Earthfall Review

By Mark Delaney, 28 days ago
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and if that's true, it's clear Holospark adores Valve and Turtle Rock's genre-defining Left 4 Dead series. With no threequel in sight, there's a massive L4D-sized hole waiting to be filled and several games have already tried (with more coming soon). Earthfall is, by all accounts, comfortable with being considered a near clone of Left 4 Dead, and while that description is accurate in a sense, it rarely rises to the brilliance of that seminal series.

13/07/2018 - Carousel

If you've ever played Left 4 Dead, expect very few changes in Earthfall. Four cooperating players with optional AI bots are tasked with making it from points A to B in a harsh post-apocalyptic setting filled with vile creatures both common and special. Whereas Left 4 Dead pitted players against the undead, Earthfall sets its disaster in a post-alien invasion scenario. It's hard not to make this review a side-by-side comparison of the two games — and it doesn't even feel especially unfair given how similar they are — but Holospark merely cribs the formula, forgetting to imbue their copycat with much of the flair for the dramatic seen in its inspirator.

In each of the ten levels spread across two campaigns on offer at launch, the pacing can often take a real hit. An AI director will decide how to counter the players' actions and this makes each time you play a bit different. Unlike Left 4 Dead, the paths to the end never change, however, which quickly becomes an issue when replaying the relatively few levels in the game. AI enemy spawns do differ, though, and only very few seem to be guaranteed scripted sequences, although there also seem to be fewer versions of events than seasoned players may expect, which doesn't help the replay value of a game intended to be replayed often.

Overall, when you've played each full campaign, a lot of the drama that one may anticipate feels stunted, sometimes entirely absent. Many actions will warn you, "this will alert a swarm," only for that swarm to be pretty unimpressive sometimes, or pile on a humorous abundance of special alien types, making one feel as though the AI director mentored under Uwe Boll. It wants to be action-packed and dramatic, but on any difficulty, it often misses the mark.

Most of the guns come from our real world. Then there's this one.Most of the guns come from our real world. Then there's this one.

It also doesn't help that the enemy AI can occasionally get stuck. This usually seemed to happen when they were dropping into an area from above, like jumping down into a trainyard from a warehouse. A huddle of aliens would brush up against the edge of the roof and collectively fail to jump down, turning them into fish in a barrel for players. Allied AI also seemed problematic. When playing in solo mode, I'd usually have to turn bot AI up to masterful level while tuning the difficulty to easy in order to avoid eventual restarts because otherwise they just couldn't be relied upon. It's worth mentioning that I never felt the AI allies in L4D were troubling whereas many others did, so put what I've just said in perspective to get a grasp on just how annoying playing with bots can be in Earthfall. They can hold their own pretty well for much of a level, but when all goes to hell, I consistently couldn't rely on them to revive me or bail me out the way this game demands so often.

The biggest change to the L4D formula are the additions of moveable turrets and barricades. Offering moments of respite, it's always a fun time in the game when you're able to pause for a moment, set up a brief defensive position and operate things like 3D printers for making guns or health stations that will heal you without using your inventory. The fences are especially fun to utilize because if the director gives you enough of them, you can create mazes or bottlenecks for the aliens to pass through, which makes for a good insertion of some strategy to the formula.

Earthfall does value its narrative a bit more than its predecessor, but this is almost entirely told in collectibles that are read in menus after achieving kill milestones or finding data in the campaigns. It's not so interesting, but it's their way of world-building and the campaigns lend themselves to wanting to know more in the same way that other game I'm not reviewing but can't stop mentioning did. Sadly, the four playable characters don't pull their weight as interesting avatars in the story. I can't even recall all four of their names after playing for many hours because they're all so lifeless. They have as many lines of dialogue as you'd expect, but what they say never bestows any of them with personality.

About half of the special enemies are also Left 4 Dead clones, although the Blackout is a cool and unique monster for Earthfall.About half of the special enemies are also Left 4 Dead clones, although the Blackout is a cool and unique monster for Earthfall.

All of this isn't to say the game is unredeemable. A few updates from now, Earthfall could very well be the best Left 4 Dead clone in an increasingly crowded field, but one cannot so simply review a game's potential. Right now, it's got a few technical hiccups, like framerate drops, on top of all else mentioned above, that leaves it as an undeniably inferior version of a great game.

Still, there were flashes of brilliance in Earthfall that reminded me of how great Left 4 Dead was, and showed me how great Earthfall can be. When the pacing, objectives, and level design all came together, like they will at least a few times if you play it enough even with the variable enemy spawns, it felt like the worthy successor it intends to be. Those moments are ultimately too infrequent right now, but with more campaigns and more modes added later, this is a game that may well become something much greater. Its first-person shooting gameplay is solid and its mix of weapons, including firearms, melee, and throwables, is quite numerous. Ammo seems to run low more often than you may expect too, which may either be annoying or exciting. Personally, I found it to be the latter.

The achievement list is one that comes to those who play a lot. Most of the gamerscore is tied into alien kill milestones that won't come quickly, although you'll also pick up achievements for each of the story chapters on both any difficulty and the hardest difficulty, "overwhelming." It's what one can reasonably call a grind, especially since the AI bots are often pretty good at picking off special alien types before you ever even see them approach despite their troubles, thus often robbing you of achievement progress.

Check out our The Best Xbox First Person Shooters Available in 2018 article for a compilation of other great games in this genre.

Summary

Earthfall is a decent try at filling the Left 4 Dead 3 hole in our hearts, but it's rarely strong enough to be anything other than a lesser imitation of that classic series. Occasionally, the AI director will put on its best show and it'll feel exactly as fans of this sort of game want it to feel, but those moments are too few and far between. With flat characters, AI issues on both sides of the war, and above all else, some glaring pacing problems, Earthfall is a tough sell when the game it's cribbing so closely is backward compatible and still superior a decade later.
3 / 5
Positives
  • Flashes of brilliance
  • Innovations like 3D printers and taking defensive positions are really fun
Negatives
  • Attempts to imitate its inspirators fall short, like in pacing and level design
  • Flat, boring characters
  • Light on content for launch with just two campaigns and no other modes
  • AI balancing issues
  • Occasional technical problems like poor enemy AI and framerate drops
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent ten hours playing through both campaigns, some levels multiple times to see how they (hardly) changed. He unlocked 13 achievements for 229 Gamerscore. An Xbox One copy was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is one of three voices on the TA Playlist podcast. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his fiancée and son. He almost never writes in the third person.