Strange Brigade Review: a throwback co-op shooter
At first glance, Strange Brigade from Rebellion Studios (best known for the Sniper Elite series) is one of those games most people might pass up. It lacks a unique angle, it’s not open world, it’s got no competitive multiplayer, and it’s not graphically cutting edge. But, if those people took a second look, what they would find was a fun, co-op shooter, that’s a call back to games like the Halo series, but also mixes in some new elements. Elements like puzzles, and environmental interactions and traps, as well as healthy amount of collectables, to make very fun modern-day co-op shooter. A shooter that’s elevated by the sum of its parts, rather than being great at any one element.
We have to get one thing out of the way first. This is not a typical shooter game in 2018. There is no Battle Royale mode, no competitive death match, no leveling, or advancement beyond upgrading guns, and the setting is retro, not futuristic or present day. But, that’s part of what makes it great. It’s not typical, Rebellion have taken a huge risk, putting out a game that harkens back to a time when friends sat down on a couch, and a narrator guided them through a story together. Thankfully, I think that gamble has paid off in a big way with Strange Brigade.
Yes, I said narrator. If you hate narration you will not like this game. Narration is a corner stone of Strange Brigade’s story telling. Narration can be turned down, but as far as I can tell not off. Honestly, you need the narrator because Strange Brigade is all about the atmospheric story telling. The basic story is this: four heroes form the titular Strange Brigade. A sort of paranormal investigative team that’s something out of mid 40s serial radio drama. Think Indiana Jones meets the Lone Ranger, with a dash of old Egyptian mysticism thrown in for good measure. The Strange Brigade are called in when a something odd happens at a dig site in North Africa, and the ensuing adventure is the main story of the game.
Settings for the Strange Brigades adventure range from the jungles, to ancient tombs, to decrepit falling down buildings. The tile sets are fairly diverse, but do have a lot of commonalities. Anyone who has played the Sniper Elite games will recognize some of the assets from the jungle, but other than a few familiar ferns, most of the levels seemed to be brand new. Besides, it’s what you do in these levels that makes this game unique not the levels themselves.
Strange Brigade is a shooter, so of course you will primarily be shooting things. Mostly undead things. Zombies, skeletons, armored skeletons, ninja skeletons, and skeletons that throw fire, are just a few of the enemy types. If this sounds like it’s not a lot of enemy variety, that’s because it isn’t. There is in fact very little change from enemy to enemy beyond what skin they wear and how difficult it is to kill them. Most of the ground based enemies come in massive waves, and have melee based attacks. There is occasionally an enemy with a ranged attack, and most levels have both a mid-boss and an end boss to fight.
One thing that Strange Brigade is not short on is enemies. Most levels have several areas where you have to fight multiple large waves of enemies at a time, and even the smaller fights feel like Left for Dead sometimes. There are also a couple of tank type enemies that often serve as bosses, but they are just bullet sponges, with only one unique attack, usually a charge. Enemy diversity becomes quite an issue when your shooting at literally hundreds of enemies.
Shooting feels a bit anemic, and it’s hard to place why. All of the major weapon tropes are present. Shotgun, sniper rifle, bolt action rifle, smg, and machine gun. But, all of the gun’s sort of feel hollow, their shots make a more pop-gun noise than the deep roar I expect. They have plenty of impact, particularly headshots which can make your target explode, followed by a satisfying skull pop up. But, despite that visual feedback the guns feel like someone forgot to put the right sounds in. In addition to the games unlockable guns, you also have access to two other weapons, a pistol (of which there are 5 unlockable options) and a grenade (also with unlockable options). The pistol I almost never used, as its very inaccurate and has a slow rate of fire, and the grenades were tough to aim, but satisfying when they hit. Different grenades did have different effects, one sticks to walls, one has a delay fuse, one is a traditional grenade, you get the idea. It’s enough diversity to keep the game interesting at least. Guns, and grenades are unlocked through the game’s currency, which is plentiful. It comes from killing the games mostly dead monsters, it comes from solving puzzles, in some places it’s even just lying on the floor. After playing through the game’s first four levels a party of two should have no issues with cash flow.
Guns are upgradable, with a series of runes that you find throughout the game. Some runes might do fire damage others might be good at breaking armor. You can reconfigure these at stations throughout the game as long as you have the runes in your inventory. Runes are rare enough that most players probably won’t have a dozen spares, but the game clearly wants you to try multiple “builds”. The lower end starter guns have only one rune slot, while the best guns in the game have 4. This creates potential for cool interactions, like bouncing-fire-armor piercing bullets that do more damage to elites. It’s a system that I wish the game put a bit more time in to, because it could be fun to just experiment with the various available powers.
