The Strange Brigade arrived quite unexpectedly (as is their way), a secret group of easily disavowed civil servants in a four player shooter that was announced just a few short weeks before E3, and showed up there with a playable build to boot. After spending some time with Strange Brigade it became the surprise of the show, because I liked it a lot. I wasn’t expecting to, because I’m not a massive fan of a) wave shooters or b) British colonialism, but luckily Rebellion’s latest certainly has more than that going for it.
Strange Brigade is, I was told by Rebellion’s head of creative Tim Jones, a chance for the team to let their hair down after working on more serious games like Sniper Elite — not that they don’t love Sniper Elite, of course — but with Strange Brigade they can go ‘a bit more arcadey’ and have some fun.
Strange Brigade is being written by Gordon Rennie, whose CV includes a lot of work writing 2000 AD comics (including stories for those comics’ most famous son, Judge Dredd). It was Rennie who wrote Rogue Trooper, Rebellion’s shooter based on the 2000 AD comic of the same name. The writing is what gives the game its tone, chiefly carried by the bombast of the narrator. Jones says the intention is to poke fun at the conventions and ideas of the British Empire, and the Saturday morning adventure serials about men with open-necked shirts sweating their way through jungles — an intention we can but hope is kept up through the whole game.
The titular Strange Brigade themselves are four characters loosely drawn from archetypes of that time (The Pathfinder, The Scholar, The Mechanic and The Soldier) who each have a favoured weapon and a special attack powered by a mysterious amulet. The idea is to charge said attack and use it to kill multiple enemies at once — with, for example, a devastating area-slam — which recharges the attack so you can keep rolling it over, resulting in chaotic, loud, and enjoyable battles, against variously difficult enemy types. Once you’ve cleared one area, you can explore and move on to the next, with some hidden stashes and door puzzles, and areas that only certain characters can access, so it does feel like you’re uncovering lost secrets, if not exactly for King and country.
Rallying a crew to play is definitely recommended. While the difficulty adjusts depending on how many players there are, Strange Brigade is entirely less fun by yourself, with an area taking roughly twice as long to clear when I was alone vs. when playing with just one other person. Alone it almost felt interminable, whereas with other people you can back each other up, uncover the secrets together, and use complimentary weapons. These shoot well, and feel suitably different to one another: A shotgun is remarkably efficient for blowing away dessicated corpses, but less good for a giant minotaur that’s charging at you really fast.
It’s refreshing to see a game that’s not only not taking itself seriously, but also looking for smart ways to refresh a genre and its themes. And not forgetting the whole actually being fun element. Strange Brigade, in short, is looking like the perfect game to play with a few mates and a couple of beers.