Stiff upper lip? These mummies don’t even have lips
The internet has brought us many great things – hot and cold running cat pictures, easy access to the thoughts of politicians, the ability to have ice cream delivered by a man on a bike – but it’s had a deleterious effect on the number of new games shipping with split-screen multiplayer. Everybody knows this is the best kind of multiplayer – especially in co-op. Happy were those who played Halo: Combat Evolved as a pair of Spartans, or took on the Locust Horde as Marcus and Dom. Given a large enough telly, there’s really nothing like gunning down monsters or aliens with a buddy on the same sofa, the yelling confined to a single room rather than an online lobby through the impersonal headset. We’re sure there are reasons for the death of split-screen co-op (it’s harder to code, takes more computational resources, and being online-only forces each participant to purchase a copy of the game) but we regret its passing all the same, and hope it’s due for a resurgence.
What’s probably less in need of a comeback is the British Empire, these days considered Not A Good Thing by anyone to the left of Jacob Rees-Mogg. Strange Brigade’s setting is the 1930s, so after the peak of Empire, though still a time when it wasn’t stealing if artefacts ended up in a museum. One of the game’s characters actually says this.
Strange Brigade is a third-person co-op shooter for up to four players. The brigade, when first presented to us, contained only four characters – white lower class, white middle class, white female, and all-purpose African – and we were going to complain about this curious approach to diversity. Just before release, however, a fifth character dropped as a pre-order/early purchase bonus, the more interesting Winston Bey, and rodeo cowboy Patrick ‘Bash’ Conaghan arrived for season pass owners. This rather took the wind out of our grumbling, and the prospect of further new characters, each, of course, with unique abilities, makes the prospect of teaming them up in new and interesting ways more appealing.
The plot, such as it is, comes straight out of the adventure serials that thrilled 1930s audiences with the derring-do of men with luxuriant facial hair. Mysterious goings on at archaeological digs, missing professors, an evil witch queen, and plenty of bandaged undead. The latter run at you, you shoot them. Sometimes the game mixes things up with a giant scorpion or spear throwers or guys who can teleport, funnelling you into arena battles against hordes that pour through
your only exit and using the thinnest of excuses – lines of spears you could probably dodge through, forcefields with floating skulls on them – to disguise the invisible walls keeping you there.
There is, at least, plenty of environmental interest. The ancients subscribed to the same idea that has brought down many civilisations over gaming’s history: storing some sort of explosive substance in scattered pots and barrels rather than in properly insulated containers underground. The enemies who will throw those bloody spears at you, in particular, tend to enjoy standing next to these, and the whirling blades, suspended boulders, and spiked logs that you can employ to wreak havoc among the enemy bear witness to both their engineering excellence and lack of health and safety legislation. They’re not afraid of a jump scare or two either, with impaled corpses apparently mounted on springs by Ptolemaic practical jokers.
The multiple paths snaking between the arenas betray the co-op nature of the game. Playing solo is perfectly possible, but is a bit of a dour experience that would be enlivened by an AI buddy, and while single-player is excellent practice for tackling the levels as part of a team, it takes longer to properly explore and root out the secrets. Environmental puzzles are common, often involving shooting hieroglyphs in the right order, standing on the right bits of floor, or playing Pipemania, à la Bioshock.
Character abilities are where a lot of the fun is to be found, and the six are nicely differentiated. Guns can be upgraded with gems that add powers such as health regeneration, extra damage, or freezing your enemy solid, grenades regenerate over time, and each character carries an amulet that’s powered up by the souls – or, at least, floating blue essence balls – left behind by those you shoot. This lets you unleash a super-move, different for every character, as well as suck the souls out of bosses and strange blue crystals. Primary, secondary, and throwable weapons can be switched between characters, health potions are found laying around or carried by enemies, and chests provide special weapons, although these can’t be reloaded and it seems to be random which one you get.
Temple of boom
The characters are designed to be complementary, and everyone will have their favourite. We found the Molotov cocktail – Nalangu’s default throwable – extremely effective, so we were quick to transfer it to another character if she wasn’t in play. Super-moves tend to be area-of-effect detonations, with de Quincey’s homing projectiles much easier to use than Frank’s explosive rugby tackle.
Visually, the game is keen not to let you look too far into the distance, but fills its outdoor rooms and corridors with plenty of plant life and the occasional parrot. There’s a cartoon edge to its looks that feels appropriate, and the narrator, who veers between General Melchett and Hey Duggee, is at his best when demanding to know why you’ve paused the game – and asking for two sugars in his tea. He’s a genial presence who will pop up throughout with lines that are almost, but not quite, witticisms.
The narrator adds to the thick layer of charm that clings to Strange Brigade, something its setting, characters, and plot are all designed to reinforce. It has its flaws – a hint as to which loadout is appropriate for a mission would be nice, and the grasping hands that indicate enemies approaching in your blindspot are too easy to miss – but Rebellion has crafted a solid shooter that’s rich in entertainment for those who can put a team together. By Seteki, though, we miss split-screen co-op.
“It’s not afraid of jump scares, with corpses mounted on springs by Ptolemaic jokers”
The blunderbuss special weapon is essentially a one-hit kill; it’s just a shame there’s so little ammo.