Earthall is Left 4 Dead, with aliens, but worse.
That’s terrible, isn’t it? I really should be taking this marvel of modern technology on its own merits, digging into every nuance and exploring the features that make this game a worthwhile entry to the steadily expanding genre of co-op shooters that Valve’s zombie masterpiece spawned.
Let me try again.
Earthfall is Vermintide, with aliens, but worse.
Let’s go into detail, shall we? Details are nice.
Straight off, Earthfall looks the part. Whether it’s the glistening flesh of a razor-toothed thresher as you flail helplessly underneath them, or the beams of light that phase out from a hidden healing station, the game remains a looker, even when things get a bit chaotic.
After choosing one of four heroes, you’ll traverse each of Earthfall’s short levels by completing a series of objectives that often have you holding out in enclosed areas against huge swarms of alien bastards. There’s no real end to the onslaught, so the aim is to work together to get through the stages as quickly and safely as possible. As in the games that inspired it, teamwork is key here.
Objectives or no, the majority of your time with Earthfall is going to be spent popping the zit-like faces of skittering alien annoyances with firearms. Which leads us to the only two questions any self respecting adult should be asking themselves, repeatedly, in every situation. Which are: Are the aliens cool, and are the guns cool?
In both cases, the answer is “sort of, if a little generic.” There’s also a few nice exceptions I’ll touch on shortly.
All characters start with a basic pistol. I’ve noticed a tendency to describe underpowered-feeling game weapons as ‘pea shooters’. Earthfall’s pistol falls into this category, but somehow remember that pea shooters can still be fun. They’re not meaty, but much quicker than a pistol has any right to be. Also, *points to bandana* infinite ammo, so you can spray and pray like an idiot without having to worry about the consequences. You can also dual wield if you find a second, which trades out a little accuracy for more firepower. So yeah, useful lad all round, especially for a default weapon.
So what else is in the fun fun murder bag? A couple of assault rifles, which fall more on the modern military short burst, slim fire cone end of the spectrum, but still feel good to use. A shotgun, which is a little on the wonky side, and best avoided. A semi automatic sniper rifle, which doesn’t always gel with Earthfall’s enclosed environments. A flamethrower, which is chaotic but hilarious, and lets out some seriously impressive jets of flame. There’s also a few different grenades, which are a little underwhelming but get the job done. A slightly beefier pistol, which feels a bit sluggish after getting used to your default speedy boi. An experimental railgun type doodad, which is powerful but slow, and a chaingun, which is a chaingun.
What sets really sets Earthfall apart from both Left 4 Dead and Vermintide, however, are the sentry guns and mobile barriers, combined with levels that feel like they were designed to encourage the player to make good use of both of these additions. With this sort of set-up, the objectives scattered around each level — open the gate, power the generator etc — are always going to be an exercise in disguising the fact that the basic loop is the same. You’re always going to be shooting aliens. Earthfall’s job is to contextualise each instance of alien shooting so it feels meaningful. The sentry guns and expanding fences that allow you to create choke points on the fly go a long way towards achieving this.
Occasionally, you’ll match with a team that knows when all the huge swarms are coming, and you all end up barricaded in a garage together, back to back, pumping triggers wildly at anything that moves. It makes for some enjoyably tense standoffs, and in lieu of unique roles (the differences between Earthfall’s four characters are purely cosmetic) it can build some great moments of comradeship.
Antithetical to these moments of tension, however, is the way the game’s AI director works (or doesn’t), especially in comparison to the recent Vermintide 2. Both the Vermintide games, as well the L4D titles that inspired them, rely on a certain level of randomness to keep players on their toes and keep drama high throughout. The decision to warn the team whenever a horde is about to be summoned allows you to prepare your defenses, but it also prevents you gleefully shitting yourself as five hundred rat men pour over a nearby battlements and try to gnaw your fingers off. It’s a trade off, admittedly, and one that plays into Earthfall’s unique aspects, but in doing so, sacrifices one of the most interesting things about the sub-genre.
Then there’s the aliens. Again, like the games that inspired it, creature design is based heavily on functionality here. You need to be able to pick the specials out of a swarm, so the big bulbous lads filled with gas look like big bulbous lads filled with gas, the snozzberries taste like snozzberries, and so on. This means that Earthfall’s Xenos lack a cohesive look, and the world feels drab as a result. Neither the plot, setting, characters, or enemies are strongly defined enough to stand on their own chitinous feet without the larger media landscape that surrounds them, or even the games that came before them. You know what’s going on, because you’ve seen some sci-fi and read some comics, so you can fill in the blanks and get back to shooting, but Earthfall never puts forward enough convincing ideas of its own to make its endgame scenario distinct.
The real issue here, for most people, is going to be the lack of replayability. Legacy systems and upgrade trees have become so common now that it’s easy to forget that we didn’t always have them. I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing more games would focus on what feels good in the moment, rather than relying on mechanics cribbed from RPG’s to feel meaningful. But Earthfall, although competent, just isn’t enjoyable enough to incentivize long sessions without a killer reward structure in place. Instead, there’s nothing but a few scraps of mildly interesting lore to unlock. Between the machines that print guns in every garage, and the paranoia drenched security measures that were supposedly in place even before the aliens came, you have to wonder if this world is even worth saving in the first place.
If you’ve got a good group of friends, and you feel like trading out the medieval villages of the far superior Vermintide 2 for some aliens and machine guns, you’ll likely squeeze a good evening or two out of Earthfall’s ten missions. For everyone else, I’d keep an eye on what Holospark do in the future, but this particular alien invasion is one you’ll probably want to stay home for.