Prepare for tales of derring-do and adventure in the spiffing co-op shooter Strange Brigade
Why has nobody done this before? Sure, there are plenty of co-op shooters out there, but you’d be hard-pressed to find another setting quite like this. With its mix of ancient tombs, mummies, and British cheekiness, it’s reminiscent of those over-the-top and clichéd adventure novels—the kind of thing that Indiana Jones was also inspired by. Think naive colonialism, tea breaks, and a sprinkling of spike pits. It plays with its historical inspirations in a way that’s very tongue-in-cheek, and plays out like a matinee viewing at a 1930s cinema. With such a unique universe, it makes for an extremely compelling proposition.
Unlike Rebellion’s other big game, Sniper Elite, the shooting here is much faster and punchier. Instead of picking off enemies one by one, Strange Brigade is all about getting messy, and controlling a crowd using an array of weapons, special powers, and traps. The guns feel chunky in your hands, and if you chain kills together fast enough you’ll fill up bars for your character of choice’s special move, be that launching a mummy into a crowd or letting loose a horde of insects. Death is merely a slight inconvenience, and another chance for the devs to have a little fun. When you die you don’t lose your progress, you merely pop out of a conveniently positioned sarcophagus declaring “‘tis but a scratch” before throwing yourself back into the fray.
In the demo we play during our visit to Rebellion this month, there are areas where you’re almost completely flooded by an array of staggering mummies—easy to dispatch on their own, but dangerous in numbers like these. Luckily there are plenty of classic exploding barrels and even traps you can trigger to help with crowd control. Early on there’s a pillar that pops up with swirling blades, cheekily marked out with a simple arrow and the words ‘shoot me’ pointing to a glowing orb on top of it. The obviousness of it is refreshing, and feels in keeping with the tongue-in-cheek style of the game.
Elsewhere we discover a cave in the corner of one area that throws a fake mummy on a stick at us, which surprises the narrator with a cheap jump scare. While the lowbudget hamminess of it doesn’t frighten us, the scream of the ever-present narrator of our adventure does, and while you never see him, his presence feels very much like another member of the Strange Brigade. He often interjects with his own thoughts about
your situation, or draws your attention to puzzles in the area. He’ll congratulate you when you do something brilliant, but can also be unreliable, luring you into traps for his own amusement. We’ve never seen anything quite like it in another game, so how did such a unique and integral element come to be?
“It was literally Jason Kingsley [Rebellion’s CEO] that came up with that,” Steve Briscoe, lead designer on the game, tells us. “Back when we were sort of trying to solidify what we wanted from the vibe of the game, what we essentially had was sources and references that came from various different areas that were quite difficult to lock together, you know? When I was talking about things like H Rider Haggard and the Boys’ Own Adventure type inspirations; they’re okay, but they don’t really cover a visual medium.
“So it was the understanding that what we really wanted to be doing was referencing those old black and white adventure films with all their hokeyness and their naivety. [The narrator] jumped out of that—Jason zeroed in on this idea of the voice of the guy talking over the trailer and saying, ‘Come back next week for the further adventures of the Strange Brigade!’ and trying to get that kind of intensity into it, and that humor. And then we extended it from that, essentially saying, ‘Well, that’s cool; let’s actually build that into the experience and make the cinematic references that the game is already drawing upon a more integrated part of the game as a whole.’ In the finished game you’ll see that classic cinema feel come across in lots of different ways.”
“It’s almost a bit fourth-wall breaking at times,” adds senior designer Tom Rigby, “but intentionally so. It’s fun to play with that kind of thing and have that kind of little tool to mess about with to see what humor you can get out of it.”
“Yeah, and he very quickly became his own character,” Steve adds, “and funnily enough, even though you never see the guy, he actually has got his own biography and name. I don’t know if we’ll ever show it to the player, but Gordon Rennie wrote this guy, he sounds like a bit of a messed-up dude, but it then allowed Gordon to write these twists on this idea of the narrator. So he’s not just calling out what the action is—he can do things like say ‘I wonder if the Strange Brigade are going to notice that very obvious lever next to the door…’ or ‘Let’s go and explore down here, Strange Brigade!’ and then they walk into a trap and he goes ‘Sorry! Sorry!’ He becomes a present character in the game rather than just purely ambient audio, which is really fun.”
While the demo we played was only a small section of what will be a much larger final game, we could see interconnecting areas in the distance that hinted at where our adventure might take us as well as a few hidden treasures and puzzles that suggest that the final game will have a lot to tuck into. While each area is designed with co-op in mind you can also play it solo, with the level adapting to your team size.
“In crude terms, essentially, the enemy numbers will go up when you’ve got more players, and difficulty will get modified in various different ways,” Steve tells us. “There’s also a reasonably significant puzzle element to the game, and that has to adapt for co-op as well so that puzzles—not in every case, because some puzzles are designed to be simple enough—but in some cases you’ll require all of your teammates to help solve the puzzle. So that’s a way that it will develop.
“But also, the characters themselves, and their loadouts and special abilities, are all designed to play together a little bit. It’s always a tricky balance to get it working well in a single-player game, and not demand that people play co-op, but also for it to be enhanced by co-op. I think we’ve got that balance right, so it really clicks as a cooperative game, but I think it’s a different kind of co-op game.”
“It’s been designed as co-op from the start,” Tom adds. “It’s important to say it’s from the ground up co-op—we’ve not tacked it on at the end. When you play co-op, everything changes a little bit, and it tries to pull you together a bit more. That’s very important I think—at least to me. I want people talking about the experiences they had with the game—to me that’s a successful multiplayer game, when someone comes away from it and says, ‘Oh you did this and I did that and we had this cool adventure!’—that’s great, that’s what we’re really aiming for.”
“We wanted to reference those old adventure films with all their hokeyness”
Each character has a corresponding trait— the brilliantly-named Archimedes De Quincey, for example, is a scholar, while Nalangu Rushida is a wayfinder. That may just seem like a brief description that gives you a rough idea of their fighting style, but there’s more to it than that. Scattered around the world are secret caves, blocked off from traversal, with symbols etched on them that correspond to your trait. Approach them as a certain character, and they’ll open for you, revealing treasure… or maybe more. For example, Gracie the engineer can approach any door with a hammer icon, and gain access to something the other characters won’t. It’s a nice incentive to explore each area as all of the separate characters, but there are plenty of other reasons to hunt out every nook and cranny, as Tom explains: “The levels are crammed with all these amazing things to find and see, that really existed, and so hopefully that’ll be a really good incentive to go back and play.”
Of course, there are also plenty of collectibles to hunt down for all of the completionists out there, including things like canopic jars that were used to store the organs of the ancient Egyptians in the afterlife. You can also build up a greater sense of the narrative by collecting scattered diary pages, Tom tells us: “You can unlock more of the story by hunting around and finding fragments of things that might reveal more about the Strange Brigade or the people that came before them.”
From everything we’ve seen, it’s clear that Rebellion is pouring a lot of heart into this. From the hundreds of hours of research the team put in to get the feel of a hammy 1930s novel just right, to the hidden details of the levels, and the wittiness of the cheeky narrator, this is set to be one rip-roaring adventure. Thankfully we also don’t have long to wait—the devs weren’t keen to give a set date, but are adamant that they’re in the final stretch and that we’ll be playing it before the year is out. Stay tuned.
“The levels are crammed with all these amazing things to find, that really existed”
above While you will be fighting a lot of mummies they all feel very different in their approach.