Earthfall is a co-op, team-based, first-person shooter with about as many interesting ideas as there are hyphens in this sentence. Unfortunately, many of its redeeming elements are undercooked, and that serves to highlight how bland its standard gameplay is. As a result of this lack of identity, Earthfall simply feels like an amalgamation of functional but uninteresting concepts from other games.
I feel that comparisons to Left 4 Dead are pretty much inevitable. It’s certainly a good company to be in when it comes to selling the premise. Unfortunately, this association more accurately highlights Earthfall’s flaws, as opposed to what it does well. So, yes, Earthfall is Left 4 Dead with aliens – and less polish.
The story is pretty standard alien invasion stuff, but one thing that stuck out to me was the Lore section. Killing enemies, using specific weapons, or completing missions with various characters will unlock texts that delve deeper into the minor elements of the world. The lore is told from multiple perspectives and has a humorous tinge that makes the entries enjoyable to read. Expanding this kind of information with the same tone could have really worked to endear the characters in the gameplay. It's a shame that this injection of charm does not apply as well to the actual story and character interactions.
On the technical side, Earthfall is a mixed bag. The graphics are quite good, and the alien designs pop a lot when you get a chance to really look at them. However, the poor frame rate on Xbox One really hampers the look of the game in motion. This instability creates issues irrespective of the number of aliens on screen, and dulls otherwise eye-catching designs.
On that note, let’s talk about aliens. While I feel the standard drones live up to their name a little too well, there are some decent designs here. The Whiplash is a bizarrely shaped snake-like quadruped that will snatch teammates and run away with them. Their speed and odd appearance does a lot to make them unsettling. The Blackout fires energy beams and protects itself with a shield. Once damaged, it will reposition at an extremely fast speed – with only a blur of light to indicate what direction it went in. Even the generic giant aliens that exist to smash things have variants that focus on precise, long-range attacks. The alien noises are also one of the only areas of sound design where Earthfall really surpasses expectations. The types of special aliens are audibly strange and distinguishable, which helps grab your attention. It makes prioritizing what you need to shoot first much more intuitive. Of course, these specialized aliens are what necessitate teamwork, something Earthfall does quite well. Negligence on the part of any player can spell death for an individual, and at times, the entire group. Trying to run with AI is a poor decision, even on the Masterful setting – you’ll need actual human teammates for the harder difficulties.
With a campaign and chapter-based structure, you can freely select levels, regardless of whether or not you’ve completed the previous ones. There are linear levels that necessitate moving through to progress, while some require completing objectives in a specific location. It’s not a bad idea on its own to let people dive into any level, but it really highlights how bog-standard a lot of the actual events in the game are. Having said that, this genre is not beloved for deep storytelling elements. The gameplay, structure, challenge, and focus on teamwork is what Earthfall really needs to nail to be successful.
Overall, the gameplay is mundane and inoffensive, but the compounding foibles hurt the experience over time. For example, most of the guns are simply unsatisfying to use. The controls are functional, their recoil patterns have some variation, and they kill aliens as they should. But you’re not pulling the trigger a few times a mission; it’s pretty much the only thing you’ll be doing. It’s important to have a sense of impact that makes shooting inherently fun to do on its own. This is where the sound design really hampers the feeling of shooting, because most weapons sound like toys. The AKs are among the only standard primary weapons that have both a visual and audible punch.
The additional gameplay features also suffer from a lack of creativity and fun. Barricades, turrets and the ability to place explosives are the core interesting mechanics Earthfall offers, but they simply don’t add any nuance to the gameplay. Barricades function as obstacles for enemies, but doors for players. Because the barricades open for friendlies, they don’t restrict your team’s mobility, but that also serves to make them one-note. Their function is interesting, but creative placement is limited and unnecessary. You will use them routinely to fence off extremely obvious holes in buildings and little else. While the inclusion of both automated and manual turrets are welcome, they don’t add much to the flow of gameplay because they still feel so ordinary in a game of this type.
Of all the concepts in Earthfall, my favorite was probably the 3D printing of weapons. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to get crazy with the design and function of weapons while injecting some customization to how you play the game. What I didn’t expect, however, was that this intriguing idea was little more than an automated vendor for standard weapons. It’s a complete waste of potential that only adds a minor point of lore to the world of Earthfall.
What you’re left with is a game that doesn’t do a lot of things wrong in the gameplay department, but similarly does very little to make it unique. The developer roadmap includes player progression with cosmetic items and character-based abilities. Giving specific characters defined roles could go a long way to adding both depth and flavor to the standard gameplay, and while it isn’t presently in the game, I look forward to its inclusion.
There will be something here for those looking to scratch the Left 4 Dead itch, but Earthfall revels in simply functioning like it should, rather than standing out on its own. It exists in a limbo between a great and bad game, simply becoming a perfectly adequate but forgettable experience. Earthfall will be very heavily reliant on future updates to decide which side of the fence it falls on.