How many times can one planet be ravaged by an unrelenting wave of destructive aliens? Twice, as it turns out, before the series reboots and the story starts again. Earth Defense Force 5 is the third series reboot since it initially appeared on the PS2 as the ultra-budget title Chikyuu Boueigun or Monster Attack. Fifteen years later and the series has grown far outside of its initial humble beginnings, but the crushing might of the alien invaders is maybe a little overwhelming for more than a couple of games at most so series continuity isn’t a priority.
Instead of an ongoing story you get giant ants, spiders, guns, wasps, robots, more guns spaceships, alien fortresses, and of course, ridiculously creative and overpowered guns. The invaders ramp up their attacks through dozens of levels so Earth’s scientists are busy keeping up and it doesn’t take too long before your chosen character class is a walking explosion-dispenser. Which would be awfully impressive if the aliens didn’t have more than enough in sheer numbers to make even the most destructive arsenal feel just barely adequate.
If you’ve played Earth Defense Force 4.1 (or EDF 4 on PS3) you’re going to have a good idea of what to expect. The EDF is comprised of four different types of soldiers: Ranger, Wing Diver, Air Raider, and Fencer. The Ranger has been with the series from the start, basically your all-purpose foot soldier with a diverse and powerful arsenal to choose from. The Wing Diver is the all-female flying squadron decked out in deeply-impractical armor, plus an energy gauge that governs both her flight time and weapon usage. The Air Raider is a support unit, best for multiplayer with a wide selection of toys to help out in combat, but able to hold his own when necessary. Finally the Fencer is the advanced fighter, big and armored and able to use multiple weapons or items at the same time. Each soldier has their own arsenal, slowly getting bigger and deeper as the levels go by, and there’s no overlap between them.
Once fitted out with a class and armament it’s time to start the level, and in classic series style most of them take place in highly-destructible cities. The EDF isn’t a subtle organization and the aliens are here to stomp Earth flat rather than make use of its production facilities, so the collateral damage is completely out of hand. It’s easier to clear a swarm of giant ants off a skyscraper by sinking a few rockets into the building and watching it crumble to the ground than it is to pick them off one by one, and if a building is blocking your line of sight then it probably deserves to be turned into a small pile of rubble. While they’re not particularly gentle to the planet it’s not until you get the really big not-Godzilla monsters or walking fortresses that the aliens do anything like the damage to the city that you do while trying to protect it.
The damage is basically unavoidable, though, because the enemy attacks in such density that being careful simply isn’t an option. The radar in the upper right can basically turn completely red when trying to show the location of all surrounding enemies and swarms most easily counted by the dozens are common from the earliest levels. Ants swarm the ground and spit acid, flying saucers zip through the sky spreading fans of firepower, spiders throw out webbing to slow you down, etc. If you end up in the middle of a swarm the entire screen becomes a pulsing mass of giant insects and then the new enemies show up. The commander frogs take the place of the silvery Hector robots from the previous two games and they’re a lot of fun to fight. If you target a limb you can blow it clean off, which is particularly useful if you can nail the arm holding its weapon but still handy when you blow their legs off. The frogs heal rapidly so you’ll need to make sure of the kill, but it’s nothing a barrage of high-powered rockets can’t take care of and then it’s time to collect some goodies.
Each enemy killed has a chance of dropping one of three different types of power-up. Health is the only one that’s instantly useful and a percentage of it goes towards taking care of any AI soldiers fighting on your side. Armor and Weapon boxes take effect once the level is over, but there’s a major update in EDF5 as to how these are handled. Armor increases hit points but now a small number of them go towards any unused character class as well. In previous games if you had a main of Wing Diver and secondary Fencer you’d need to play each level with each character to power them up individually, and while that’s still somewhat true, the edge has been taken off the grind. The same holds true with weapons, with most of what you pick up going toward the class you played the level as but a few going to each of the other three classes as well. One of the best new systems also ties in to that and it’s in how EDF5 deals with duplicate weapons.
The green weapon boxes are a siren song that’s effective at calling you away from the fight. It’s nice that you’ve got soldiers fighting alongside, but they don’t take care of themselves very well. I found that the moment a green box showed up they were on their own until I collected it. Not only can the drop contain a new weapon but now there’s a chance of enhancing an existing one. In previous games if you got two of the same type of gun it was a waste, but now every stat on each weapon has a star rating that can get randomly upgraded when finding a duplicate. A powerful shotgun with five second reload time isn’t all that tempting, but a couple of upgrades knocking the stat down to 2.5 seconds makes it a useful new toy in an ever-growing arsenal. Damage, range, projectile speed, blast radius, accuracy and more all have a chance to go up and it’s every bit as satisfying to find a new gun as it is to have an old favorite become more powerful.
No two ways around it, you’re going to need that power to take on the ever-escalating threat of the invasion. The EDF series has always been big on over the top action and EDF5 just keeps getting more chaotic with each new level. There are over one hundred levels to shoot, blast, zap, incinerate and explode through, and at no point does the game ever hit the brakes. In one level you’ll be walking behind a wall of tanks rolling across the plain towards a huge alien army and in the next you’re fighting for survival after getting separated from the group and then it’s back to the city to take on an utterly enormous walking fortress covered in guns and dropping support units. Every momentary victory is met by the aliens redoubling the assault and the only defense is heavy firepower.
Most of this is all series-standard, but there are some notable upgrades that make EDF5 more than just new missions for the last game. One of the hallmarks of the series is the game figuring out exactly how many enemies it can put on the screen without impacting the framerate and then tripling it, and while EDF5 does have its frame-drop moments, they’re nowhere near as bad as the seconds-per-frame slideshows of earlier entries. Many of the levels will be familiar to series vets, at least at first, until the game applies a few twists to make the scenes bigger than they ever were before. The soldiers who fight beside you even have new songs to keep their morale up before they get horribly devoured by the massive bug swarm. As for the bugs and other aliens they now can be shattered by your weapons, which can be handy when trying to get a pickup underneath an enemy corpse.
I’ll admit that I went into Earth Defense Force 5 a little concerned about series fatigue. After three versions of Earth Defense Force 4 in three years it felt like maybe that was enough for now, but while EDF5 only incrementally advances the series, that’s still plenty to make it worth diving into one hundred levels of giant bug and alien blasting carnage. “Formulaic” is only a problem when the formula isn’t fun, but run & gun shooting has been around since at least Berzerk in the arcade and it hasn’t run out of steam yet. What makes Earth Defense Force work so well is its complete commitment to the lunacy, presenting its aliens and flying saucers in a completely bombastic fashion that never once admits its all tongue-in-cheek despite being completely obvious that everyone involved is having a blast stuffing as much cheesiness as possible into each level and plot twist. As every new encounter gets bigger and more dramatic, it’s met with rising force from the Earth’s defenders, until eventually the entire sky becomes a pulsing mass of fire and smoke from the explosions of battle. Add a friend or three for online multiplayer and it only gets more chaotic, with everyone pulling out the biggest weapons from their collection to try and dominate the higher difficulty levels. Earth Defense Force 5 is easily the best in the series and an incredible high point for pure action gaming.