I miss Left 4 Dead.
I mean, it hasn’t disappeared or anything, and you can certainly still play it with people, but I no longer have friends on hand like that, y’know? It’s the Halo nostalgia case once again, as everyone’s moved on to do bigger and better things. And all those memories? Well, you still have them, but you can’t relive them, heartbreakingly. At least Earthfall is here to try and replicate them as best they can.
This is the debut title from Seattle-based studio Holospark Entertainment, a 30-or-so man team who’ve only had experience in making VR games before this. First, there’s The Impossible Travel Agency, where you just walk around and act amazed, then there’s Seance: The Unquiet, where you just walk around and act scared, and now Earthfall, where you just walk around and shoot aliens. It sounds really generic when I put it like that.
You play as one of any four survivors, who are all trying to make it out of the alien-infested wilderness of America after a cataclysmic meteor strike ravaged the country, with aliens following shortly after. There’s Maya, the athlete who’s no-nonsense, Roy, the man who’s never too old for this shit, Danny, the stoner with the real answers, and Jonas, the umm… hypochondriac?
If the beginning line failed to clue you in, then here’s the big reveal: Earthfall is a Left 4 Dead clone, specifically Left 4 Dead 2, with all of its crazy features. Aside from the four-person co-op, you’ve got the massive array of varied weaponry, some melee weapons thrown into the mix, varied environments, and special aliens designed to pick off and separate poorly-structured teams. It’s as close to Turtle Rock’s original baby as you can get.
That’s great, right? Well, on the surface it is. More Left 4 Dead is fine by me, regardless of context or charm, and to be truthful, there’s a lot in Earthfall’s favor, and it seemed like a dead set winner. As it stands though, the game is mere inches away from not only being good, but especially addictive to anyone. Let’s have a further examination.
You know the drill if you’ve ever even smelled Left 4 Dead. There’s four of you, and you’ve got to reach the end with a masterful use of teamwork, reactions and communication. A lot of the time, you’ll be required to hold off against aliens that seemingly spawn with no rhyme or reason, and to retaliate, the maps will be littered with more defensive items to use.
Barricades, portable mounted guns, landmines, and automatic turrets are littered in small places where you’ll have to hold off and await an objective to complete. It’s usually here where you’ll get treated to the uncommon variants of aliens that are designed to single you out and ruin team composition. There are the Thresher and Whiplash, which are the Hunters and Jockey’s respectively, along with the Sapper, which is the Boomer, and let’s not forget the Tank, which is just called a “Beast”.
There are new additions, like the Enrager, which supposedly buffs enemies who are nearby when it pulsates, but I honestly couldn’t tell you whether that was true or not. Finally, there’s the Blackout, which I believe is supposed to replace the Witch in terms of annoyances within the missions, and its set health. What it mostly does is dart around the map with a shield, and spam stupidly damaging heat-seeking orbs. If it had a bit of health taken away from it overall, then it might be a worthy adversary to fight, but as it stands, it’s merely an annoying roadblock without any pretense.
Save for two weapons, every gun that you’ll come across in your campaigns will look and feel great. There are two pistols, which sound and act like proper sidearm upgrades when you find them. All of the assault rifles feel fantastic, with the highlight being the humorous AK67, and the special weapons are stupidly fun to use, with the highlight being the Valkyrie plasma rifle.
The only two weapons that feel kind of crap in your hands are the SMGs, notably the MP5x and xP9D, with the former having no damage and sounding like a wet fart, and the latter having bad recoil but is actually the best weapon in the game. No seriously, the xP9D will absolutely shred any alien to pieces. Be it a grunt or otherwise, it’ll turn the enemy into green acidic salsa.
There is one innovative addition, and that’s in the form of using 3D printers to make more guns, which emphasizes defense a lot more than other games in the same vein. Granted, it makes some of these areas exceptionally easy to progress through, but Earthfall does house a poorly-constructed ace up its sleeve, which we’ll get to in a moment.
The environmental variation for the missions is top notch, despite how little of the game there is in the first place. You’ll mostly be blasting through barren forests devoid of human life, but every once in a while the game will throw a curveball and place you into an abandoned military base, a snowy village or whatever. If there’s one problem with it, it’s that they’re just surface-level changes, and it would’ve been nice to see a bit more gimmicky design in said map areas, like how the snow could slow you down because you’re cold?
Graphically, the game is pushed to its limits and is unbelievably good-looking at times. Unreal Engine 4 is the engine used, and a lot of the guns, enemy animations and vistas provide impressed reactions. The snow map, in particular, is actually surprisingly cozy, and the Dam level was a visual highlight. Admittedly, the game can’t handle it, as the game will drop frames like it’s bass whenever more than eleven aliens spawn in, along with the painful texture pop-in making everything look like a late-stage PS2 title.
The sound design is almost perfect. Along with most of the guns sounding like they could tear through titanium, every monster sounds terrifying, with the callouts for special zombies working overtime to add a horror atmosphere to it all. If it wasn’t for the Sappers explosion causing every single audible sound to fragment completely, it’d be fine, but as it stands, the most common special zombie makes the audio aspect of the game fairly annoying.
The characters of Earthfall would definitely be more interesting if they had more lines. I remember reading about Left 4 Dead having something like 10000 different lines of dialogue, making dead air in pre-determined quiet sections much more bearable. Here though, there’s a lot of lines that are repeated, like the announcement of a Thresher nearby, or an objective, and it’s always the same line, and it wouldn’t be so bad if the characters were always charismatic, but they aren’t.
