Strange Brigade

Stiff up­per lip? These mum­mies don’t even have lips

Games Master - - Review -

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.

Oh mummy!

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.

Time team

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.

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