There’s a few episodes of Futurama that sees the Planet Express crew asking hypothetical questions into a ‘What If…’ machine. I’m beginning to wonder if Rebellion have one.
Their first attempt was a “What if Sniper Elite but zombies?” and that struck gold, three times. This time, they’ve posed a “What if Sniper Elite engine but a Johnny Quest/1930’s pulp explorer comics?” and I’ll be dang and blasted if this doesn’t strike nuggets too.
If you’ve not heard of Sniper Elite, or the Zombie Army Trilogy games, allow me to recap: the former is a 3rd person sniper/shooter series with some impressively over-the-top bullet camera/slow motion/X-ray killcams, and the latter is a standalone trilogy with the same core mechanics, in a horde/wave mode zombie epidemic (featuring zombie Hitler, because of course). If you’re an Xbox Game Pass subscriber, Zombie Army Trilogy is on there now.
Strange Brigade, as you might have worked out, is hot on the coat tails of its peers, and brings a new style to the formula that Rebellion have laid out. Much like ZAT, gameplay is level-based, and consists of ‘go here, unlock door by means of X amount of switches, defend against enemy waves’. If that sounds glib, it’s not meant as derogatory. It’s just that I can’t really elaborate on a gameplay formula we’re all used to. There are some neat little additions, but I’ll come back to those later.
‘If there’s one thing about Strange Brigade I admire more than anything else, it’s that it knows exactly what it is. After the bleak seriousness of something like The Division or Greg’s aforementioned Zombie Army Trilogy, playing a co-op game with the team that is hilarious and dumb is a breath of fresh air. In the era of shooters that claim to be ‘the most realistic simulation of World War whatever’, Strange Brigade has arrived with its tongue firmly in its cheek and allowed us to play out our dreams of becoming a team of Brendan Fraser’s taking on paranormal beasties with aplomb.
Strange Brigade delights in its absurdity and as far as I’m concerned, is perhaps the most fun I’ve had playing a game all year. Is it doing anything particularly new? Well, not really, I don’t think that’s the point though. It’s full of character, technically very impressive with lovely visuals. We’ve had no issues with co-op games (barring a little bit of slowdown which we can probably attest to our internet connections) and is just the tonic I needed before we jump into the gaming season proper.
I had a hunch it was going to be fun. I’m so glad I was right, all it needs now is an audience. I want to keep hanging out with the Strange Brigade. Don’t let it pass you by.’ – Ross
Our band of merry adventurers is a ragtag ensemble of…well, stereotypes in every sense of the word. Leading the charge is Frank Fairburne, granite-chinned, no nonsense hero (and possible relation to the Sniper Elite protagonist), and Professor de Quincey, a mild mannered and well spoken magic expert. The heroine quota is fulfilled by Gracie Braithwaite, the living embodiment of the Rosie the Riveter poster girl, with a hell of an uppercut to boot, and Nalangu Rushida, expert demon hunter and former tribeswoman. There are more characters coming post-launch, including African hunter Winston Bey, and some more that I won’t spoil.
Characters aren’t bound to the weapons they start with, so you can experiment with different loadouts. So you may prefer shotguns and molotov cocktails, or tommy guns and sticky grenades. Melee moves vary slightly too. Gracie, as mentioned, can send an enemy reeling with a haymaker. Nalangu delivers a head kick, whilst de Quincey uses a palm strike. It’s pretty standard stuff, but there’s a nice little addition to combat. Enemies drop souls when they die, which you can hoover up with the amulet each character has. When full, you can launch a special attack that also varies with each hero. The professor fires a swarm of ethereal scarabs that explode half a dozen heads, Nalangu delivers an area of attack with a ground slam, and Gracie, in punching fashion, knocks one enemy back that becomes a delayed explosive blast. I couldn’t tell you what Fairburne’s is, as none of us played as him.
Another bonus caveat is the special weapons chests that litter the levels. For a monetary fee, you get a randomised special weapon that once it’s ammo is depleted, it’s dropped. These vary from flamethrowers, sniper rifles, explosive crossbows and my personal favourite, the ricochet machine gun. It adds variety and some much needed levity when the swarms of undead nasties gang up on you, and boy, do they love doing that. Mummies are the base enemy this time around, so get used to reducing them to dustier bits of dust. They get joined as you progress by armoured guards, giant scorpions, teleporting super-mummies, and charging minotaurs, and more. There’s not really much to expand on the combat other than “Shoot the things and don’t get smacked about” formula, but again, not a criticism. Death is more an inconvenience than actually dying, which results in imprisonment inside a sarcophagus, which you can either escape yourself by using a health potion (that you forgot to use to avoid death) or by being rescued by your teammates. You can harass them by shouting from inside the coffin, which is a nice touch.
In contrast to the haunted war zones of ZAT, Strange Brigade levels are bright and colourful. Also, full of traps. Some of them are manually activated, including the spinning blade poles that can take out a handful of mummified miscreants. There’s also spike and flame plates, a lot of which are triggered by stepping over them. Used correctly, they can help you out. Used by me though, and you forget they’re there until you walk backwards over them whilst aiming. The puzzles are varied too, with variations of “shoot the sequential hieroglyph tiles”, and a wall diagram that’s essentially the plumbing/hacking mini game from Bioshock. The rewards of these are relics that add money to your coffers, or weapon upgrades. There are larger scale puzzle rooms, with larger rewards in. Dotted around each level are porcelain cats to be broken, that in turn unlocks a golden cat statue as an end of level reward.
Unlike its peer, Left 4 Dead, the enemy hordes never get too overwhelming. Whereas Valve’s shooter had the Director AI that added or removed enemies based on your performance, Strange Brigade merely upscales the body count depending on players. So instead of being constantly on the move to your next objective, you’re usually in the objective room defending yourself for a predetermined amount of time/kills. It allows for you and your team to chain attacks and rack up competitive combos with each other, whilst creating many “Ooh, watch this” moments. It can still be frantic, and the danger is there, but it’s a contained panic.
So, in summary, it would seem that Strange Brigade is a formulaic action co-op that doesn’t break new ground as much as furrow a new groove in an already abundant genre. Does that make it boring though? No. Certainly not, and it’s actually quite brilliant. I haven’t really elaborated on the story, but not out of laziness or lack of understanding. There’s a dashing tale of adventure to be had, involving mummy queens and raided tombs. I just don’t want to spoil it for you. You may work out some tropes for yourself, especially if you’ve seen Brendan Fraser do his thing. It’s got some neat little jump scares in there, too.
Rounding off the charm is some excellent Nigel Thornberry-esque narration, which in itself is hilarious. It’s almost like Bastion’s narration, in that it’s relative to what you’re doing, but not as bleak. The shooting and combat is standard, yet bright and constant. The characters have slightly different speed and defence attributes, and some top dialogue between themselves. It’s honestly a refreshing take on the co-op shooter and as a team, we love it. It’s also worth noting the price, which is remarkably lower than your standard AAA outing at £40. If that’s not enough to sway you then you’re a madman. Find some chums, kick back, and get engrossed in the happiest four-player shooter we’ve had lately.
What ho, marvellous, by Jove, etc! Get involved in a rip-roaring adventure, Strange Brigade-style.
Strange Brigade is out now on Xbox One, PS4 (reviewed on base PS4. Rossko on PS4 Pro) and PC.
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with two review codes from the publisher for co-op testing purposes. For our full review policy, please go here.