There’s a common misconception that originality is what drives game development. In most cases the opposite is true – iteration through the re-use of existing and established mechanics. Where this becomes a little grey is when a game just flat out copies a style or structure without adding much to call its own. Earthfall, the new co-operative shooter from indie studio Holospark, is at its core a Left 4 Dead clone but with aliens instead of zombies. And although it attempts to mix things up with a few new ideas, it ultimately fails to get the most basic parts right.
It’s worth pointing out that the idea of a Left 4 Dead clone, or a new game created in the mould of Valve’s seminal co-op shooter, is not only an idea we can get behind but something that we’d love to see more of. A co-op shooter broken down into easy to follow thematic and cinematically designed linear levels, where enemy encounters and the challenge itself varies from playthrough to playthrough. Thanks in part to the concept of “special” or elite enemies – as seen in Left 4 Dead’s just about perfect design.
Where strange and always dangerous zombies either pounced on players, dragged them off to devour them, or exploded into a dangerous haze of noxious green-stuff. Enemy archetypes that are all present and accounted for throughout Earthfall’s ten varied and visually distinct missions. But, instead of Left 4 Dead’s big fat zombie that explodes when shot you have an alien with a particularly fragile membrane full of green-cloud nastiness. Then there’s what looks like a walking scorpion tail that can hook players to drag them off. Or Earthfall’s version of the Left 4 Dead hunter, where instead of being given a quick-fire chance to repel an oncoming pounce attack - almost always comes without warning.
In Earthfall these like-for-like enemy designs never match their inspiration in look, design, execution, or challenge. The hunter alien is annoying because there’s no clear warning or chance to engage before one of your team members becomes incapacitated. The large hulking alien beast is simply a bullet sponge of the highest order, in a game where the guns sound like cheap fireworks and ammunition is scarce. Even on the lower difficulty settings a bad spawn location without a recent ammo resupply or access to a 3D printer that, err, prints guns - and it’s countdown to wipe.
Which brings us to one of Earthfall’s major problems, in that outside of the big boss-like alien encounters the levels themselves feel the same throughout each playthrough. Where Left 4 Dead made a name for itself by varying the appearance of zombie hordes and special enemies via the mysterious AI Director, Earthfall takes the relentless approach. Left 4 Dead as directed by Michael Bay, with near-constant attacks by charging aliens and specials that look and behave like Mac and Me
-style E.T. knock-offs. The new alien types fare a little better than the Left 4 Dead re-treads but when it’s not uncommon to fend off the same two or three specials in the span of a minute or two – memorable encounters are almost non-existent.
And so, without any real lull or surprise or shock value the result is a shooting gallery with only the slightest of variations between encounters and retries. Even as a pure arcade-style co-op shooter though, Earthfall still feels bland and lifeless. There’s no punch or impact with any of the weapons, the aliens all look and animate poorly, making the entire experience that rare instance of a co-op shooter that isn’t fun. Even new mechanics like being able to print weapons or lay down fortifications feel like necessary inclusions to work alongside the relentless alien hordes than fun new strategic elements. Certain defence and objective-driven sections require immediate access to new weapons to pass as playable, and the effectiveness of building defences becomes a moot point once a handful of aliens tear through them in a matter of seconds.
In the end Earthfall is unfortunately the exception to that age-old rule, originally spoken and then sung by Mary Poppins – ‘a spoonful of co-op makes even the most mediocre of shooters go down’.