It dawned on me as my soldier was surrounded by a sea of acid-spitting ants, laser-wielding robots and hovering spacecraft hovering: High-octane action is the essence of Earth Defense Force 2017 Portable. It comes at the expense of a good story and impressive mechanics, but the game offers hours of hammy fun.
Earth Defense Force 2017 Portable ports an third-person shooter that came out for the Xbox 360 in 2006 to the Vita. On the surface, it’s armed with a variation on the classic story of humanity’s struggle against an alien invasion, set in the near future. The player assumes the role of a nameless Japanese captain, and the solo campaign features 60 levels that unpack the tried-and-true efforts of Storm 1 and company. They’re Earth’s most elite soldiers, and their ultimate goal is to eradicate the alien invasion. And guess what? Storm 1 does a damn good job, finding the weaknesses of the invader’s spacecraft (hint: hit the underside) and its nests, and then some. That might sound interesting, but the characters are hollow, and without cut-scenes the story hangs by the pin of a hand grenade. With more muscle, it could be something like G.I. Joe battling in the War of the Worlds, but underneath a healthy helping of camp.
Fortunately, Earth Defense Force 2017 Portable has a “multiplay” feature that adds some flesh to its bare-bones story. In “Online Cooperative” mode, four players can join together to blast through the game’s levels, supporting and reviving their company throughout the battle. The campaign is much more enjoyable with three real players at my side instead of the game’s flat NPCs. I wish I could tell you about multiplay’s “Online Versus” mode, but despite multiple attempts during the day and night I could never find anyone else online, let alone four players.
The silver lining is that Earth Defense Force 2017’s levels are expansive, with battlefields that seem to go on for miles. I never encountered an invisible wall in any direction, and there was a point in a multiplayer game where one of my teammates was sitting atop a building, far off in the distance, looking smaller than a speck. Notwithstanding the giant ants in my way, it took me five minutes to reach that building.
Beyond the questionable story, the game’s mechanics are equal parts frustrating and interesting. You’re limited to two weapons and one life per level, and the levels do not contain checkpoints. These limitations reflect reality—what real-life soldier really runs around with an RPG, shotgun and flame thrower in one hand, and grenades and medical kits in the other? However, other mechanics annihilate any sense of reality. Most weapons have unlimited reloads, and additional weapons collected on the battlefields are stored in a massive inventory, accessible from the main menu. If you scavenge the game’s 60 levels and five levels of difficulty, you can find more than 150 weapons. Beating the game unlocks Pale Wing, a female character equipped with lasers and a jetpack. She alone is a strong incentive to see the game through.
Some weapons, unlike Pale Wing, are comically powerful. A single rocket or grenade can turn skyscrapers into dust. A mid-level, military-grade sniper rifle can down massive ships that seem loaded with technology far beyond human intelligence. At the same time, a robot’s laser can turn your face into the puddle oozing through the hole in your boots.
With all this in mind, it’s clear that Earth Defense Force 2017 Portable isn’t intended to bring a AAA-type shooter experience to the Vita. It meets its modest goals. Like an arcade rail shooter, it has a basic plot that leaves plenty of room for combat. And ham.
Rich Shivener is an editor of the games site Bit Creature and his writings have appeared in such publications as Publishers Weekly, Writer’s Digest and Topless Robot. Follow him on Twitter.