Yes, Earthfall does look a lot like Left 4 Dead. In fact, the comparison is welcomed by developers Holospark and something that they strived for as their key inspiration and focus. “We loved Left 4 Dead” said CEO Rusty Williams, when we spoke to him at EGX Rezzed earlier this year, “but we wanted more.” So, after a few years of development, including time in early access on PC, Earthfall is the end result.
While the presentation gets a solid “good” - Unreal Engine 4 would struggle to make a game look bad - it’d be nice to see a bit more fidelity in those textures (perhaps an Xbox One X update looms in the future?) and the game isn’t without some technical issues. We’ve seen a couple of crashes when things get especially hectic, plus the friendly AI more than once has stood in place, staring frantically into space as the rest of their team gets mauled around the corner.
In terms of level design, something so tightly managed in Valve and Turtle Rocks’ original, there are oversights too, with invisible walls being used to channel the player into a linear flow through areas which look as though they should be ripe to explore. Furthermore, giving players an objective marker to head for often makes the campaign feel like a pedestrian trudge between two points, rather than four survivors scraping together what they can in a desperate effort to survive.
It’s here we really must broach the subject of AI. Players can either run through levels with allied bots or open up proceedings to being joined by human players online, as in L4D, but the AI in question doesn’t have the same concern for your wellbeing as it did in that game, frequently leaving you to bleed out whilst prioritising reviving fellow bots and often snatching up helpful items and weapons from under your nose.
If they were able to trigger objectives or be commanded in any way they might be more useful, but they aren’t even fans of deploying barriers or using mounted guns, which can be an issue at some of the game’s choke points, referred to in-game as ‘holdouts’. You can punch up the AI ‘skill’ to limited results, only really boosting accuracy and the eagerness to shoot first and ask questions later. But hey, at least there’s no risk of incurring significant friendly fire damage from them.
Earthfall is difficult in general, with even two players experienced in working and communicating with one another, bolstered by a couple of filler bots, seeing the ‘Normal’ difficulty setting pose a serious threat. While the higher difficulties are a stretch, the ‘Easy’ level can at times be too much its namesake, making you long for a shuffle to give a happy medium.
With only two campaigns of five twenty-or-so-minute chapters a piece, you might find Earthfall a tad pricey at £24.99, since it’s inspiration gave us double the number of iconic campaigns and an additional competitive mode, which is conspicuously absent here at present. That said, the team at Holospark are already hard at work on further campaign content which will be released free to all players (cosmetic customisation items are premium), so there’s some added value to look forward to in the future.
One particularly fun element, which pushes the suspension of disbelief in a very different direction than accepting aliens are a thing, is the fact that many levels are peppered with 3D printers to requisition guns and health stations reminiscent of Half-Life. A great idea, which could have been taken further to include attachments and further customisations, as the risk/reward mechanic whenever you encounter them (turning the power on to use them will attract a mob) is always compelling.
Though it might not be Left 4 Dead 3, Earthfall does enough to scratch the itch for players pining for a similar experience. With games developing far more post-launch than ever before it seems likely this one will continue to mutate to the needs of its player base, which doesn’t undo the fact it could have used slightly longer in the oven before final release, but what’s on offer so far is ruddy good fun, if a tad disposable.