Their personalities are hard to gauge, or rather they’re hard to find. Maya’s tough-gal image doesn’t really show up all that much, and she mumbles her way through most of the lines. Roy ghosts his way through the game, his only presence being when you shoot him in the back of the head because the A.I. is as thick as pig shit. Danny’s stoner persona gets lost immediately since he’s the one who’s always telling the gang where to go. And Jonas? For some reason, he always sounds like Australian comedian Glenn Butcher doing a whiny American accent, like a Full Frontal sketch that never made it to air.
The mission structure is fairly decent, and manages to stay fresh, despite it usually only being one thing: Make a loud noise, then defend your current position. It does try to mix and match various elements all the time, like escorting a piece of equipment over to another part of the map to continue, or opening up a giant playground to defend. The problem with most of this, however, is that the A.I doesn’t actually take part in any of the objectives, and therein lies the problem.
Earthfall’s A.I is terrible. It’s like you’re in a Siege lobby with three Gold IV teammates, and all of them think they know how to play Ash. All they do is run around and take eight minutes to actually respond to any of the dangers around them. “Oh, what’s that? A Thresher is currently clawing my best friends insides out of their body, and eating them in front of them? Oh, well that is a pisser, but this gun right here? It looks interesting, and I might pick it up. I can dwell on that as well but– Oh, bum! I’m being attacked!”
When it’s not your A.I teammates failing to recognize the dangers around them, it’s usually the random enemy placement that tends to bugger everything up. This is what makes or breaks the experience right here, as Left 4 Dead’s biggest quality was “The Director”, an A.I that inspected your experience and attempts to constantly keep the players on edge in a fair manner. It’s stupidly hard to explain, but there’s an absolutely brilliant video explaining it on YouTube, along with a written article if that’s more your fancy.
To put it briefly, The Director follows the player and watches to see if they’re playing more erratic than you should be. This leads to the Director possibly spawning a Smoker to get rid of somebody pushing ahead, or a Tank when the silence is deathly. It’s designed to make sure that you can’t get used to the spawning of monsters in repeat playthroughs, keeping every single Campaign in a state of feeling unique, even if it’s a small difference.
In Earthfall, its Director doesn’t have the exact same level of execution, instead deciding to throw in whatever can fit into your current area at that point in time. An all too common sight will be seeing a bunch of low-level aliens spawn literally right in front of you. Another common occurrence is a Blackout or Beast spawning in while in the middle of an objective that can’t handle it, like the military base, where the corridor cannot actually fit the bastard inside.
That might sound like a moot point to make, of course, the game is going to spawn in something massive to put a pisser in your attempted run through a level, but the difference here is map design. In Left 4 Dead, the claustrophobia was remedied with a sense of verticality to a lot of levels. In Earthfall, while the maps can be sprawling mazes, it’s rare you’ll ever fight a Beast in a fair battleground, and you’re usually forced to let a lot of your teammates die, due to the A.I’s insistence on choosing to fight one person until they die before moving onto the next one.
To put it bluntly, it’s not smart, and what’s even dumber is the last level, which decides to throw random and procedural spawning into the trash, in favor of set spawns, easily making it the worst level in the game. The final level in the mine plays on a beat, and that’s awful, because now you expect the dangers, and of course, it’s the level where the A.I are at their most useless, due to the nature of the tight map, and the objective.
Everything’s a bloody fetch quest in this map, more than usual, and the level also employs some gimmicky spawning in the form of Gears of War-esque Locust holes where aliens will continuously spawn Enragers and Sappers. The only way to get rid of them is by throwing Satchel Charges into them, and once again, it’s another bloody objective that the A.I cannot do. Which means not only are you escorting a bunch of bloody drills around the mines, you’re trying to look for bloody C4 in nooks and crannies.
I understand that I’m harping on this whole A.I thing quite a bit, but wouldn’t it have been a better idea to not employ a fetch quest within every level? Wouldn’t it have been great if instead of me doing all the work, we were merely inspecting what the aliens have done to the planet already? Nope. Instead, I’m herding three of the dumbest teammates around, along with a piece of thermite, exactly like a game of Rainbow Six: Siege.
Is it fun with friends? Of course. Throwing away the dumbass A.I in favor of your
dumbass friends means that co-operation is more frequent, it’s on point, and an actual blast. This is going to be the biggest asterisk that I place upon any sort of recommendation, but if you can find some people to play Earthfall with you, then you’re in for some of the best fun something like Left 4 Dead can truly provide.
One final comment that needs to be made: DO NOT PLAY THIS ON THE HARDEST DIFFICULTY. Not only is it the crap kind of difficulty where the only thing that happens is that you get damaged more for miniscule hits, but the game randomly freezes without any rhyme or reason. This doesn’t happen on any other difficulty either, just the hardest one. I don’t get it.
In the end, Earthfall’s fun can only be seen and provided if you can find other people to play it with, and that’s not much of a selling point. If the flow of gameplay wasn’t strictly based on your input in a solo match, then it would be alright. As it stands, the map layouts, the dumb A.I, the struggling engine– It all falls flat, in what is possibly one of the most disappointing releases of 2018.
I’m not mad, I’m just sad.
This review of Earthfall is based on the Xbox One version of the game.
An attempt to carry on the legacy of Valve and Turtle Rock falls flat, with a small amount of attention paid to the elements that matter. Poor mission design and A.I is what ruins this experience.
Owner of the largest collection of indie games in the Western Hemisphere, and TimeSplitters’ biggest fanboy.