Earth Defense Force X Hands-On

D3 gives us an updated look at its combination world-saving/bug-extermination sim on the 360.

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D3's Chikyuu Boueigun franchise has been on our radar since the series kicked off as part of the PlayStation 2's "Simple" budget series in Japan in 2003. The eccentric action title was an appealing homage to '50s sci-fi and the old-school run-and-gun action games that were staples of the gamer diet in the '90s. At this past Tokyo Game Show, we had a chance to check out the latest entry in the series, its first on the Xbox 360, and we were mightily pleased by what we saw. The marriage of Microsoft's powerful console, gigantic insects with attitudes, a destructible city, a ton of weapons, and humans in need of saving was a good one. Despite the winning first impression the game made on us, we assumed that the game's chances of hitting the US weren't so hot, considering none of the previous entries in the series have made it stateside. However, D3 stopped by our offices today to show off an updated version of the Japanese game and let us know that the title is indeed headed for a US release in early 2007, under the name Earth Defense Force X--which is news that's almost as good as finding a rocket launcher when confronted by a horde of ants.

For those who don't follow the import scene, here's a quick rundown on Chikyuu Boueigun's history. The game was developed by Sandlot Studios in 2003 and released on the PlayStation 2 under the console's "Simple" series of budget titles that retailed for roughly 20 dollars. Though the Simple brand yielded the expected hordes of unimpressive titles that follow the old "You get what you pay for" adage, the Chikyuu Boueigun games were a very pleasant surprise. Though the titles have essentially been run-and-gun-fests that find you facing off against invading alien hordes that are relying on the extraterrestrial invasion staples of large robots, massive insects, and the occasional Godzilla-sized monster, the games have featured some character progression and an undeniably appealing sense of fun.

Sandlot hasn't changed the formula much for the Xbox 360 version, which sticks very closely to the previous titles. You'll find roughly 53 different stages, each playable on one of five difficulties (easy, normal, hard, hardest, and inferno). Each stage will find you in control of a member of the Earth Defense Force, an organization dedicated to stopping alien invasions the old-fashioned way--with lots of firepower. The stages will offer a variety of menaces, many of which should be familiar to fans of the previous entries in the series. You'll take on gigantic ants, leaping tarantulas that fire deadly webbing from their bottoms, spaceships, enormous dinosaurlike critters, and giant robots. Given the varied and plentiful numbers of your foes, EDFX may sound like a death sim in which you get to watch yourself repeatedly die in an outlandish way--but this is not the case. Even though you're basically an army of one thanks to a beefy arsenal of weapons (more on that in a second), you're not alone, as Sandlot has added artificial intelligence-controlled teammates from the force who are on hand to help you fight the alien hordes and, apparently, scream emphatically as all hell breaks loose around you.

Speaking of hell breaking loose, EDFX's arsenal of weapons clocks in at a mighty 150, broken up among seven different classes. You'll start the game with a modest selection of weapons you can equip before heading into a mission. But as you plow your way through the alien hordes, you'll begin to collect armor and weapon pickups that will yield bonuses at the end of every stage. While the armor will increase your character's durability, the weapon pickups will unlock new arms across the seven different classes. The weapons offer variations on the different classes that range from greater firepower to improved reloading speeds. You'll make use of the game game's weapons in one of two modes in the game, single and co-op. Both modes will let you run through the 53 stages on the various difficulties. Sadly, the co-op mode is limited to offline split-screen, but it's still very fun and runs smoothly. Control comes in two flavors, the clunky but serviceable scheme found in the previous games, and a new scheme that offers a more conventional third-person system that's more in line with what players are used to.

Ants are pretty bad, but big robots aren't much better.
Ants are pretty bad, but big robots aren't much better.

The game's presentation benefits from the more powerful 360 hardware and delivers crisp visuals that move along at a considerably more stable frame rate than the PlayStation 2 games. The cities have seen a size increase that suits the game's epic scale and they feature a robust damage system that lets you level just about anything you can get in your sights. Your alien opponents are a bit shinier and feature a more generous amount of polygons in their makeup. From what we were able to see, some benefit more than others; for example, while the ants and tarantulas look better than their PS2 counterparts, they aren't as dramatically sharper as the larger spacecraft and giant robots we saw in the version we played. The blood and explosions that result from combat are suitably dramatic and add to the over-the-top madness that's been the franchise's signature. A fun improvement to the visuals is an even crazier physics system that allows for zany moments like blasting your insect foes into what looks like low orbit.

The audio has been beefed up from the previous games and offers effective accompaniment to the action. You'll hear solid tunes that fit the sci-fi theme and hear menacing shrieks from the assorted foes you'll face. The various weapons and explosions serve up the expected crash, booms, and bangs, though we'll admit to hoping for even crazier audio given what the 360 is capable of.

Based on what we've seen Earth Defense Force X is shaping up to be a shiny piece of old-school action for the Xbox 360. The game may not be the prettiest thing you'll ever see on the 360, but it has an undeniable charm and offers visceral fun in ways that only leveling a city or blowing mobs of ants in every direction possible can offer.

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