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Earth Defence Force 2017 Portable review

A bug's life.

Crazy, kinetic and, in its own peculiar way, cool - there's been nothing quite like Earth Defence Force 2017 before or after its release, well over five years ago. It's everything a modern video game shouldn't be: unpolished, archaic and aggressively stupid. Yet it's also got all the qualities a video game should aspire to. Boisterous and fun, this is a game with a canny intellect ticking away behind its big dumb grin.

This is low-budget gaming at its best. Sandlot's over-the-top shooters started out in Japan under the Chikyuu Boueigun moniker as part of publisher D3's Simple series. This was the Japanese video game equivalent of the dime paperback or penny dreadful, in which cheap thrills came with a fittingly cheap price-tag.

Low budgets often translate to high spirits, and Sandlot's games share a little of the punky aesthetic of the cinema of Troma. These are games that feel like they've been turned around over three days in a disused back-lot while cast and crew work their way through countless six-packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon and bags of soapy weed. And they're all the better for it.

Earth Defence Force 2017 was the third in the series and the first to really take hold in the West. It's not hard to see why: at a time when the shooter was about to take a turn for the serious with the global melodrama of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Sandlot's wilful silliness was a refreshing alternative.

There's now four-player co-op online, which replaces the two-player split-screen of the original. Good luck finding any other players, though.

Earth Defence Force 2017 Portable is, as you may have already guessed, a straight-up port of the 2007 Xbox 360 original, and it's made the journey across to the Vita intact. The premise, then, is exactly the same: you're part of an improbable task force pitted against an improbable enemy, working through cardboard sets of Japanese cities that come cascading down under fire.

On the surface, it's certainly shabby. Textures are flat, whole buildings often teleport into view and enemies and allies alike are animated sparingly, dancing awkwardly in a comic bout of rigor mortis once fallen, or swarming majestically across skyscrapers before clipping rudely through them. Beneath all that, though, Earth Defence Force 2017 is deceptively smart.

Essentially, it's a twin-stick shooter set in a 3D environment, serving up the slick chaos of Robotron with a pleasantly sloppy patina of slapstick. The shooting is crisp, the cannon fodder sharply defined and varied enough to make each arena battle distinct and entertaining. There are scuttling ants or bounding spiders, towering mechs or domineering sky cruisers: Earth Defence Force 2017's enemies are always imbued with a sense of the fantastical that's borrowed wholesale from '50s sci-fi pulp.

And so each level is a 10-minute slice of comedic crowd control and overstated action as whole cities are leveled and entire alien platoons wiped out by your pitifully puny avatar and, occasionally, a handful of useless AI companions who, when they aren't pumping lead into walls, provide a brilliantly inane line in background chatter. There's a little thread that runs through each of the 60 levels (a slight bump-up of the 53 offered in the original), with armour and weapon unlocks acquired through loot drops that, quite neatly, increase in effectiveness the higher difficulty you engage in.

Pale Wing, a star of previous EDF games, returns as an unlockable character in this Vita version.

Earth Defence Force 2017 boils down to shooting and looting then, ticking off the same primal urges as Borderlands 2 and doing so, in its own fashion, just as well. There's actually a fair amount in common between Sandlot and Gearbox's games, in outlook at least - although Borderlands' hick heart is an aesthetic choice backed up by expensive production values, whereas here it's more a result of circumstance. The shabbiness is genuine, and it's that much more lovable for it.

But there's a problem with Earth Defence Force 2017 Portable. It's not necessarily in the inevitable loss of split-screen co-op, an essential part of the drunken joy of the original (although that certainly smarts). That's been covered off by a selection of well-meaning local and online multiplayer modes, including a new versus mode - but it's all a little redundant since finding a Vita in the wild is about as likely as one of EDF's extra-terrestrial invasions coming crashing down in your hometown, and the online lobbies are all bare at present.

The biggest issue here, sadly, is the price. When this launched on Xbox 360, its faults could be excused not only by its big heart but also by its small price-tag: at £25, the original was a budget game in both outlook and its impact on your wallet. So why, well over five years later, is the Vita version being sold full-price at £34.99?

It's a misunderstanding of the game's cut-price appeal and a mistake that European publisher Namco Bandai will hopefully be quick to address. It's not enough, though, to detract from the rough-edged brilliance of Earth Defence Force 2017. A generation's passed in the time between the original's release and this portable port, and it still stands entirely on its own.

8 / 10