Coming from Rebellion, the UK independent studio that’s brought us the likes of Battlezone, Rogue Trooper and the Sniper Elite series – Strange Brigade is a co-op based third person shooter that levies horde game play to tell the tale of a unique team of individuals that once roamed the globe to put down evil. Its colonial vibe, the 1930’s Egyptian setting, and a very generous helping of “stiff upper lip” humour certainly makes it stand out from the crowd in terms of concept, but once it’s grabbed you, can it keep pulling you down into the depths of its dark and dangerous world?
There are few frills with Strange Brigade, and it’s almost a hallmark of the studio. Games are there to be played, not to be mired in hours of fancy logos, animated menus, exposition and tutorials before the action starts. Boot it up and there’s a pretty yet functional set of options that simply want the player to decide whether it’s a solo or multiplayer experience for that session, then pick a character, a weapon and get into the thick of it. It may be surprising that there is a single player option – with no AI – for what is resolutely a team affair, and as such it means it can work as a bit of a tutorial with a pacing that allows learning and carnage in equal measures. It’s the same as playing cooperatively in terms of level design and objective, the differences come in the number of monsters that shamble towards you and how you can manage that tide with your teammates. It provides the opportunity to take a more sedate view of the environments and go collectable hunting, figuring out strategies for the differing enemies, and work out how it’s best to involve the environment in the wholesale slaughter. Really though, this is about four players battling against the odds, and that’s where everything clicks into place.
Up to four players at once can take part in any of the game modes available – campaign, horde or score attack – and progress in single player and multiplayer is shared, so no need to worry if you really do want to search for those missing collectables on your own. There’s no restriction on character selection either, so if you all want to be Gracie Braithwaite (a brash Mancunian) then go right ahead. It helps to mix and match though because when you’re treasure hunting there are routes that only certain ones can access. It also helps with identifying who’s who when it all starts to get a bit chaotic. Gracie is joined in the character selection by Nalangu Rushida, Archimedes de Quincey and Frank Fairburne (who we’re pretty sure is related to Karl Fairburne from the Sniper Elite games, meaning this would be part of the same universe). Don’t worry about needing to get all players starting a level at the same time though, it’s a drop in/drop out model and there’s no issue with skipping ahead in the story to get in a game, except for a difficulty spike with harder enemies begging to be corralled and dropped into traps. As this is ancient Egyptian tomb raiding, trespasser unfriendly devices are littered around the place and are exceptionally handy for thinning the herd, or settling scores with unruly teammates. Shooting anything that glows in a ball or highlights red will cause some form of spontaneous devastation.
Every level is like a maze, with puzzles used to open up new routes or access hidden areas. These can be as simple as clearing an area of the roaming dead, or manipulating light paths to open a door. They progressively get more intricate as the story moves on, but never to the point where frustration surfaces. When a large proportion of the player base is going to jump in with random people and not have a microphone there’s got to be some easing off in the brain taxation department. How long it takes to clear a level really depends on two things:
- the level of caution you decide to employ,
- how cooperative the other players are.
It’s possible to spend upwards of an hour methodically working through to find all the collectables and making sure every un-dead foe is sent back to the underworld. If there’s someone in the group who insists on smashing every pot and every barrel before hitting a checkpoint marker, then it could take a lot longer to finish. There are prompts that appear on screen to let everyone know who’s waiting where and if players are lagging behind, though they could probably do to be a bit more visible so that the impatient amongst us can get moving on. However, no matter how long it takes, you’re always glad of the extra firepower when it comes to ambush points or boss battles.
