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Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain looks fancy but feels very familiar

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Iron Rain doesn’t mess too much with a proven formula

Earth Defense Force has become a predictable hit in Japan, with its latest entry, Earth Defense Force 5, selling over 300,000 copies. But its success in the West is a different story. Despite numerous localizations over the past decade, the franchise has struggled to gain traction internationally. Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain, a spinoff of sorts, was conceptualized by the franchise’s producers to please a global audience. At this year’s Tokyo Game Show, we had the opportunity to play a lengthy demo and get a sense for how Iron Rain delivers on its producers’ ambitions.

The core of the Earth Defense Force game is mishmash of monster movie and sci-fi tropes. You play as a foot soldier defending Earth from a gauntlet of bugs, robots and UFOs that can be as small as a bus and as big as a mountain. Nearly everything is destructible in the open world. Collateral damage to nearby buildings is, if anything, tacitly encouraged.

Earth Defense Force games have embraced a low-budget B-movie aesthetic: grungy graphics, fussy physics and silly scripts. The series began with a bargain-bin game, and so the visual panache has often felt, at best, like a happy marriage of budgetary obligation and creative choice.

Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain - looking up at giant six-legged creature Yuke’s/D3 Publisher

Iron Rain, on the other hand, has markedly more realistic visuals, a serious tone and levels set in recognizable recreations of cities and parks in the United States. On paper, it certainly sounds like a game targeting Western players, who expect AAA polish from their big open-world games. In practice, though, Iron Rain feels an awful lot like its predecessors. For fans, that will be good news. How it will connect with newcomers is less clear.

Throughout the five stages shown at TGS 2018, Iron Rain retains much of the brand’s technical shagginess. Buildings crumble like gingerbread houses. Giant bugs fart flames the size of commuter trains. Hulking robots stumble through cities like toddlers rampaging a town made of Lincoln Logs.

The vibe doesn’t feel grimdark like so many contemporary modernizations — thank goodness! Instead, the game has this quirky friction between absurd combat and borderline photorealistic visuals.

The art direction is natural. In fact, I’d go so far as to call it subtle, a word I rarely apply to games about killing thousands of engorged space creatures. Rays of sunlight diffuse through ash and fog; apartment buildings and office complexes have a mundane familiarity to them. In one stage, you battle ants in the soft light of a San Francisco morning. In another, you track a Godzilla-like kaiju through a foggy redwood forest. If other Earth Defense Force games look like cartoons, Iron Rain looks almost like a found-footage film.

Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain - running by a giant ant Yuke’s/D3 Publisher

The general progress from mission to mission is nearly identical to other EDF games. Before each stage, you select two weapons (throughout the game you unlock new shotguns, mini-guns, missile launchers, etc.) and equip items. Your character can carry a certain weight of equipment, allowing for some creativity with how many grenades, health kits and supplementary weapons you choose to bring along. Through stages, characters still drop health and weapons, though now they’re represented by gems instead of the series’ iconic (and comically generic) boxes.

When Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain was announced last year, and that it would be created by developer Yuke’s (best known for the WWE series), I expected a game that took the series in a new direction. Instead, Iron Rain feels like a close sibling of the series, adding a few spices but not throwing out the original recipe.

In the next few months, Americans and Europeans will receive two entries in the Earth Defense Force series. Earth Defense Force 5 will arrive later this year, and Iron Rain will arrive in 2019. EDF 5 will be one of the best games of the year, but if history repeats itself, it will fail to make most people’s year-end lists. Iron Rain could be the game to finally introduce the brand to the audience it deserves. But if it doesn’t click with newcomers, the demo suggests a game that will still please the hardcore fans — even if it looks a bit fancier than what we’re used to.