Just shy of two years ago, I would have been more than happy to come away from Rebellion’s showing at E3 in 2016 and proclaim that their then-unveiled latest entry in the Sniper Elite series was content in doing what it does best. To my surprise, my early impressions of that game were met with an intriguing expansion to a formula that seldom tires. Just shy of two days ago, I would have been more than happy to come away from this year’s Rezzed gathering down in London and proclaim that the same studio’s take on co-operative, wave-based shooters was a fine attempt at a formula that is as tried and tested as most shooter sub-genre concepts. I would have gladly stated to you that Strange Brigade was a serviceable attempt — fun, if not entirely groundbreaking.
So then, why is it that, despite my still having next-to-no concrete details on its story or plot or reason for even being, Strange Brigade just might be one of if not the highlight of my time down in the capital? Why is it that for a demo that’s left a fair few questions rattling about my brain — which I’ll elaborate on further down the page — I’m clambering to have another go of it? Even if I did manage to sneak in a solo outing amidst the ID@Xbox section. Let’s just say I hadn’t quite expected Strange Brigade to entrance me as much as it has done. Whether it’s the often silly nature of proceedings or the unruly chaos that still finds a way to tear even that self-aware premise to shreds, its mechanics may be common but Rebellion may well have found some kind of order amidst the chaos.
The general rule in Strange Brigade is that up to four players progress through a series of closed-off regions that are momentary broken up by a bit of basic puzzle-solving. Each area won’t open until a particular number of enemies are defeated or at least a unique brand of undead beasties are taken care of. Usually the solution comes by way of your firearms which, despite covering the basic categories of automatic, bolt-action, sidearm and shotgun — the latter of which must be acquired via discovery of an upgrade chest — though Rebellion have so obviously borrowed from contemporary multiplayer proceedings in that racking up a certain number of kills will allow you to dispel a special skill of sorts unique to each player-character. More often than not, these are usually vastly-stronger, area-of-effect blasts that only add to the madness on show.
Admittedly, the hectic nature and sheer volume of foes on show does mean the game (or at least the early build I played) did suffer from a mighty frame-drop. Noticeable, but not problematic. And if we’re to address some concerns, aiming in Strange Brigade does come off as a little too loose and unruly — landing direct hits, let alone head-shots, bordering on impossible. Even so, a very many aspects like the implementation of a dodge roll, your character’s seemingly high health bar (though it was hard to determine how far my character actually was from death due to a complete absence on-screen of that stat) and generally a more fast if frantic pace to your movement, do keep things feeling fresh and entertaining. Particularly when you get so encumbered by the moment that you end up running about the many arenas with trustee shotgun equipped, only stopping when you want to hurl another amulet-powered special, which funnily enough gives off this weird howling noise — thus plastering the grin upon my face ever more so.
Despite it still being a co-operative shooter that knows when and where to give its players a bit more to think about — particularly when you get the aforementioned special baddies that too can dodge-roll and attack you far more aggressively with their own melee weapons than your run-of-the-mill zombie or mummy alike — perhaps the biggest benefit to a game like Strange Brigade is that it doesn’t feel reliant, weighed down even, by the need to be as communicative and as reliant on one another, as possible. You can very easily go off and do your own thing (as I so often did; running around using the shotgun and only the shotgun like an absolute madman as if I was riding the Everest-like high’s of DOOM all over again) and pay as big a price for being so over-confident. And while you may not get pretty far going lone-wolf on your supposed team-mates, the moment-to-moment, eventual loop that is the core gameplay is no less appealing to just muck around with and similarly indulge in the lunacy unfolding.
Some may find the repetitive need to remind us of its overly-British demeanour and attempt at self-referential humor to be a tad forced in parts — hearing the beloved “tis’ but a scratch” line in reference to my character respawning on the map, only made me appreciate its original incarnation even more — but fortunately, at worst it’s a take-it-or-leave-it affair when it comes to the game’s omnipresent commentator. One I hope Rebellion won’t thrust across the entire campaign. If anything, speaking of which, it would be good to see whether the players’ venturing among all these ancient tombs and temples alike is actually amounting to something or heading towards an equally-surmountable end goal.
Rebellion have left us with something quite striking to consider. Strange Brigade has all the initial appearance of yet another co-operative shooter whose only risk is getting too comfortable with the repetitive nature of blasting near-endless waves of enemies to pieces. Yet what gives it an apparent edge over its nearest competitors is how little Rebellion try to keep things in an orderly manner. And it’s all the better for it; it’s a mad, crazy, rarely strategically-fronted affair, despite the many traps one can activate or set off about the environment. But it’s this chaos, this unhinged, unrestrained lunacy that’s managed to inject a surprising level of character and personality than its overhead narrator so valiantly attempts many a time. It’s a fitting name Rebellion have chosen, because Strange Brigade is at least that, and if all goes well, that lunacy could be the catalyst to something much greater.