Rebellion Developments have an excellent niche carved out with their Sniper Elite series. The blend of nimble stealth, nifty tactics, and ludicrous ultraviolence that the series typified also carried over to the unexpectedly brilliant Nazi Zombie Army spin-offs. This time, however, Rebellion is bucking their usual trend, choosing to instead follow the release of the excellent Sniper Elite 4 not with yet another zombie entry, but going for something a little different this time around. Enter Strange Brigade, a co-op focused multiplayer third-person shooter like Nazi Zombies, but with hero shooter elements and a 1930s pulp-horror comic strip aesthetic. Does it supplant the gruesome glory of games past? Or does it merely meet the meagre standards of the current menagerie of current-day shooter staples?
Well, at first it seemed to be a failure. The titular Brigade is less of a significant collection of battalions dressed in pantaloons practising Monty Python sketches, but are instead a handful of adventurers who seem to find themselves in the thick of supernatural mishaps amongst ancient ruins on a regular basis. The events of the game itself take place in ruins in and around the ancient pyramids of Egypt as the Brigade has been called upon to answer a distress call from a dig site operated by a famed archaeologist. They arrive to find an ancient evil running amok, summoning mummies of varied levels of monstrosity to enslave the world, and it’s up to the Brigade to dismember, vaporise and generally blow the bejesus out of anything in dire need of moisturising lotion. Sounds pretty much as expected, right?
Where Strange Brigade differs significantly from Rebellion’s similar titles is with a light-hearted tone and a big, strong whiff of cheese. The taste of which will either grow on you or put you off completely. What sells it, though, is the game’s narrator. At first I said it felt like a failure, and this was mainly because I found the narrator more than a bit annoying, and the setting seemed like a cheap gimmick to set the game apart in the overly-crowded shooter market. But it all grew on me, dammit, like mould on month-old gruyere. The narrator is an over-enunciating, chipper and loquacious chap, and will comment on everything from how much time you spend in the pause menu to your ability to take advantage of your surroundings. The colour palette is also refreshing, and defined by a pleasant trio of sandy whites, blues and golds. Even the four main characters, as flat and one-dimensional as they sadly are, are at least on the outside an unusual collection hardened-warrior types. Any game that lets you play as a slinky Zulu warrior-maiden or a red-headed Geordie grease-monkey that makes monsters explode with her fists deserves a playthrough.
Aside from its veritable charm, Strange Brigade also has a welcome degree of novelty in its gameplay design. At its core, it’s a rather straight up and down third-person hero shooter. The emphasis for all four characters, at least initially, is on aggression and dealing damage. Each character has an offensive power, one primary weapon, a side-arm and an explosive. Powers are charged by pulling out a character’s magical amulet, by holding the right trigger when not aiming, and using the souls of downed enemies or conquered puzzles as fuel. Weapons can be upgraded, but the starting weapons only have a single upgrade slot, while new weapons bought with currency earned through combat, secret finding, and puzzle solving, come equipped with more slots for upgrades. These upgrades range from just doing more damage on headshots to setting enemies on fire, freezing them solid for easier crowd control, and more.
The weapons available at the start of the game are a bit impotent if playing solo, but your powers will help supplement this, as will the absurd number of traps littered through each level. Traps like huge spinning blades, swinging axes, spear traps, braziers filled with flammable embers, spiked logs swinging from ropes, and more, all populate levels so densely that aiming directly at your enemies isn’t the best approach. Players need only shoot at the traps to activate them, and relax and watch hilarity ensue. Said traps also become invaluable later on in the game as the level of challenge ramps up. That challenge is continuously tweaked as the game progresses, as multiple enemy types are introduced over the course of each level. Said enemies range from everyday slow walking zom- *cough* I mean, mummies, to giant scorpions, mummified guards armed with various types of weapons and appropriate tactics, Ummm minotaurs (for some reason?), avatars of the God Set and so on. Their attack behaviours are varied well enough that the composition of the enemies you are facing will seem important, but you’ll mostly find yourself retreating and waiting for your explosives to cool down to clear foes out quickly.
While the combat isn’t more amusing than challenging, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the presence of puzzles in each level. Solving them is mostly based around the use of Egyptian hieroglyphs in sequence, but there’s also a take on Bioshock’s hacking puzzles as well some Indiana Jones floor-maze-of-doom style headscratchers too. They’re more fun to figure out while playing by yourself, as other players are likely just rush through as they’ve already completed them or dither about in disagreement over them, based on my experiences with the game online. However, combat is still much more enjoyable with other players, and considerably more fast-paced than solo play.
I spent most of my time playing the campaign, though there’s also a Horde mode on offer, as well, even if it isn’t a true one. It’s really more akin to a CoD zombies map, where paths to various parts of the level have to be bought, and waves of enemies come in cycles to harass you. Blueprints for new weapons and upgrade gems are found in these sealed off areas and are vital to your success. It’s a competent gameplay mode, but I didn’t see any of the puzzles that made the campaign entertaining, and it’s lacking in strategy or the arcadey goodness that makes similar modes in Gears and Uncharted as fun as they are, but it is a good afterthought. There’s also a score attack mode on offer, for those looking to measure your worth with your friends or hackers around the world.
Strange Brigade is a fun but simple co-op shooter, wrapped in an enjoyable aesthetic with a hilarious narrator and unusual looking characters. Its trap-filled level designs are a natural chaotic joy, and the interspersing of easy to grok puzzles into the combat is refreshing to someone like me who’s never figured out a zombies level in CoD on their own. It’s not a great game to play on your own, and being a bit less than full-price, I only just feel like recommending it. There will be free horde maps for all players in the future, but new campaigns and characters are locked behind a season pass, so keep that in mind when considering your purchase. If you’re bored stiff of CoD zombies and have long left Uncharted and Gears behind, Strange Brigade could be for you and your budding boffins’ beards.