In addition to your guns and grenades is your amulet. A single charge item that harvests its energy from what you kill, it can unleash a powerful attack. Each character starts with one unique amulet attack, and can swap between four by the end game. Amulet powers are unlocked via a level up system that involves finding collectables in game. It’s a unique system, that will make you want to reply levels to try and find all of the collectables.
Also there to help you slay the hordes of zombies are a host of environmental traps. From whirling blades, to fire, to the classic punji sticks, all of the major trap categories are covered. Most are activated by simply shooting them and can be used over and over. This comes in handy during the games many horde mode segments, when it’s easy to heard the enemies over to a trap, then hit it and slay most or all of them in one blow. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the most satisfying things you can do in Strange Brigade.
Currency is limited to just one type, which almost feels sacrilegious in 2018. Where are my premium credits? My loot box buying gems? My throw away funny money that I can get a billion of to spend on one skin? It’s refreshing to see a game that doesn’t put any emphasis on monetization, and I think it’s one this games major selling points. You buy it, and you have all of it (except maybe a DLC level pack later) and that’s a good thing. That doesn’t mean the game has nothing to collect. There are comic books that tell the games back story, Canopic jars that contain bonuses, and plenty of relics to collect. It’s not Far Cry, but there are plenty of fun additions to the shooting parts of this game. Between collecting, puzzle solving, and searching out secrets most levels took me over 40 minutes to complete.
Remember games like Turok Dinosaur Hunter, or Golden Eye where you had puzzles that involved shooting environmental things to solve? Strange Brigade takes this to the next level, in some cases literally. Every level has several puzzle segments, some optional some not, that players have to overcome. The most basic involve redirecting a laser beam to activate a door lock, while some of the more complex ones involve a good bit of hunting around the map for combinations to doors. You won’t be needing a notebook to solve the games many puzzles, but if you hate your gameplay being slowed down, the puzzle segments may irk you.
I enjoyed the puzzles personally. I thought they brought a much needed break to the games endless horde of undead. Most levels consist of fairly linear paths with a few derivations that I think most players won’t have any difficulty finding. The game offers some additional depth with shootable collectibles in the form of Canopic Jars and cat statues, that if found and destroyed will result in a bonus.
A quick word now about co-op. This is a co-op game from the ground up, but it’s also made to be played solo. All of the games levels can be finished solo, but doing so will cause you to miss out on many of the more complex puzzles. That’s because the game changes the level depending on how many people are currently playing. Just one person? Well the combination to that door has to be in sight of it, but add in another player and now its scattered around the map. This is also true of the games enemies, the more people, the more enemies. This unfortunately causes levels to feel a little empty at times if you are playing solo. Strange Brigade offers a solution in the form of an option that increases the amount of enemies, but I would recommend playing this game with at least one friend if possible.
I tired it both ways and the solo missions just weren’t as fun. Playing solo does have one advantage. You get all the loot. Strange Brigade has no instanced loot, so part of the fun (and frustration) of playing co-op is rushing to be the first to get that potion, chest, or power-up.
Additional to the main story the game also offers a horde mode and a score attack mode. Horde mode is what you expect. You and friends can set up defenses and traps to fight off wave after wave of enemies. I found it to be extremely tiresome. If you are a fan of those types of game’s where you spend your whole time fighting off waves of enemies while building up defenses, then you are going to love this mode. It also removes the narrator’s story portion that I felt was so essential to the games tone, and that’s a big disappointment. He’s still there, but is limited to one liners. As far as I can tell this mode is endless.
Score attack mode is a classic arcade type mode, with a scoring system that makes it fun to compete even on a casual level. It’s fun to watch points rack up, and more fun to compare your points to your friends. There are of course score multipliers and power up added for this mode. It reminds me of speed running, because most of your puzzles and obstacles are removed in favor of just blazing through the level. The payoff coming at the end when you get to see your score and time and compare with friends. It’s a single path barrel down the hallway and kill as fast as you can kind of mode that will appeal to more casual players. This is the mode that kept me coming back long after I had beaten the story, unlocked all the weapons and gotten tired of the games narrator.
As the narrator says, that’s the end of Strange Brigade! I had real fun with this game, in a way that called back to a much simpler time. I was puzzling and laughing during co-op and concentrating intensely during my single player runs. Between the snarky narrator, the simple upgrade system, and the puzzles, this game adds up to be more than the sum of its parts. It’s a bit shakey as a shooter, but it make up for it in the story and fun factors. For 50$ it’s a bit on the expensive side, but Rebellion may have some value based surprises in mind for later on, and I would call this one worth its price. A solid 7.5/10