Available On: PC (Steam Early Access)
Earthfall has a very simple goal: make Left 4 Dead, but slightly better. And with aliens. Left 4 Dead’s strict focus on cooperative survival gameplay endeared many co-op fans, and has left a noticeable void since Left 4 Dead 2 released back in 2009.
Earthfall is here to fill the gap. It shamelessly pulls all of its action beats, enemy types, and campaign structure from Valve’s zombie-survival series, but does it all very well. The Early Access version has all the right pieces to make a worthy spiritual successor to one of the best cooperative series in gaming.
Left 4 Aliens
Anyone who’s played the Left 4 Dead games will already be familiar with how Earthfall plays. In case you haven’t, Earthfall drops you and three other players (or AI) into one of four levels filled with blood-thirsty aliens. It’s a first-person shooter but you’ll need to stay together and rely on teamwork and cooperation to survive.
Earthfall uses the same AI Director technology of the L4D series. This means that every time you join a game the aliens and item layouts are different. Hordes can dynamically spawn anywhere, as well as special alien types designed to challenge your best laid plans.
For gameplay purposes the aliens aren’t any different than the zombies. The Cthulhu-esque horrors run at you, and headshots do bonus damage. Even the special alien types correspond to the ones found in Left 4 Dead. The bloated Sapper explodes into a poisonous electric mist. Threshers leap at a player while the Whiplash grabs someone and runs away. Both of those aliens render their victims unable to act until a teammate rescues them – a hallmark of the challenging co-op gameplay. And of course they have their tank – the Beast, a hulking brute who can shoot fireballs and swat you away if you get close.
Throughout each level you’ll find guns, medkits, and defensive items to help you in your journey. This is where Earthfall’s biggest iterative improvements lie. Several gun styles, from shotguns and assault rifles and sniper rifles are available, as well as dual-wielding pistols and melee weapons. Several grenade types can also be found, including napalm and even land mines. A nifty 3D printer can be found in almost each level where you can select a new weapon.
New defensive items were my favorite addition. Placeable turrets let you set up a nifty Aliens-style killzone (though they must be manually controlled). Barricades unfurl a giant gated door that blocks any entrance, giving you a tactical advantage to holing up in a tight spot to deal with an oncoming horde. You’re still at the mercy of which guns and items you can find and where, but there’s an effective emphasis on strategically defending certain areas.
Left 4 Dead didn’t really have a story. Each level was simply a challenge to get from point A to point B. Earthfall attempts to elevate the story-telling of the cooperative shooter. One campaign is available in Early Access – Invasive Species. The campaign includes four levels, each of which is about as long as any L4D level. The survivors attempt to follow a friend of theirs and the messages he left behind. They eventually explore an underground research bunker and travel beyond a destroyed train yard to a makeshift fortress.
The characters’ personalities shine through the fun banter. When they’re not screaming for their lives and calling for help, they’re discussing the invasion and reminiscing about the world before. It’s a nice step up from Left 4 Dead’s characters, who never really moved beyond calling out, “Pills here!”
The level designs feature a nice variety of objectives and tasks. The first and fourth levels fill the standard “Point A to Point B” structure. The second features a gas station hub that plays out more like the Scavenge mode from Left 4 Dead 2 as you have to grab various items to get a vehicle working. This one is particularly fun to use the new turret and barricade placement items, as you’re constantly returning to the gas station to fend off another alien horde.
The third level is kind of a mix of the two styles, crossing throughout an underground bunker as you turn the power back on and access some important files. The final level includes a particularly amazing action-packed moment as you mount a slow getaway on a train (with mounted gun) while the horde streams after you before your final holdout.
Holospark has done a solid job improving the latency and optimization issues since Early Access launched in May. The AI feels good (though not great), and the only bugs I encountered after several hours were odd audio bugs and lag when firing and swinging weapons.
The challenge level felt a little rough and I had to bump it down to Easy (of four difficulty levels) to beat any level. That may be because I had to spend most of my time playing with AI. The indie game’s biggest challenge will be gathering a sustainable community, as this gameplay style is infinitely better when enjoyed with friends. With a whole second campaign (with another four levels) and new game modes planned in the future, Earthfall will have everything it needs to create the next great first-person cooperative shooter when it launches later this year or early 2018. I for one, welcome our alien overlords.