Since playing Zombie Army Trilogy in 2015, I’ve had lofty expectations for what Rebellion’s next new IP would be.
The Sniper Elite games are always fun, and Rebellion’s British roots have always allowed the company to give its games a good old Blighty twist that most international studios struggle to replicate. The humour is always top notch – at least, for a British audience, it is – and so, when Strange Brigade was announced, I had high hopes.
It looked very much like it had the gun-focused gameplay of the likes of Zombie Army Trilogy, but with a unique 1920s British Empire aesthetic. After trying the game earlier this year at EGX Rezzed, those high hopes were further set in stone, and so I’ve been eagerly waiting to see how the finished product has turned out. The verdict? It certainly doesn’t disappoint.
What spiffing personality!
Strange Brigade sets out a fun and far-fetched narrative of a group of adventurers – the titular Strange Brigade – who set off to uncover mystical secrets of a long-forgotten ancient Egyptian civilisation. Initially, there are four characters to choose from (a fifth character has been promised to unlock at launch), each with their own perks and personalities. Gracie, for example, is a Northern lass who’s best for close-range, melee combat. And Frank, a stereotypical cockney chap, has extra health thanks to his thick skin.
But it’s the personalities of Strange Brigade’s characters that really bring them to life. The game’s third-person shooting might have otherwise felt pretty run-of-the-mill, but when the character you’re controlling, coupled with the game’s hilarious but over-the-top narrator, are constantly firing one-liners that will undoubtedly raise a smile, it feels in a league of its own. Being from the North of England myself, I had to choose Gracie to play with. Hailing from Lancashire, her Northern accent is utterly charming and endlessly entertaining. Pearls like “this is less appealing than Barnsley on a wet Monday morning” might not have quite the same effect on a less local audience, but for me, it really brought the game to life.
Even the other characters – the well-spoken and upper-class Archimedes, and Masai warrior Nalangu – are full of personality. Whichever character you choose to play as, you’ll struggle not to let out a chortle or two, even when you’re up to your elbows in undead ancient Egyptians to shoot.
A marvellous menagerie of gameplay delights!
Calling Strange Brigade’s gameplay ‘run-of-the-mill’ is doing it a bit of a disservice, really, because overall, it’s anything but. Looking just at the third-person shooting mechanics in a vacuum might give that impression – there’s nothing wrong with them, but on their own, they don’t stand out in any way. But when you couple it with everything else the game has to offer, Strange Brigade’s gameplay is simply fantastic.
Sure, enemies come at you thick and fast, and shooting them is, probably, what you’ll spend more than half of your time with the game doing. But over the course of the campaign, you’ll also be spending a lot of time exploring incredibly detailed environments, searching for hidden secrets, and solving a surprisingly varied range of puzzles.
In each level, there are six hidden cat statues, four vases and six relics, all of varying difficulty to access. The cat statues are usually hidden in plain sight, and as you progress through the level, a cat’s meow will notify you that one is nearby. The vases are much harder to spot. These are also usually dotted around the main areas of the level, but with no audio cues and often far off in the distance, they can be hard to fine. Finding all the relics usually involves solving puzzles.
Throughout each level there are many branching paths, often hidden behind secret doors that will need a code cracking, a lever pulling, a switch activating or a barrier destroying before you can get in. The breadth of these puzzles is actually surprising for a game that bills itself first and foremost as a shooter – but it’s very much a welcome surprise. Some are very simple to crack; shooting runes in the correct order with a code that’s directly in front of you, for instance. Others take a little more time to solve, and will often involve having to explore the area to find a key piece of information. There are also picture-based puzzles: a Lights Out-style minigame that involves flipping tiles until you reveal the whole picture; and another that requires you to rotate tiles in order to complete a path between a start and end point.
A magnificent array of modes and content!
Strange Brigade’s main campaign is made up of nine chapters, the final of which is just a multi-stage boss fight. Each chapter takes around 40 minutes to an hour to complete; perhaps a bit less if you just want to run straight through, but if you’re not going hunting for hidden areas then you’re missing out on a great deal of what the game has to offer. The levels are made for exploration. Each location is fantastically designed; from dark and mysterious caves, to beautifully sunny hilltops, Strange Brigade is an absolutely beautiful game. It begs to be explored, and for hidden nooks and crannies to be found.
It’s likely you’ll want to revisit earlier levels to try and find all the secrets that you missed, but even if you don’t, Strange Brigade packs in plenty of content outside the main campaign, too. There’s a horde mode that pits you against increasingly difficult waves of enemies, and there’s a score attack mode. Score attack provides a preset challenge for each campaign level where your goal is to kill enemies and reach the end of the level as quickly as possible, racking up the highest possible score as you go. In horde mode, there are four maps, each with multiple waves and levels, challenging you to survive for as long as possible.
Neither mode offers the fun or versatility of the game’s main campaign, but they’re still entertaining and add plenty of longevity to the game. In about two hours, I’ve got as far as wave 15 of the first round of one horde mode map – and there are five rounds. Needless to say, there’s plenty to sink your teeth into.
Jolly good upgrades, old chap!
Perhaps my only complaint about Strange Brigade is that there isn’t really a great deal of scope to upgrade your characters. There’s no levelling-up system; instead, you’ll collect coins as you play, and those coins can be used to buy new weapons. You’ll also find weapon modifying runes as you play that can add new skills or abilities to weapons – such as the ability to freeze or set fire to enemies, or to pierce through armour – but these are limited, and finding them is entirely random.
The only real sense of development as you go through is being able to unlock new guns when you’ve earned enough coins, but none of the later guns are a massive improvement on the original arsenal. On every level, special weapons can be temporarily unlocked by interacting with weapons crates, usually placed near every combat area. You’re probably much better off saving your coins and simply buying a special weapon to use in every major fight.
Oh what fun, alone or with a chum!
Strange Brigade has been very much marketed as a co-op game. It can be played in teams of four, but it’s still very much enjoyable as a single-player game too. I played the entire campaign first in co-op, but then went back to revisit some levels in single player. However you choose to play, it’s just as fun – and fair. Enemy numbers are balanced for the number of players in the game, and since you can tweak the difficulty setting to suit your preferences, you never need feel overwhelmed by yourself.
Playing alone perhaps has some perks, too. In co-op, treasure and loot is shared between players, so you’ll need to fight amongst yourselves over who gets to open every chest you find. In single player, everything is yours and yours alone, so it’s much easier to raise enough funds to buy that expensive weapon.
However you decide to play Strange Brigade, one thing is for certain: you’re going to have a hell of a lot of fun. The storytelling and humour balanced against an excellent mixture of gunplay, adventuring and puzzle solving works incredibly well. And the world created by Rebellion is an absolute joy to explore. Being too excited for a new release always leaves you with the uneasy feeling of “what if it doesn’t live up to expectations?”, but in this case, Strange Brigade has exceeded them in practically every area. It takes the formula set by Zombie Army Trilogy, but expands on it in pretty much every way: it’s funnier, better looking, more varied, and bigger in all senses. As far as third-person shooters go, Strange Brigade is up there with the best of them.