In Earth Marines, you play a group of orbital zombie hunters, which – as it turns out – would have been a far better title than ‘Earth Marines’. You are in a spaceship above an Earth that’s overrun by the undead, and your job is to effectively crashland into zombie neighbourhoods and complete missions. Those missions might be killing all the zombies, destroying vials of virus (carelessly left around, which explains the FUBAR situation), or shooting clumps of weird bulbous growth. Once your mission is done, you’re extracted back to the orbital space station to start all over again.
There are plenty of zombie games out there – some would say too many – so the marine base above earth, like a dark universe version of Thunderbird 5, actually feels like a refreshing take. It’s not the usual zombie home-invasion stuff, and it holds up well. We’re not going to question how it works – the space station seems to have only one lander, and it gets smashed every time it crashlands – but we can run with it.
Once you’re on the ground, you need to pick up your weapon, which sounds simple but regularly tripped us up. We’re not used to a game asking us to pick up and equip a default gun, and it’s a grey gun nestled in grey wreckage, so it’s easy to miss. We can’t tell you how many times we trotted on without being armed, before getting munched on while fruitlessly tapping the fire button.
Get beyond this unusual obstacle, and Earth Marines becomes an extremely standard twin-stick shooter. We definitely have plenty of those on the Xbox. It’s not a particularly attractive one either, and we have plenty of those too.
Everything in Earth Marines feels like it was quickly sketched and coloured onto the back of an exercise book, and not in a fun, stylised way. Characters are the same models repeated, and women of the world might take solace that there’s no female zombie anywhere. Presumably they all survived. Buildings are all boxy and indistinct, while guns – when equipped – kind of dangle from your body like you’re Edward Pistolhands. As a game, Earth Marines looks like a home-brewed project which only a few people worked on, and that’s very likely what it is.
In twin-stick shooter terms it just about muddles through. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the controls: you move around at a fair old clip, and there’s the option to choose an even faster character at the start of the game. You shoot in the direction you would expect to, and the enemies go down bloodily when they’re hit. Earth Marines is not fundamentally broken. But the list of niggly issues is long, and they peeved us no-end.
Let’s talk about the guns for a bit. There’s an unsurprising arsenal of SMGs, automatic shotguns, pistols and magnums, which is fine and familiar, but they are wildly different in how useful they are to you. Pistols are basically useless: the zombie hordes can actually use guns, and they’ll mow you down long before you’ve shot at them. And the guns feel ineffective, too, as they’re splashy and lacking in anything you’d call impact. There’s a few melee weapons and they manage to feel even splashier than the guns. SMGs and rifles chew through ammo to such a degree that they’re exhausted after the first few zombies, so they’re also unceremoniously thrown onto the pile of useless weaponry. What this means is that Earth Marines becomes a game of ‘find the shotgun’, as it’s the only viable weapon. It creates a lack of variety in the loot that hurts.
Ammo is a strange one. If you pick up a dropped pistol while you’re holding a pistol, the ammo won’t combine – you will be leaving the old ammo behind and making do with what’s in the new pistol. Ammo can be scarce, so it means you’re often picking up multiple guns in the hope of finding the one with bullets. When you’re in a panicked situation, it can grind your teeth. Ammo drops stack onto the gun that you’re using at the moment, rather than sitting in a shared ammo pool. More often than not, you will be protectively holding onto an automatic shotgun with bazillions of shells, as there’s no cap. You will be ignoring any other loot drops because you’ve reached the peak of what’s possible. Once again, loot stops becoming important to you.
As we’ve mentioned, this isn’t your conventional zombie apocalypse, as many of the zombies can shoot back. They use all the weapons that you do, and they’re bloody good at it. Get into line-of-sight and the zombie will head-shot you at incredible speeds, often faster than you can hit them, and – particularly if they’re wielding an automatic shotgun – it can be one-hit-kills.
As a result, Earth Marines feels more like a Rainbow Six game, as you’re stacking up on and opening doors quickly, before duelling each zombie in a game of ‘who can fire first?’. When there are ten or twenty of these situations per level, and failure to hit the zombie means insta-death or half your life gone, it can make Earth Marines a slow-and-steady affair. You are taking each room exceedingly carefully, trying not to rush in, but making a kill quickly before nipping back.
We’ll be honest, this wasn’t for us. The margin for error is so fine, and tentatively poking your head into and out of rooms is both slow and infuriating. Often, zombies will make an impossible shot, taking you out through doors, or firing through the smallest of gaps, breaking the game’s rules. With minimal health drops and plenty of zombies to kill, it means you’re scuppered for the rest of the level. Too often it can feel like randomness rather than skill has ended your run, and when levels are hard and relatively long, and death means a complete reset, you can question your will to keep playing.
There are ten levels here, which isn’t much at all, and – if it wasn’t for the slow-paced, tentative duelling – it would be a half hour to complete them all. We’ve watched a few Let’s Play videos, and it seems like pre-release copies had an Infinite Life cheat-code. There’s nothing present here, not even a difficulty slider, so you’re going to be bashing your head against the levels on the one difficulty setting, and that setting is set to ‘random spikes of difficulty, blended in with unfair deaths’. We managed to stumble through, often by sheer luck rather than skill.
When the levels are extremely similar, only differentiated by what you’ve got to destroy, persistence doesn’t really get you much. A few new enemies start appearing, but they’re mostly hardier or faster than what came before. Some levels have the buildings spread out, while others are clustered. That’s about it for variation.
We wouldn’t go so far to say that we enjoyed Earth Marines. In many ways it’s what a zombie outbreak would be like in real-life: a repetitive trudge through zombie after zombie, without an ounce of charm. And death could happen at any moment, whether you saw it coming or not. But then it does stuff that probably wouldn’t happen in a zombie outbreak, like shotgun-duelling with extremely efficient zombies. Which, unfortunately, isn’t much fun either.
The world has enough zombie shooters, and – like the zombies themselves – there’s probably nothing we can do to stop the swarm. But we can attempt to ignore them, and that’s exactly what you should do with Earth Marines.
You can buy Earth Marines for £4.19 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S