What is it? Co-op third-person shooter in a cheeky Royal Geographical Society style
Reviewed on: Windows 10, i5 4690k, 16GB RAM, Nvidia GTX 970
Price: $50 / £40
Release date: Out now
Link: Official site (opens in new tab)
Deep in the bowels of a sacred temple, my buddy has been stabbed to death. An angry mummy—who is rightfully pissed off that a bunch of dicks have come swinging in to steal his gold and artwork—is chewing on his face. His corpse disappears, and he reappears in a sarcophagus right next to me. I open the door, and out he pops, good as new, back into the fight. He shoots the mummy that had previously killed him before the poor old guy can climb off the tiles.
When it comes to making exciting combat moments, an instant-respawn sarcophagus isn't ideal. Any other co-op shooter would have players fall wounded to the ground, unable to get up until a friend fought their way over and applied a bandage. That would force players to stick together, and the location of an emergency would happen randomly.
The sarcophagus, by contrast, is not so exciting or dynamic, teleporting dead teammates out of trouble and into the back of the room. In this case, I was standing next to the sarcophagus, shooting zombies and casually hitting a button to bring friends back to life. It's a pretty weak way to encourage teamwork, and that's how Strange Brigades handles most things—take an old idea and do about 40 percent of it.
Four adventurers—a mercenary, a professor, a warrior, and a mechanic—walk into an airship, and this is not a joke. This is the Strange Brigade, a team that goes a-plundering, raids some tombs, solves some ancient puzzles, and shoots through crowds of zombies and mummies. Each mission helps unlock better weapons and new special abilities so the Brigade can kick more ass on the next mission.
The raid-loot-upgrade-raid loop is a comfortable one, but I've never seen it look as sparse as it does in Strange Brigade. There's just not much loot. I can choose from very few weapons, and my upgrade options are similarly limited. When I earned enough to move on from the starting shotgun, machine gun, and sniper rifle, I spent some money on a different shotgun, machine gun, and sniper rifle. Some special weapons like flamethrowers and crossbows show up as pick-ups during missions, but these are strictly temporary.
The individual characters are more or less the same, so no matter who you play as, you can use the equipment you like. This flexibility makes sense, except anyone can be any character in any game, even if that character is already taken. During one game I played with random teammates, three of us showed up playing as the professor. How embarrassing.
With so little attention paid to individual character growth, Strange Brigade really suffers as a singleplayer game—as a solo player, taking a firing position and mowing down row after row of zombies got tedious. Playing with other people adds chaos and movement to the battlefield, though, and with four guns firing, the enemies dropped and levels zipped by.
For such a simple concept, it's amazing that Strange Brigade is fun at all. A lot of it comes down to the shooting. Rebellion spent a lot of time fine-tuning its guns with the Sniper Elite series, and each shot feels punchy, sharp, and powerful. The enemies all started looking the same after a while, but the most important thing about a hoard is its size. Surviving against impossible odds, reaching the end just as I was down to the last handful of ammo, was always a thrill.
There are also puzzles scattered throughout each tomb, but here again Strange Brigade never surprises. Doors locked to protect the treasure within can usually be unlocked by following the combination written on the wall nearby. Like the British Empire itself, every puzzle is solved with a gun—literally, in this case, as the only way to physically move puzzle pieces is by shooting them.
Strange Brigade takes place in Egypt, in a rip-roaring fantabulous newsreel version of the 1930s. There's a ra-ra jingoism going on as the Brigade sets out to 'discover' these hidden tombs and lost cities, and they'll stop at nothing to discover every valuable that isn't nailed down. It's exploration for fun and profit in the sunset age of colonialism.
Strange Brigade's vision of this world is about as nuanced as the 'Jungle Cruise' ride at Disney World. When I discovered my first relic, an achievement popped up titled, "It's not theft if you put it in a museum." It could be a parody, except that some English gentleman probably said that exact thing right before doing a really big crime, so it doesn't come off as particularly incisive.
The 1930s setting is mostly an affectation, an excuse for Rebellion's scriptwriters to really rub on the razzle dazzle, to take a heroic plunge into the gaping maw of old-timey, overwrought magniloquence. And boy, do they go for it. A chippy narrator keeps a commentary going, and it's full of alliteration and phrases like "derring-do." His English accent is so thick you could spread it on a scone and feed it to a Corgi.
None of this is irritating enough to make Strange Brigade aggressively unfun, but I really began to ache for a new idea, some surprise that would pull me back in. Having fun in Strange Brigade is heavily dependent on how much fun I can have with my group of friends, and my friends will likely follow me around to other, better games—games where the adventure has more to say and the action explores ideas we haven't seen before.