconds that turns into “a small-scale star” on impact.
Equippable items include blow-up decoy dolls, strafing runs from EDF fighter jets, floating grenades that fire lasers indiscriminately, and a variety of vehicle drops that range from mechs to planes to a useless pickup truck whose only ability is to honk its horn (and even that has an ammo count). I have reliably changed my loadout almost every mission, simply because there’s so much to choose from. The only thing I haven’t changed for a while is my PA Gear’s ability to summon a giant scorpion I get to ride on, because if you try and tell me that that’s less fun than the ability to boost in eight directions, I will call you a liar.
That constant change is part-and-parcel of the design. Iron Rain recognises that introducing new enemy types (and there are many here, from baby-birthing spiders to spider-birthing UFOs to orbital missiles that transform into walking, chitinous tanks) isn’t enough to change the basic routine: run-shoot-reload-repeat. But change how you shoot in every mission, and that routine is disrupted. Curiosity is always rewarded (unless you accidentally choose the grenade launcher that just fires a big light-up sticky mine and then has to reload for ages – that one just sucks).
There are a few odder design decisions along the way. Some species of enemy can be completely immune to energy weapons, but the developer (understandably) doesn’t spoil what you’re about to face when you enter a mission. This means that if you happen to go in fully stocked with energy weapons you will, at best, have to wait for your human or AI companions to do all the work, or just immediately quit and restart with a new loadout. It’s a relatively rare issue, but it speaks to a slight lack of care in how Iron Rain presents you with information about what you should be doing (a bit of a problem if it is trying to attract a new audience).
This reaches its nadir when, after dozens of levels that revolve around blowing up scorpions, UFOs, or the bigger structures spawning them, you’re suddenly placed against an implacable bullet sponge of a final boss that a) isn’t as interesting to fight as ‘several dozen ants’ have been for the majority of the campaign and b) is so woefully unreactive that by the time you work out how to beat it, it’s already become boring.
It’s a neat metaphor for the developer’s work as a whole. When Iron Rain tries something wholly new, it’s rarely as fun as the mainline games, for fan or neophyte alike. It’s best when it alters the EDF template a little, presenting a new spin on an old idea.