Let’s face it, there hasn’t been anything good starring mummies since Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz’s 1999 adventure. Nearly two decades on and we don’t just have one dusty mummy flavoured treat, we’ve got three. Universal’s Dark Universe staggered into cinemas with the (somewhat lacklustre) Mummy, Assassin’s Creed Origins promises mummification and dark rituals in mysterious pyramids and now, Sniper Elite studio Rebellion is letting you shoot hordes of bandage-dragging sarcophagus dodgers in the ultra-pulpy Strange Brigade.
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The UK based Rebellion is no stranger to co-op shooters - its ultra gory Nazi Zombie Army series has successfully shuffled onto PC for the last few years - but this step feels just right after the frankly joyous reception to last year’s Sniper Elite 4. And don’t worry if you don’t fancy more war or well-aimed testicle shots, Strange Brigade couldn’t be further from the grizzled adventures of Karl Fairburne if it tried. Before I even get onto the undead battling, the levels of Britishness here are off the charts. Self described as a ‘rip roaring adventure,’ all this brightly coloured shooter needs is lashings of ginger beer to go with it’s ‘tally ho, old chap’ script and you’ll drown in 1930’s nostalgia. In the best possible way of course.
“A lot of my games love comes from the early days of action adventure stories - King Solomon’s Mines etc,” grins Rebellion co-founder Jason Kingsley. “In particular the golden age of the pulp genre - in fact, where pulp comes from, the fact they were printing on really cheap disposable paper - and the very concept of a cliffhanger, literally a bloke hanging off a cliff before the rope’s thrown down in the next episode. Arguably, that’s the beginning of computer games. It’s obviously not, but it is the origins of pulp entertainment. Action adventure stories and the various tropes of exploring unknown places, fighting, good guys and bad guys, exotic locations all start back in that period. Obviously there’s things like the Indiana Jones series of movies, the Tomb Raider series is heavily influenced by Raiders of the Lost Ark and Uncharted is influenced by Tomb Raider. I think as an industry we owe quite a lot to that period even though we don’t necessarily realise it. I said to the guys ‘let’s go right back to the very beginning. Let’s go back to the source material.’”
Going back to the start
And Strange Brigade does just that, dropping me straight into a beautifully theatrical Egypt where mummies are pulling themselves out of the ground before shuffling, arms elevated in my general direction. Co-op is obviously a key part of the fun but you can play in single player if you don’t have any friends who feel like destroying archaeological dig sites with you. The mummies are enjoyably, furiously relentless. Not bad going for corpses that’ve been desiccated for thousands of years. I’m forced to juggle a pistol and shotgun while rolling out of the way of spiked traps and a huge minotaur headed creature who has decided to join in the fun. The action is constantly narrated by an err, top notch English narrator who, if you die, will berate you with a “bad luck, old chap” before you respawn from a coffin and get spewed back into the action with “just a scratch” ringing in your ears. Along with the enjoyably solid gunplay and a slew of upgrade options, it’s immediately a ridiculous amount of fun and I ended up with a stupid grin on my face. Alone, it’s enjoyable, with friends this will be a perfectly tongue in cheek Left 4 Dead with bandages instead of Boomers.
If this feels like a big change from the studio, it is and it’s no accident. “I recognise that we’ve done quite a lot of violent games,” says Kingsley. “Sniper Elite - realistic, horribly gory at times, deliberately so because we’re trying to make a point of it - and Zombie Army was kind of a gorefest, sort of influenced by the ‘70s and ‘80s video nasties. Grindhouse, gruesome stuff. I thought it would be kind of fun for us to go outside that area that we’ve inhabited and kind of tone it down a bit, make it more universal, more friendly and slightly more ‘scary’ monsters rather than ‘horror’ monsters. We also wanted the classic mummy swathed in bandages. I felt if we actually had one of those classic mummies, if we didn’t have them arms outstretched, shambling towards you it would break the whole fact that you’re playing something quite pulpy. We needed that cliche in there.”
A new kind of pulp fiction
But just because it’s got its roots in pulp, that doesn’t mean this is the game equivalent in quality. This isn’t just a glorified horde mode plonked into Egypt. Even in my short playthrough I solve a hieroglyph puzzle to find a hidden chest and the team is promising tombs and (probably spiked) surprises aplenty for the release next year. “The story isn’t going to win any literary awards,” grins Kingsley. “It’s not a deep psychological analysis of relationships or anything like that it’s about going somewhere and finding something, stopping evil. We’re playing with the idea of a witch queen in Egypt that’s been removed from the hieroglyphics. An archaeologist has discovered and unleashed her unwittingly and agents of the crown have to come in and solve that problem. There’s a very strong story but it’s more about exploring, uncovering different places. What you’ve seen was only a tiny piece. We’ve got all sorts of other places, tombs and catacombs.”
Thankfully the supernatural elements aren’t just confined to your stumbling foes. Each of the four fighters has his or her own super ability that comes in particularly handy when an entire undead army is circling you. Gracie, my ‘we can do it’ poster-inspired bandana clad character of choice has an amulet than when charged up dissolves mummies with one kick at the press of a button. Mmm. Dusty. Each character has their own super power but the team is still working on the intricacies of exactly who has what. The cast of fighters to choose from reflect the tropes of classic pulp but Rebellion wants to make sure that we’re not just drowning in gung ho British adventure types. “We wanted to have a very diverse cast because we wanted to represent the scale of the world,” Kingsley explains. “If you were an important secret division of the government you would find the best operatives you possibly could. So people have been drawn in from around the globe really. We also wanted to be fairly true to the period in terms of dress and in terms of what they wore. Obviously it’s fantasy, we’re not talking about the real world here but we wanted that to be good.”
And no, it’s not a Boy’s Own adventure. There are actual women who’re just there to fight. Y'know, as they would. “We’ve always been conscious of trying not to make a game that was just lots of blokes all the time,” says Kingsley. “In the Zombie Army series we have an equal number of men and women there and the female characters are not sort of feminised in any way other than they look like women. They’ve got long coats on because you would because it’s cold and they have exactly the same powers and exactly the same abilities, it’s just the avatar that’s presented to you as a player means you can choose different types. We’ve done the same here but they’re more mixed up in this game. We wanted the different characters to have different magical superpowers because that then helps the gameplay.”
Even at this early stage with a 2018 release date, Strange Brigade feels like a lot of good old fashioned fun. Brilliant gunplay and a genuine sense of love for the source material combine perfectly with the ridiculously tongue in cheek vibe. And fine, of course you can check if mummies let you do testikills, I won’t spoil your fun.