Cast your mind back to 2008. Valve’s Left 4 Dead had just bull-rushed into the gaming world, opening the gaming community to online co-op horde multiplayer. Left 4 Dead solidified the horde genre in the gaming world and evolved multiplayer gaming beyond the 360 no-scope to the face by 13-year-olds claiming rights to your parentage. The focus was on getting a group of your friends together, and just having a good time mowing down the undead hordes.
And I did not get the hype.Not because I didn’t want to play co-op multiplayer (I prefer it to competitive), but because I found Left 4 Dead’s actual graphics, sound design and general mechanics to be on the shoddy side. I could not engage with the desperation of the game because I was too busy fighting the actual mechanics rather than the zombie horde; Left 4 Dead, in my opinion, had somehow managed to create animation that was somehow simultaneously sloppy AND twitchy all at the same time. So I squirreled myself away on Gears of War 2’s horde mode; and popped skulls, chopped torsos and held the line in glorious technicolour and monstrous surround sound. This, I felt, was how a horde mode should operate. But the gaming community lapped Left 4 Dead up, no doubt shouting and frothing about something something Half-Life developer something something Team Fortress something.
Call me old-fashioned, but if I’m going to play a game where the core mechanic is my character spewing bullets into all manner of nasties; then I wanted to feel that gun in my hands ruining the bad guys’ day, with strong animation to back up the hellfire I was responsible for. Not only that, but being part of a game that took pride in its graphics and sound design meant that everything felt all the more desperate as you held out against the waves of bad guys. It’s hard to get that white-knuckle feeling when all you have is some weird flapping zombie limply flail at your screen.
And so that was 2008 and lots of these mechanics were relatively new. However, it is now ten years later and I am still sat here wondering just what Holospark was thinking when it came to the creation of Earthfall.
From their presentations at PAX, announcement trailers and press-kit; Holospark make it clear from the outset that Earthfall draws direct inspiration from Left 4 Dead. The problem is that, during their trawl through their no doubt well-leafed copy of the dictionary and thesaurus (more on that later), they did not come across the word ‘derivative’. Of course, in this day and age, very few things are truly original — but to be so brazen and lazy with the reference material, one has to wonder if it was a deliberate choice. I honestly struggle to decide whether or not Earthfall is just meant as a direct homage to Left 4 Dead with an alien skin-suit; and not meant to be taken as an original game by its own right and merits.
The issue lies in the previously mentioned casualness in it wearing its source material on its sleeve. Earthfall does a decent job of using current technology to give a better overall mechanical baseline, but that really is not saying much as so often it feels like Holospark were content with bare minimum next-gen expectations. Splash damage is a seemingly vague concept, with projectile trajectory and damage even vaguer (both had a habit of damaging my character through walls, and what was out of range one minute was in range at another). Gunplay feels better the bigger the gun you’re holding, and I’ll defer to the fact that that is clearly a deliberate design choice. But given that for the roaring majority of the time you will be shooting from that pea-shooter of a pistol, I cannot help but feel that more time should have been spent on just general sound design and controller response when unleashing into the unceasing waves of nasties. Regardless of weapon, it just consistently felt like I was firing off either a little pea-shooter, or a slightly noisier one. Nothing ever felt impactful. Even shotguns. How do you get shotguns wrong?!
Animation-wise, Earthfall’s alien hordes (sorry, “swarm”) leave a lot to be desired. For the most part the zomb…sorry...drones are vaguely shaped, stretched limbed, glowing head shape where you think their head should be, affairs. The ‘heavy drone’ is a direct rip-off of Stranger Things’ Demogorgon, ‘Swarmers’ are Left 4 Dead’s Boomers, ‘Beasts’ are Left 4 Dead’s Tanks, ‘Whiplash’s’ are Left 4 Dead’s Smokers and … oh you get the idea. If there was a right-click option to go to thesaurus regarding monster design, Holospark used it with reckless abandon. Only the ‘Blackout’ alien type felt vaguely original. They all splatter when shot with a shotgun, or fall when shot with a pistol. There are varying animations of limbs being blown off, but the aiming accuracy is so vague these things just sort of happen as you fire off another clip.
However, as many wise people over the decades have stated, “it’s not what is on the outside that counts, but what is on the inside”; and indeed, Earthfall has a lot of soul under its well-worn and over-familiar skin. The ten combat missions cobble together some semblance of a story while ensuring that there is ample variety in objectives and locations for the team to struggle through. And struggle you will; Earthfall is not an easy game. There is a somewhat random element to how and when the swarm will spawn — especially when it comes to the uncommon varieties of alien. Even on regular, with friends, each mission was a relatively desperate struggle to survive. Admittedly, this was due in large part to our unfamiliarity of the level design, but after a quick run through on the harder settings, the difficulty ramps up significantly and joyfully challenged us. Though the AI bot system does a somewhat passable job of working with you as a team; it has the habit of leaving you to die on the floor if there are aliens around. Which there are. Always. So you die alone. A lot.
Overall, I cannot help but feel that Earthfall is a huge missed opportunity. Holospark should have taken what was good about Left 4 Dead (objective based gameplay), removed what is bad about it (just about everything else) and then just run with it. Holospark has the business nouse about them to confidently state their small team have come from and cut their teeth on games such as; “Destiny 2, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, No One Lives Forever 2, Call of Duty 3, F.E.A.R, Bioshock Infinite, Dawn of War III and inFamous”. Regardless of your individual opinion on those games that the developers have worked on, few people can argue that their basic mechanics are solid, visceral affairs: so I struggle to understand the deliberate design choice of Earthfall’s gunplay having all the punch of a sad penguin throwing ball-bearings while making ‘rat-a-tat-tat’ sound effects, the wet flapping of swarmy aliens wanting to touch you in bad ways and not even sitting down and writing proper paragraphs in the unlockable ‘lore’ section. Yes, by all means create a homage, but to copy the issues from ten years ago as if it was part of the “experience” is such an eye-rolling hipster move that it kneecaps what could have been a really loud victory in co-op multiplayer world.
N.B. During review, at no point was I able to use Earthfall’s matchmaking system to team up with fellow players. At first, I assumed that it was due to lack of active players; however a recent patch apparently solved this issue and has since allowed players to find games. It should also be noted that this patch (a whopping 9GB - and it was not a day one release patch) seemed to solve many of the animation jumps and disconnected sound design that I encountered during my review playthrough.
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