Imagine a wholly simplistic shooter that lets you carry two weapons into battle, pilot clunky vehicles to do extra damage, collect two-dimensional armor and weapon power-ups, and fight off hordes of giant alien bugs, robots, and UFOs, while also blasting away the occasional comically massive boss for good measure. Can you guess what decade this game could be from? The answer might surprise you. D3 and developer Sandlot Games' Earth Defense Force 2017 is like a game out of time. If this were 1987 instead of 2007, some company like Data East or Irem would have churned this baby out on the NES or Sega Master System as a scrolling or top-down shooter with then-gigantic enemies that blew apart to pixelated messes. Now, fast-forward 20 years, render that same concept in 3D, scale all the creepy-crawly and mechanized enemies up by somewhere around 300-fold, and then don't touch the gameplay mechanics a lick except to throw in an awkward dodge maneuver, and you've got yourself Earth Defense Force 2017. Of course, the incredible scale of the bugs, buildings, and bots you're blowing up helps alleviate somewhat the sensation that you have no business playing a game that feels this ancient on the Xbox 360, but even with its overly old-school mechanics, Earth Defense Force 2017 is a surprisingly good time--especially for its cheaper-than-average price.
The premise of Earth Defense Force 2017 is that in a decade from now, aliens decide to come to Earth, and they're none too friendly. Earth had a bit of an early warning that these invaders from above were on the way, so they formed a cadre of soldiers known as the Earth Defense Force to stave off any attacks. Those attacks come in the form of ants and spiders the size of kitchens, mammoth robots with gun-arms longer and wider than should be possible while still walking upright, and massive UFOs that rain down even more enemies, as well as the occasional bout of laser fire. There's not much story, save for some delightfully hammy "rah-rah" shouting from your fellow EDF soldiers and a bit of radio dialogue between your commanding officers and other EDF members that frequently get slaughtered ahead of you. But what's here goes nicely with the patently B-grade sci-fi theme the game has wrapped itself up in. It's just too bad your character doesn't interact more with others, or have more personality--actually, any personality would have been a nice touch.
There are 53 missions in the game, and all of them involve exterminating one brand of foe or another. You'll travel through cities, countrysides, and even some deep, dark caves to blow up these ugly invaders, and you won't have to think much while you're doing it. EDF is nearly strategy-free gameplay. Save for the decision of which weapons you want to take into battle (somewhere around 150 unlockable weapons are in the game, some better for certain tasks than others), there's really no need to use your brain as you run around, laying waste to whatever ugly thing gets within sight of your targeting reticle. If you're the sort of person that revels in the chance to just blow things up wantonly and watch the bug guts and fireballs fly, then EDF should prove to be a riotous experience for you. Not only do the robots and other enemies die horribly, but you can blow away pretty much any piece of the scenery you please, as well. Buildings crumble like a cookie with a single rocket blast, trees uproot at the slightest explosion, and parked cars like to go flying through the air.
The game's sense of scale is really impressive, as are some of the explosion and destruction effects. Enemies are mammoth in size, especially some of the boss characters, which dwarf many of the taller buildings in the game. However, as cool as the scale of it all is, the game does have a cheap look to it overall. Environments are flat and blocky, and the game's insects don't blow up so much as they just go stiff and start bouncing around the environment until they eventually flicker out. And instead of crashing, enemy UFOs just give off a bunch of explosions and then slowly sink directly into the ground. Even your character doesn't look all that good. He's just a generic grunt dressed like all the other generic grunts, and he often looks like he's got some kind of cybernetic swiveling hip bone as he contorts while trying to aim every which way. The frame rate is also quite erratic, chunking up significantly whenever extreme amounts of action are going on. Still, the game's immense scale and wonderfully cheesy art style do a good bit to make up for a number of the game's technical deficiencies.
Howver, not everyone is going to fall head over heels for what EDF does. As fun as the combat can be, it is incredibly simple, and those that prefer a bit more variety in their third-person shooters will probably balk at what the game offers up. Despite boasting 150 different weapons, a lot of them are just slight firing variations on similar weapon models, and there are a significant number that feel useless. But it'll still take you a while to figure out which rocket launchers, missile launchers, shotguns, sniper rifles, assault rifles, grenade launchers, and other experimental bric-a-brac work best, and, if the core action happens to grab you, you'll have a good time experimenting with them.
Less enjoyable are the few vehicles included in the game. Some missions let you jump into a helicopter, tank, giant mech suit, or weird hoverbike thing that looks like the speeder from Return of the Jedi. The controls for the vehicles are hopelessly off-kilter. Tanks never seem to aim quite right, and the hoverbike is extremely awkward to steer. The mech suit aims the best but is incredibly slow and impossible to turn, and the helicopter...well, it doesn't do anything right. Suffice it to say, save for short bouts where you might want to use the mech suit to blow up something as big and slow as you are, you're going to want to stick to ground combat.
Of course, the ground combat isn't perfect either. Aiming and shooting work just fine, but jumping around the environment, occasionally trying to dodge enemy fire, and really anything else, is on the clumsy side. When environments get good and busted up, it's often difficult to get around without wandering into some chunk of the scenery, and jump and dodge happen to be mapped to the same button, meaning sometimes you don't get the desired result. Also, the game has a real crazy habit of piling on the chaos at some of the worst times. It's not hard to find yourself surrounded by tons and tons of attacking ants, spiders, and robots all at once. When the action really heats up like this, the camera tends to go all wonky, shaking around violently to signify that, yes, big explosions are happening, and all the while huge bursts of enemy fire, friendly fire, and multicolored bug guts are flying about everywhere, making it intensely difficult to get your bearings and, in some cases, survive at all. There are some fight sequences in this game that pretty much define why game companies put seizure warnings in instruction manuals. By the time you get to the final boss and its onslaught of disco-tinted laser fire, you'll probably want to bite down on somebody's wallet just to make sure you don't swallow your own tongue.
The 53 missions will probably take you around 10 hours to complete on any of the lower two difficulty settings, but there are five total, and many of the best weapons don't unlock until you beat some of the tougher settings. Additionally, all of the game's achievements are tied into beating all the missions on each difficulty and unlocking every weapon. It's kind of lame that there's only six achievements total, and that some of them are so hard to get, as the later difficulties are fully overwrought in terms of challenge. The good news is that you do have a cooperative play option, so you can tag-team any of the game's missions with a friend in split-screen mode. Sadly, there's no online mode, and the only competitive play mode is a lousy deathmatch option that is still for only two players. But, hey, there's nothing quite like blowing up huge swarms of spiders with a buddy at your side.
It's awkward, single-minded, gross, slightly ugly, somewhat stilted, fully cheesy, and dumb with a capital D, U, and M, but Earth Defense Force 2017 somehow, some way manages to entertain. As you sit, blowing up aliens for an hour or two at a time (any longer than that, and your brain will start to rot), you'll be asking yourself why you're enjoying this so much, when there's so many clear-cut flaws all over the place. And though you'll never come up with a reconcilable answer, after a while you have to give in to the game's earnestly brainless brand of action and accept that it's just plain fun.