Each of the Strange Brigade have a unique magical amulet that fills with the souls of the recently deceased and powers a one shot area attack to help in the battle. Pulling souls in to the amulet is a matter of holding a shoulder button, and if there are a few players you’ll need to get the rhythm down quickly or they’ll all be sucked up by your team. New amulets become available as collectable artefact sets are completed, though they can’t be upgraded… unlike the weapons. Every primary firearm in the game has upgrade slots for status effects that can be picked up from treasure chests. Once a slot is filled the effect remains with the gun across all characters so it doesn’t matter who’s picked for play, there’s always the option to go to a favourite weapon. Some sidearms also have the option, but not all, and they tend only to be used when ammo has run out on the main one. Secondary pistols and revolvers all come with infinite rounds, yet are very low damage and best employed for solving the puzzles rather than targeting a mummy. Grenades make up the final offensive items and range from standard and sticky to Molotov’s and mines, and are used in a pinch when there are too many enemies to shoot. Couple the arsenal with the environmental traps and the whole thing can get quite creative, which mixes up the action in replaying the campaign or hitting the other modes.
Horde mode and score attack extend the play, and arguably the former will last the longest due to the number of rounds and waves available in each of the four arenas. Whilst it’s fairly standard stuff – enclosed arena, defeat all enemies to progress, earn gold to open doors and resupply ammo, increasingly bigger and harder waves – the inclusion of the traps, amulets and high concentration of cannon fodder makes for quite a tense yet exhilarating time. Traps in this mode are single use (they’re infinite in the campaign), so they become tactical items to be used when enough enemies have been led into range. Power attacks can be chained with some quick use of soul absorption and large groups biting the dust. Teammates are essential for making it through the higher stages because each death isn’t necessarily the end as they can resurrect you from a nearby sarcophagus, as long as they don’t get overrun making it there. It can be a long and brutal fight for survival at times, and so rewarding when it’s clear. The only downside is that if you land with a host who’s got a slow connection the lag needs compensating for. It’s not broken, but it does make aiming and grenade throwing a bit hit and miss. Score attack levels are much shorter and pit you against the clock to defeat all the enemies and hit specific score targets. With short blasts of action that focuses everyone in the Strange Brigade on the mission at hand it’s a mode that will come into its own as the leaderboards start to get populated.
Whilst Strange Brigade looks and sounds fresh with its recreation of 1930’s adventuring in Egypt, it’s also reminiscent of the Zombie Army Trilogy in the way it plays. It’s a tighter, more refined and fluid game, yet it’s hard to shake that feeling of familiarity. There’s a much more solid game engine on display here though, and with options to uncap the frame rate there’s confidence in it handling whatever mayhem is on the screen at any given time… and there are lots of points with scores of shambling, lunging, running and throwing un-dead all doing something slightly different to stress the system, yet it doesn’t stutter. The aforementioned net code is the only aspect that needs some tweaking, and hopefully that will come soon. From a readability perspective, it could do with a larger font size on the collectables as the style used is about 4 points too small even for those with good eyesight. That’s only a bugbear for those that want to read all the backstory and can’t be bothered getting a bit closer to the screen to do it. In terms of sound design it works great with directional audio in play to pick up where the hordes are coming from, and even if you can’t leverage that on your TV, you get a little ghostly hand pop up in the display if you’ve failed to recognise danger coming from that angle.
Strange Brigade doesn’t take any major risks with the game it is trying to be, it’s just offering up a world and time period that’s largely ignored in gaming, and that’s one of the best things about it – it plays to its strengths and has a prod and a poke at the “boys own” adventure genre. It’s crafted to be accessible and balanced so that it’s just plain old fashioned good fun. If you do find the premise and presentation too much there’s even an option to reduce the narrator’s input and the squad members comments – not that you should because they’re some of the greatest one liners of dialogue you’ll hear this year. It’s not the longest game in the world, but it’s got bags of replay value without the already planned DLC, and is an absolute blast with other players when you get in sync and take on a higher difficulty challenge. It’s also enjoyable on your own, though that’s missing the point, it’s about the carnage that happens with four people take on hundreds of foes at once with rifles, shotguns, grenades and magic. Make no mistake dear readers, Strange Brigade is spot on.
A PS4 review copy of Strange Brigade was provided by the Rebellion PR team, and the game is available now on Xbox One, PC and PS4 for around £40.