Way back in 2007 I played a game about humanity fighting a last, desperate battle against an overwhelming alien threat. It was a crushing bore, and a review of it that reflected that opinion proved slightly controversial. Just weeks later I played a second game about humanity fighting a last, desperate battle against an overwhelming alien threat, and was far more impressed. I wrote an article comparing the two games, but before submitting it for publication, I realized it was needlessly inflammatory, and buried it at the back of my hard drive. It's 2011 now, however, and since A: no one cares about Halo 3 any more, and B: a new Earth Defense Force (EDF) is coming out, I thought this would finally be an appropriate time to publish:
The six reasons why Earth Defense Force 2017 is a better game than Halo 3
(Also, I finally have the capability to collect art from EDF. Okay, I had the capability, I just didn't know how to use it.)
1 - A Sense of Scale
I'm not just talking about the gigantic, well-designed levels, either. EDF 2017 is a game about an extinction-level attack on earth. While it may not be the most original story, it's effective precisely because it's depicted from such a small-scale viewpoint. Rather than constantly pulling the camera back to show what's happening in the rest of the world, the player's POV remains locked on a single Japanese EDF Unit, and the victories (and many failures) they're involved in.
All information about the rest of the world is handled through radio messages, War of the Worlds-style. While the player manages to kill a few bugs here and a few gunships there, the radio messages they receive paint a dire picture of humanity's chances. While the player may think they're making progress against the Ravager threat, reports from around the globe warn of impossibly powerful foes destroying entire cities, creating expectations that are going to be tough to match—
Literally the first thing the player sees when they start the game is this mothership, hovering over Tokyo. It doesn't do anything right away, it just seems incredibly menacing. Then they spend a few missions hearing about how it's laying waste to the rest of the world. Finally, halfway through the game, the mothership finally makes it back to Japan, and we get a look at what it's capable of—
And what it's capable of is deploying an incredibly beautiful piece of art design that wipes out twenty city blocks every time it fires.
The player can stop the mothership by damaging its cannon, but accomplishing that will only send it on a detour to finish off the rest of the world's armed forces before returning to Japan for a final battle. Every bit of the mothership's journey is chronicled by increasingly desperate radio dispatches, describing the fall of one continent after another. This builds player expectation for something incredible when the final showdown occurs. After all, they already managed to defeat its cannon—what more of a threat could the ship pose, right?
Damn it. Well, no wonder earth never had a chance.
2 - A Willingness to Let the Player Lose
This is the Juggernaut, the best example of the game's penchant for absurdly huge enemies. It's also the perfect example for the developer's understanding of how to effectively manipulate the player's emotions. The last time a battle was fought on this beach the player effectively defended Japan from an army of invading robots. This time there's absolutely nothing they can do to stop a foe they're completely unprepared to face.
The Juggernaut wades across the ocean, drops off a few robots and some gunships, then meanders away, unconcerned about the player's attempts to stop it. Up until this point the player has been able to kill everything they've encountered—and for a supposedly planet-imperiling threat, the Ravagers seem deceptively manageable.
The Juggernaut changes all of that. After failing to stop it at the beach, the player spends the next few missions watching it destroy entire sections of Tokyo, helpless to do anything but kill off the ground troops it deploys—after that, all the player can do is give up, and let it wreck huge sections of Japan. This allows the player to develop a grudge against the Juggernaut, and invites them to take a personal interest in defeating it.
So when, fifteen missions later, the player finally gets a chance to destroy the Juggernaut, it's meaningful. They've spent four missions After spending a quarter of the game waiting to kill the thing (and three missions failing to do so), actually becoming the first EDF unit in the world to successfully take one of the Juggernauts out is something worth celebrating, a feeling generated by absolutely none of the foes in Halo 3.
3 - Interesting Foes (who aren't run into the ground)
For the entire length of the game, EDF 2017 is constantly throwing new varieties of enemy after the player. Things start off simply enough, with swarms of giant ants swarming the city and the tunnels below—
Then they get a little more complicated with wave after wave or oddly-shaped gunships—
Before bringing out the big guns (literally) with a wide variety of robots—
Whose unique appearance is one of the most compellingly original pieces of enemy character design I've ever encountered. Everything about the "Hector Walking Arms" is just bizarre and alien. The discs that make up their legs, their strange, floppy body language, the way they're battered into bizarre angles by gunfire—
While managing to somehow stay vertical—it's all incredible stuff that deserved more awards than it received. More impressive, perhaps, is how restrained the game is at utilizing its shockingly large variety of enemies.
That, of course, is Godzilla. He's in the game. After getting a dramatic introduction in mission 18, however, he takes a powder, disappearing from the proceedings until mission 39—
Wherein the player is asked to battle two of him. It's terrifying, and the game probably could have gotten more play out of the model, but the developers understood the law of diminishing returns, and these two levels are the only ones in which Godzilla appears in the entire game. That's right—they made a beautiful model and risked a lawsuit from Toho, then still demonstrated restraint enough to keep him out of the majority of the game.
Mecha-godzilla, by comparison, appears just once. And it's basically the best thing ever.
