Video games, man. Video games are wild. One moment, you’re playing a game that uses frame-perfect jumping puzzles to turn menacing, indie platforming tropes into an allegory about fighting anxiety and self-esteem problems. The next, you’re screaming internally as you unload thousands of bullets into a distant crowd of building-sized ants. The Earth Defense Force series has long challenged what video games should be in Current Year, and that continues to hold true with the latest release, Earth Defense Force 5.
This isn’t some sort of airtight, mechanical ode to classic games, with score-chasing, designed flow, or leaderboards. Nor is it an attempt to be a blockbuster, a game to be described with meaningless fluff like “cinematic” or “narrative-driven,” or some other phrase designed to chase high-minded legitimacy. Earth Defense Force 5 is more about capturing a sense of thoughtless joy. It wants to make you laugh, or think to yourself, “wow, that was dope,” or befuddle you into a sort of droll sense of amusement. And it achieves that by taking the piss out of everything one might consider a component of a “good” video game, without a shred of cynicism.
Welcome to the Roughnecks
I’m no Earth Defense Force scholar, but if there’s an established canon beyond recurring elements and tropes in this series, Earth Defense Force 5 doesn’t participate. Things start out at the very beginning of the alien invasion with the player taking on the role of some sort of government employee visiting a military base. Things go to Hell in the middle of your visit, and you get roped into the fight right as it starts, eventually becoming a full member of the EDF yourself. From there, the fight escalates more and more with each mission, and boy howdy do things get weird.
Obviously storytelling isn’t a bit part of Earth Defense Force 5, but what it does do is inject as much personality into the experience as it can, despite the more arcade-like nature of the gameplay. This is achieved, most notably, by some seriously bizarre scripting and voice acting that falls into that “so bad it’s good” territory. Yet, it’s not done in a way that feels so forced or deliberate that it feels like it’s leaning into that disingenuous Sharknado tone that turns irony into a corporate commodity. This stuff takes the form of banter from the NPCs, which actually rewards the player for hanging back with the AI instead of rushing into enemies head-on. It’s strange and feels at odds with how the game feels to play, but at the same time, gives you more of an excuse to take the occasional moment to take everything in. And there’s a lot to take in.
They Came From Outer Space
When you’re new to Earth Defense Force, you’ll spend most of your time holding down the right trigger and watching as waves and waves of giant insects explode all over the screen into body parts and multicolored goo. This early simplicity, paired with the goofy voice acting and pretty low-end visual fidelity, probably won’t make the greatest first impression. But that, frankly, betrays a lot of complexity and thoughtfulness that went into the overall package, which is fueled by a skill ceiling that is certainly optional to pursue, but always rising. There are a couple of factors that keep this going, namely the way enemies behave, and a surprising variety of gameplay options afforded to the player.
When you start, Earth Defense Force 5 recommends you play as the Raider class, which is basically a normal dude with a machine gun. Because of that, that’s sort of the default EDF experience, and the one you’ll generally see in a lot of gameplay material, and will be most players’ general experience anyway for the first couple of hours. And there is a joy in that simple gameplay loop, in standing back and just spewing lead into the giant insect hordes. But there are multiple classes, and each one significantly alters the basic gameplay. One class has a jetpack-like device for example, while another is more tank-like, with a massive shield and heavier weapons. Choosing a different class drastically alters the core play. But, it isn’t just about changing classes.
As you play Earth Defense Force 5, you also pick up random drops from enemies. Despite the low fidelity of the visuals, picking up new weapons is another way to tangibly alter what it feels like to play the game. Not only are there several different types of weapons, but even different weapons within their own groups will bring major changes to your approach. This level of player freedom atop a simple foundation is almost a “Dynasty Warriors with guns” sort of vibe, and I’m super into it. For example, as a fan of the default, spray and pray with a machine gun approach, I noticed the default machine gun has high range and quick reload speed, but relatively low power. However, the second machine gun I found had much higher power, but lower range and reload speed. What that meant was, despite the function of the weapon being the same, I had to really change my strategy in the middle of a fight. That sounds obvious, but when your opponents aren’t the usual humanoids of your typical shooter, that means a lot.
This isn’t a cover shooter, nor is it something more acrobatic. My character, the Rider, is very much a regular human being, and that means an unremarkable dodge roll, tiny jump, and unwieldy sprint to go along with my ordinance. Meanwhile, I’m dealing with groups of giant ants, spiders, and even flying saucers in the dozens at any given moment. And while the default machine gun lets me stand back and blast away, occasionally a few enemies will break off from the group and come after me. It makes sense, but it’s not just a head-on rush. These enemies are more intelligent than you’d expect, and they will move erratically once they notice you, and they will flank you, and it’s super easy to get overwhelmed quickly. And when you’re surrounded by house-sized creepy-crawlies, your whole screen is taken up by skittering, blood splatter, and flying, segmented body parts. It’s a miracle Earth Defense Force 5 is generally able to maintain a stable frame rate.
Thus, when I had a weapon that was designed to be aggressive, that meant getting into the mix with these creatures, face-to-face. At that point it becomes a game of constant motion, of swiveling the camera all around, of making sure the shots you pick are the ones that matter the most, of ducking in-between buildings and into alleys, and of avoiding geometry deliberately designed to trip you up into getting cornered. This is a game that is largely spectacle, but can become deceptively unforgiving if you aren’t careful, or if you don’t have a solid handle on both what you and the alien menace are capable of.
Earth Defense Force 5 is absolutely, thoroughly, another Earth Defense Force. If you know what that is, you know what you’re in for. It’s the first one built for modern hardware, which means more stuff happening on screen, but it’s not an upheaval of the formula, nor is it a magical facelift. It is what it is, and what it is has been established at this point. If you’re new to it, you can come in with a Starship Troopers, sans political subtext mentality, and that’s about the vibe here. It has charm of its own, however, thanks to some thoughtful gameplay nuance and earnest cheese. Based on what’s coming in the future, this may also be an end of an era for the series, as WWE 2K developer Yuke’s appears to be taking things in that new direction for the next game. So for now, this is the classic Earth Defense Force experience in its purest and most powerful form. And if you’re the type of player who will dig through a game’s simple surface into nuance and complexity on their own accord, for the joy and thrill of it, then I definitely recommend it. If you’re more into something with direction, polish, and more active window-dressing, your mileage may vary.
Earth Defense Force 5 review code provided by publisher. Version 1.00 reviewed on a standard PS4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.