Iron Brigade. As far as titles go, it has the oxidised tang of tradition about it. It's a fittingly dry title, for a game that is Double Fine's least off-beat game to date. There's a sense of humour here, and the game is loaded with comic-book flair. But unlike some of its other games, Iron Brigade doesn't put the jokes at the forefront. It doesn't sneak into your lap, charming you into a chuckling stupor, so you don't notice how shallow the game can be. It's DoubleFine's most robust game yet.
The original name, blocked in Europe by a Portuguese board game creator, was Trenched. That's even more evocative of tradition, bringing up images of the claustrophobic dug-outs of the first world war. Trenches has a special meaning, here - they're the mechs you ride into a series of tower defence battles.
Like Orcs Must Die, Iron Brigade is a hybrid of action sharpshooting and tower defence. Like Orcs Must Die, you can tilt your game in favour of one style or the other by tailoring your loadout to your preference. Unlike Orcs Must Die, there's a loot system, a villain straight out of the era of Communist panic, progress bars everywhere, and excellent four-player co-op.
Iron Brigade can be a little overwhelming - not least because the menu system is a little over-deep and under-friendly. The best way to explain your options is to give a couple of examples. The Trench Core decides what weapons and turrets you can call. Engineering Cores allow you to call a full range of AI turrets, and have a restricted range of manual weapons. Assault Cores allow you to equip a full compliment of player-aimed devices, with restrictions on the number and type of turrets you can call. Balanced cores give you middling options in either.
Not all Cores can be equipped to suit each mission - the Woodruff Mk1 core, for example, can't be equipped with explosive weapons or turrets, making it a suicidal choice for levels with the heavily armoured Breakers. Your father and commanding officer, however, will provide you with a checklist of essentials, making sure you don't enter battle strategically naked.
Actually playing the levels is an intense siege. You quickly learn to take the vocal cues with a pinch of salt. When the commander says "it's a flying round", what he actually means is "the ones that are appearing now are flying, but after that, God knows what's going to happen". You learn to keep an eye out for secondary and tertiary assaults within the waves, marked with too much subtlety in a game with such intense action. If there's one thing that reliably dampens Iron Brigade's sense of fun and justice, it's the frequency with which you'll say "where the hell did they come from?".
But it gets the sense of tactics right. As you come out of a mission with a bronze medal, your first thought is to dive straight back in with your new-found knowledge and experience.
The game is tuned to force you into decisions. The ponderous speed of your trench requires you to choose your battles to minimise rather than completely avoid damage to you or your base. Enemies drop scrap that you can spend on more turrets, but using long range weapons means you might never get a chance to reach it. Having a trench with heavy artillery and a powerful close-range "broadcast" weapon is great, but how are you going to take out all four of those mini-boss Berthas without decent turrets?
The game says that your loadout is up to you, but that's not strictly true. The round in which Sniper enemies are introduced seem much more suited to sniper turrets than your manual sniper rifle. They attack from both sides, requiring multiple points of return fire that your trench can't provide. Flying enemies can be shot down with your machine guns, but they're tricky buggers, and you'll waste more bullets than your turrets will. Knowing the levels in this way, learning and anticipating the waves is the key to getting the gold medals.
That level of required foreknowledge has the dual effect of making you feel temporarily jipped, and making you want to play again, immediately. Additionally, there's the four-player co-op to make things more intense, and to make your personal choices less make-or-break. There's loot and shopping for upgrades, to make you want to go back to older levels with a new gun. There's a constant barrage of goal-based rewards.
And finally, there's 400MP DLC pack Rise of the Martian Bear, which adds new enemies that fill tactical holes, survival maps, and a fourth five-mission campaign. Iron Brigade is great on its own - not a perfectly balanced strategy game, but it's great fun finding out what works. With the flesh-filling and reasonably-priced downloadable content, it's an easy recommend.
Would you like a ride in our little tanky
- Blends shooter and tower defence well
- Excellent new breed of enemy
- Retro-futuristic comic book appeal
- Lots of loot
- Occasionally feels unfair