4 - Competent Allies to Whom You Can Relate
While none of the other EDF members have names or established characteristics, the game does a fantastic job of developing a group personality for them nonetheless—which makes feeling camaraderie for them, and developing an emotional investment in the game, almost an inevitability.
What's the secret to this? Non-obtrusive, completely believable chatter. While the characters in Halo 3 might pause to tell a horrifying, yet overwritten story about the time they saw someone die, EDF troopers have no time for anecdotes. They're professionals doing a job for which they're completely outclassed, and they respond to it exactly like you think they should. During every mission the player is surrounded by requests for help, screams of agony, and cheers of triumph. That last one is vitally important to remember, because unlike the completely ineffectual cannon-fodder of Halo 3, NPC troopers will, on the first four difficulty levels at least, help the player get the job done.
Obviously the player has to do most of the heavy lifting (or there wouldn't be a game), but the friendly EDF troops actively contribute to the cause, blasting away with assault rifles, rocket launchers, and occasionally, laser cannons. They're so talented, in fact, that it's a good idea to leave five or six enemies alive towards the end of missions if you're at all concerned with picking up the weapons and armour they drop. Why? If any fewer enemies are left the surviving EDF troops will just go ahead and complete the mission for you.
When this mechanic really kicks in (which is surprisingly often) the EDF troops truly help give the player the impression that they're part of a large-scale battle. Way off in the distance friendlies are fighting and dying—and doing real damage before they go. It's up to the player to make sure that as many of them survive as possible.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Mission 9—giant robots have wiped out the Chinese army, and now they're wading across the sea of Japan. It's up to the EDF to stop them, hopefully without being decimated in the process. It's a battle of nearly overwhelming scale, with gunfire and explosions buffeting the player from every direction. But if you manage to win it with enough of your side surviving, this happens—
They celebrate a victory. Which, considering how bad things are about to get, is actually kind of compelling. We accomplished something together, and it feels great.
By comparison, all the Halo troops have to offer is that some of them are voiced by the cast of Firefly.
5 - Telling a Story Through Action
While selecting each individual mission from a master list isn't the best way of establishing a sense of building narrative, the missions do a great job of picking up the slack in that regard. I've already discussed the game's epic tales of taking down the Juggernaut and Mothership, but there are a dozen other smaller examples of mini-narratives developing within and across levels. Take, for example, the first appearance of gunships in the game. While the player is busy cleaning out the last few ants remaining from the initial Ravager attack, the radio describes the Air Force's attempt to wipe out the mothership. According to reports, it doesn't go well. Just moments later, what should appear in the skyline but-
The gunships that just wiped out Japan's air force. Another mission has the player heading out to the country to destroy some giant insect nests—it's successful, but the next mission involves the player being ambushed on the way back! It's set on the same map, but the player spawns in a valley, surrounded by giant robots. Another set of six missions involves the player trying, on two separate occasions, to wipe out a nest of insects and failing, before embarking on an epic four-mission quest to exterminate their home in Japan, once and for all. Again, the missions following that quest deals with the direct consequences of the previous ones—with all of Japan's remaining insects, deprived of their leadership, staging a last, desperate, all-out attack on the EDF forces.
In all of these cases the player is given a sense that actions (both theirs and those of their compatriots around the world) are having a concrete effect on the tide of battle, engaging them in the story based on their (admittedly completely linear) actions within it, rather than what some other people announce in a cutscene.
6 - The Genocide Gun
Beating EDF 2017 on the hardest difficulty is nearly impossible. Most of the levels are manageable with a strategic application of auto-firing stationary guns and careful planning, but the final boss is flat-out unkillable unless two players execute a perfect strategy and have more than a little luck. Once the game has been beaten on "Inferno", the player has literally seen all it has to offer, and the game is done. Except for one thing—by beating it the player is given the greatest reward a game has ever offered-
The genocide gun. One million points of damage to everything within a 75-meter radius. It doesn't work on Godzilla or dropships, but everything else is killed instantly. Observe—
The developers knew that, after enduring everything the game had to throw at them, they deserved the greatest reward possible. And players who spent the 60+ hours it takes to utterly complete the game were not disappointed.
How many games can say that?
And now, for reasons of fairness, I'll offer—
The 1 Reason why Halo 3 is better than Earth Defense Force 2017
1 - The vehicles don’t absolutely suck beyond all rational understanding of how someone could possibly design a vehicle that bad.
Despite having names that are utterly charming in their absolute nonsensity (Combat Helicopter Bazelato! Battle Machine Vegalta! Combat Vehicle Gigantus!), the decision to not offer an aiming reticule of any kind while piloting cripples their effectiveness. Using them means firing blind, which isn't so bad when using gatling guns or flamethrowers, but tank shells and missiles are designed to hit far-off opponents, which is entirely impossible without the ability to aim. Add that to the fact that the vehicles' health doesn't scale upwards with the difficulty, and you've got a situation where the tough-but-not-impregnable tank from Normal difficulty is destroyed by a single hit from literally any enemy on Hardest or Inferno.
That’s it. Halo's Warthogs are the only place where it wins.
Actually, but some warthogs and scorpions in EDF 2017, and you'd basically have the greatest video game ever made. Maybe Sandlot should get on top of that...