Is it wrong that me and multiplayer-centric games don’t seem to compute? Perhaps it’s the abundance of single-player experiences I fed myself as a young’un; perhaps it’s the fact I didn’t really have any close friends growing up (is that a violin I hear?). Or perhaps the notion of temporary objectives and often survival-focused gameplay that leaves a lot to be desired from my perspective. While I won’t deny that games like Left 4 Dead are [even now] a fundamental pillar in the new-age co-op multiplayer flair of online multiplayer as of late, for someone — anyone even — from a long-term single-player stance, the concept can often be lost on even the most open-minded of people.
So what makes Earthfall different then? Its teaser trailer — with its emphasis on four-player, co-operative shooting — shouldn’t prove, initially, its providing any different an experience to that which I’m not so much against, but generally on a different frequency over…right? Its evident and quite blatant fortification areas — the kind of spots that invite that most cumbersome (if still demanding) of wave-after-wave gameplay — should be enough of an off-put, surely? Indeed some tidbits here and there, such as the fairly standard shooting, while not exactly the most enticing or immediate of elements to be found in Earthfall, are the kind of required-improvements you can easily wave off as being but a consequence of the game’s early alpha state. Yet the gameplay must follow the same rules and regulations, yes? Well as unpolished as the game’s early impressions may be, beneath the slightly less slick AI animations noticeably, lies a multiplayer game not just with longevity, but lo and behold, one with purpose.
Earthfall’s intention to focus not just on one story campaign, but a multitude should perhaps be a notable starting point in addressing why I came away surprised by how compelled I was — members of the dev team both nearby and over distant networking — in getting as deep and as far into the game’s transitional style of mission-based gameplay, as I ended up doing. But it’s how the game so specifically addresses the need for players to actually be doing something, aiming for a completed objective and/or taking note of what’s going on around them — the dynamic spawn system adding a lively unpredictability to what alien threat might soon be in proximity, regardless of whether you’ve prepared beforehand — that allows the game to feel like a natural evolution of a formula often restricted to confined spots and Worlds often no more than mere dressed-up geometry.
There’s a purpose and likely reward — be it literal or strategic — in pushing forward, down (in my case) one of the early levels of dense woodland and outskirt roads with the occasional outpost or “fortress of sorts” to make the player at least feel like they had reached a definitive destination rather than just another broad square of terrain. There are vehicles to kick-start, items to find, weapons to accumulate and even set-up — should the big-bad’s decide to pay an unwelcome visit when you least expect it — and while these objectives, structurally, don’t deviate that wildly from the norm of many a AAA standard nowadays, Earthfall’s clever pull is knowing when and where to leave these dedicated surrounding zones of such in order to naturally push on towards the latter proceedings.
Sure you can opt to tackle a given task — gathering fuel and a car battery in parts in order to make a hasty exit on a specified vehicle, for example — with an ally or two, but there’s no way in knowing just when the figurative fan is going to get hit. After all, some objectives require you to lie in a purely vulnerable and inactive state in order to finish and the best thing about all this, is that Earthfall, tonally, never really seems to facilitate in some concrete safe/not-safe state so as to give you a notable head’s up. Meaning that the risk of distancing one’s self too far from fellow players is constant and always looming in one’s mind. Do you sacrifice one extra pair of hands offensively in order to try and progress the mission on, or not? The alternative of course is more aliens to slay — whom will inevitably pop up anywhere in the nearby surroundings — but it’s never clear whether these foes will be just another wave to go trigger-happy over or something else requiring a bit more careful conservation of one’s ammo. Detrimental to your strategy…and indeed, your chosen spot on the game’s map.
Like all great co-op games, communication is key yet Earthfall’s structure isn’t solely reliant on such an easy kick via the need to survive. It’s also reliant on the absolutely essential need to scout out areas, knowing full well that the calm before/after the storm will inevitably end. What makes developer Holospark’s attempt at this genre and play-style of game so intriguing is the fact the structure doesn’t appear as hollow — so far as intent and purpose — as other online co-operative shooters. Yes there are indeed “waves” as there are opportunities to simply dig in and defend your team’s temporary strong-hold. But even someone like myself knows that the greatest threat to your team’s success is always yourself. That niggling urge to break off, perhaps for good intentions, to complete one of the mandatory or otherwise optional objectives in order to naturally carry on in the story.
It’s here that Holospark have so clearly and keenly homed in on during development; the player urges and ample moments of uncertainty on whether offense or defense is the next best move to make. No matter how many automated turrets you set up or how much ammo you have in your inventory; the dread in Earthfall ends up being its most prominent presence as much its greatest stride. Pushing for a co-op game that, while not as sophisticated or as visually apt in its current build/state, emphasizes the many human-made errors — basic ones and all — that can turn a sophisticated operation into a hapless scattering of players. And no matter how you may feel about the mistakes on show (some of which are your own), you can’t help but vouch for another round, confident that you’ll get it right this time. Earthfall is planned to enter Early Access on PC later this Spring.