Version tested: Xbox 360
It shouldn't really be noteworthy that Earth Defense Force is a game about killing giant ants. That's because, back in the early years, all games were about killing giant ants - at least it seemed like they were. These days, games are about cinematic set-pieces and fluid dynamics. These days, games are about feelings. Who wants that, when these ants, right, have come down from outer space, and they aren't particularly friendly? You get to shoot them with assault rifles, shot guns and rocket launchers. It's brilliant.
EDF's previous instalments were made by the Japanese developer Sandlot, but Insect Armageddon moves the production - and the location of the ant-killing - to the US. I was a little worried, frankly, about how well the ants would travel. Would an American developer like Vicious Cycle pile on the cheese a little too knowingly and damage the B movie earnestness of the original games? Even worse, would it take the whole thing deadly seriously, throwing in cover, racial stereotype team-mates who say things like, "Aw hell yeah!" and "Aw hell no!" and heavy overtones suggesting that killing ants was some kind of analogy for the war on terror?
Luckily, none of this has happened (apart from the team-mates bit). It's ant-killing as usual, and all the new developers have really done to mix things up is opt for fewer, longer missions, and a little bit more in the way of internal structure.
It's intensely, almost shamefully, satisfying to play [...] .
And it really is only a little bit more. Insect Armageddon is now a game about following a waypoint around. Don't worry, though, because, when you're following the waypoint, you'll probably encounter some ants that need murdering. When you get to the waypoint, you'll probably encounter some more ants that need murdering, although there may also be mechs or tanks or turrets to murder them in, and anthills you have to blow up with mines.
Actually, I'm being a little reductive. Sometimes, there are spiders, too, and wasps, and mechanical spiders. Then there are really, really big mechanical spiders, and drop ships, and giant robots marching around and causing havoc, not to mention even bigger giant robots. (Once you reach a certain size in the Earth Defense Force universe, you tend to grow glowing weak points, incidentally, and that adds an element of precision to the general ant-killing slaughter.)
The pacing is brilliantly unforgiving, mid-mission check pointing is totally absent, and the ammo, thankfully, is unlimited. This is a game for getting into the zone, in other words. I like to play using a homing rocket launcher, in fact, which means I don't even have to really aim anymore: I just surf around the battlefield, ducking giant critters and slowly blowing random pieces of the surroundings into slimy chunks.
What's weird about such a simple formula is that it's intensely, almost shamefully, satisfying to play, whether you're sat there on your own, or teamed up with friends. (Insect Armageddon supports two player split screen, three player online co-op and up to six in Survival mode.) It's hard to pin down exactly why this should be.
Let's have a go, though. Partly, of course, it's so satisfying because EDF has the immediacy of a really good old-fashioned arcade game. Forget motive and characterisation: enemies spawn and then they run at you, and there's nothing much for you to do except blow them to pieces.
But it's also because of a robust sense of focus. While the game doesn't attempt very much, it tends to get everything it does have a go at just right. AI team-mates are surprisingly reliable, Alien UFOs spiral out of the sky exactly the way they should when you shoot them, ants and spiders follow pleasing trajectories across the street if you shotgun them in the face, and buildings - after you've pumped enough rockets into them - shudder into the ground with a perfect lazy sigh of smoke and gravel. It would be hard to mistake EDF for a game that's cost a great deal of money to make, but when everything comes together - when you're running through the battlefield as enemies bounce around you, drop ships explode overhead, and the giant building you're facing starts to crumble - it summons up that elusive blockbuster feeling very nicely. It's the same feeling that other, far more ambitious games, often need to rely on heavy scripting to recreate.
That's it, I think: EDF isn't afraid to let the player cause chaos on their own terms. It doesn't really care if you sit down quietly and play through the story the developers have already prepared for you, or if you just jab away at the buttons absent-mindedly while you're on the phone to the bank. It isn't bothered if you're not looking the right way during set-pieces, because there are no real set-pieces. You can even remix the entire campaign to keep things fresh: I'm not sure Naughty Dog will ever let you do that.
Beyond the immediacy of the slaughter, there are a few other elements to consider this time. There are four different armour classes to level up (Battle's the heavy, Jet's the nimble one, while Tactical and Trooper are your equipment deployer and classic EDF kit respectively), dozens of weapons to buy, and a new active reload system that can cut your downtime between clips in half if you time it just right. There's also a Survival mode that just throws enemies at you until you can't take it any more. It's a bit like the campaign itself, if I'm being honest but that's hardly a criticism: it just means that Vicious Cycle has built an EDF campaign the way it should have.
I think you're going to love Insect Armageddon, then, but you may love it very fiercely for a fairly short space of time - a fact that Namco Bandai all but acknowledges with the price point. This is a smart discount blaster to dive into for a few hours every few months, and to have nearby whenever you get bored of more complex entertainments that come with characters and plot twists and levels that aren't all largely interchangeable. It's basic stuff, its frame-rate can stutter, and it's got a handful of minor - ha! - bugs, but if you're looking for a source of guilt-free insect murder over the next few weeks, this is the best show in town. Just ask the ants.
8 / 10