Earth Defense Force X Preview

For the past few years, developer Sandlot's Earth Defense Force series, published in Japan by D3 as part of its Simple 2000 series of games, has been a favorite among the import crowd. The games' appeal stem from their relatively straightforward but fun premise, pitting the player against hundreds upon hundreds of aliens and other assorted monsters launching a large-scale invasion of Earth. With D3's recently established North American division, D3Publisher of America, the series will be officially making its way to North America for the first time. Last week, the company announced that Earth Defense Force 3, just released in Japan for Xbox 360, will be making the trek as Earth Defense Force X in March 2007. At a recent D3 event, Shacknews had the opportunity to get some hands on time with the upcoming game.

Little needs to be said about the game's plot beyond the brief synopsis provided above. As part of an elite fighting force, the player must defend earth from innumerable monstrous foes. These include aliens and UFOs, giant mechs, gargantuan ants and spiders, and, essentially, Godzilla. It is a veritable smorgasbord of b-movie enemy fare. Trawling across a variety of locales, you will acquire some 400 weapons across seven categories blasting bad guys. That's basically it. If you are looking for depth, search elsewhere, but if you like the idea of keeping your trigger finger depressed nonstop while buildings and foes explode on a constant basis, this may be your game.

Earth Defense Force X distinguishes itself from competing similar offerings mainly by way of its scale. There are many levels in which you will quite literally be fighting hundreds of enemies simultaneously, sometimes in barren deserts and sometimes in crowded cityscapes. This is made more impressive since enemies tend to be fairly large rather than of humanoid size. One downtown urban locale was infested with giant spiders, ranging from those twice the height of a man to some of office building size. Failing to destroy the arachnid antagonists with enough efficiency can easily result in the screen becoming quite literally filled with insect fur, webbing, and sprays of blood. Such moments are truly ludicrous experiences.

All the while, dead enemies will drop powerups of various types, including health, armor, and weapon. The former two of course function as you would expect. Weapon powerups equip you with armaments sequentially from the game's store of 400, so as you wade through the game's countless enemies you are constantly gaining new equipment for your arsenal. They won't become equipped upon collection, however; you can hold only two weapons at any one time, which you equip before a level begins. Once you complete a level, you will be able to choose from your stock the two that best fit the upcoming mission, or are simply the most fun (read: destructive) to use.

The seven weapon classes of Earth Defense Force X are assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles, unguided rocket launchers, guided missile launchers, explosives including grenades, and special weapons. Special weapons consist of all the equipment that doesn't fit into any of the other half-dozen categories, such as turrets, acid guns, flame throwers, and nuclear warheads. Very few weapons actually have limited ammunition; most have an infinite supply, largely due to the sheer numbers of enemies. Reload time thus becomes the primary factor in determining a weapon's long term efficiency.

One of the best features of the game is that practically every building and environmental features that isn't a mountain or some other fundamental component of the earth itself can be destroyed. In some levels, such as those that take place in deserts, this is less of a factor, but in confined cityscapes it is one of the most entertaining aspects of the game. Missions, which are themed around monster type and include straightforward goals such as protecting civilians, taking down bosses, or simply killing everything, seem to rarely provide much reason not to lay waste to the city yourself despite ostensibly trying to save it. To help you out there, some levels have vehicles that can be dirven or piloted, such as a hoverbike, a tank, a slow but incredibly well-armored mech, and a missile laden helicopter. One particularly hilarious moment occurred after lifting off straight up in a helicopter and cresting the skyline to see an enormous spider and a Godzilla-like lizard monster helping each other to lay waste to a group of skyscrapers.

All of that scale, along with the generally lower budgets that tend to accompany games from the Simple series, inevitably takes a bit of a toll on the game's graphical fidelity, which ranges from impressive to somewhat sub-par. Draw distances are vast, a necessity in a game like this, and the amount of action on the screen at certain moments borders on awe-inspiring. Despite some understandable chugging during particularly intense battles, the framerate also holds up quite well. Some of the game's explosions are also gorgeous, particularly that of the aforementioned nuclear warhead, which is fittingly powerful. That said, geometry and texture quality is all over the place. Some enemies, such as the giant spiders, have surprisingly good looking textures up close, but other models and particularly environments just don't feel up to snuff among better Xbox 360 games. The single biggest, and by far the strangest, standout is the sprite-based powerup graphics. Health, armor, and weapon powerups are not actually three dimensional models but flat low-resolution sprites that appear the same no matter from what angle they are viewed, similar to what one would see in early first person shooters. That particular choice was no doubt informed by performance concerns, but it definitely sticks out.

When you are actually playing the game, though, and you feel like you're in the middle of some unholy polygamous marriage of every Earth invasion-themed b-movie ever made along with The Terminator, you're unlikely to care much about various graphical concerns. You'll even hear brief Japanese phrases being shouted throughout, which D3Publisher of America is planning on keeping in tact rather than localizing. "We want it to feel like a Godzilla movie. Like Godzilla with guns," added a D3 representative. In a weird way, even the ridiculous 2D powerups almost add a certain arcade game aesthetic to the whole thing, though that is not likely to have been the intent and will certainly not hold true for everybody.

It remains to be seen how the game's core mechanics, which are obviously repeated a great deal, hold up over the course of the entire game, but extra features like a split-screen cooperative mode should add some value. The D3 representative with whom we spoke was unfortunately unaware as to any potential online functionality. Earth Defense Force X is not a particularly innovative or brilliantly polished game, but it is an honest one. If you're an Xbox 360 owner looking to cause as much mayhem as possible with as many weapons as possible, there are likely to be few strong competitors to Sandlot's latest effort.

D3Publisher of America plans to ship Sandlot's Earth Defense Force X for Xbox 360 to North American retail shelves in March 2007.