You’ve probably never had a game make fun of you for pressing the pause button before, but Strange Brigade’s spunky narrator is more than happy to change that, even going so far as to ask for two sugars in his tea. As quintessentially English as The Stanley Parable’s omnipresent commentator, only twice as cheeky, he’s one of the best reasons to play Strange Brigade, the new co-op shooter from Rebellion Games, which marks a veering departure from the Sniper Elite series the studio’s been most recently known for.
That said, while Strange Brigade’s self-winking chatterbox isn’t the only reason to grab your nearest tobacco pipe and start playing, the game’s list of unique selling points runs dry quicker than you’d hope. Rebellion is clearly having a lot of fun with the classic pulp adventure aesthetic, which is fantastically manifested throughout, but fails to do anything interesting with the nuts and bolts of the gameplay in the process. As a result, Strange Brigade too often feels like something you’ve played a hundred times before. In fact, in the shadow of similar experiences like Call of Duty’s Nazi Zombies, this plucky shooter lacks the tight gunplay and arresting feedback loops that usually keeps these titles so replayable, time after time.
Strange Brigade’s main course is its campaign, made up of a series of neatly structured levels that are moderate in number but substantial in length, and here is where the game shines brightest, even more so when playing with up to three other people. Its six to eight hours of light storytelling is the best way to appreciate all the splendid work that has gone into crafting distinct enemy types and deviously devised traps against a gorgeous mythical Egyptian backdrop, interspersing challenging fights among simple puzzles that offer enough of a brain strain without impeding the flow of play. Strange Brigade really does look the part, too, boasting lavish environments replete with lashings of colour and gusto, all helping maintain the illusion of that vivacious Victorian-era theme.
Our aforementioned narrator is also on top form throughout the campaign, and his endless repertoire of pithy aphorisms on any subject, whether complimenting your fighting ability or making terrible puns about mummies, wholly makes up for the charisma vacuums left by each of the four playable characters, throwaway stereotypes with little rapport amongst one another. And while this is a co-op focused game (though it’s perfectly playable and enjoyable in singleplayer), that lack of interplay between characters sadly infects Strange Brigade’s gameplay too.
Players can revive each other by knocking on sarcophaguses, and certain items like health potions can be traded amongst friends, but that’s about it when it comes to meaningful interactions with your own brigade. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the combat was more innovative elsewhere, but while Strange Brigade nails its preternatural style, there’s nothing particularly new or exciting about its firefights against a large pantheon of Egyptian creatures and critters.
Whenever protagonist Karl Fairburne traded his rifle for a more close range weapon in the Sniper Elite games, the shooting devolved into third-rate mush, but luckily the excellent sharpshooter gameplay was always foregrounded to keep players happy. But Strange Brigade is completely free of any of Rebellion’s trademark killcams and tactical stealth, and the inadequate third person shooting controls haven’t been improved enough to fill the gap left by their absence.
The lack of an ability to hip fire, above all else, is nigh unforgivable for a game all about mobile crowd control, leaving you limited in your ability to chip away at Strange Brigade’s hordes of enemies while avoiding the threat of getting surrounded. Meanwhile, your arsenal of primary weapons frequently feel limp and inaccurate against faster foes, while the more interesting prototype guns like crossbows and flamethrowers are gated behind limited-use chests.
Even the character-specific melee attacks are a bug bear, jarringly shifting camera perspectives whenever used, featuring wonky finisher animations that won’t be putting Doom’s Glory Kills to shame anytime soon. This, on top of the disappointingly anticlimactic special attacks, leaves Strange Brigade a few sandwiches short of a properly satisfying picnic next to more robust, responsive third-person shooters, putting yet more pressure on the game’s stylistic visuals and jocular tone to do the heavy lifting.
Beyond the campaign, Strange Brigade’s ancillary Horde and Score Attack modes flesh out its shelf life… somewhat. The former is exactly what it sounds like but, with no added twists to the wave survival template, and the narrator suddenly more withdrawn than usual, the fun factor is noticeably less perceptible here.
Score Attack, with its focus on killing as many enemies as possible, as quickly as possible, and in the worst ways possible, fares better, as a satisfyingly short burst of action with little filler, and plenty of cascading trap kills. Meanwhile, progress trackers like gun upgrades, new special attack amulets, and hidden collectibles provide a few extra excuses to keep playing Strange Brigade, if only for the most eager of completionists.
In fact, Rebellion’s new IP is unlikely to hold your attention for more than the handful of hours it takes to see everything on offer. Strange Brigade’s uninspired combat freerides off the appeal of a perfectly pitched atmosphere, and it almost gets away with it too, given how affable that kitschy vibe turns out to be. But a good concept only gets you so far, and Strange Brigade’s limited ambition and sub-par shooting dilute the experience throughout. It’s a perfectly decent time killer for the entertainment you’ll be able to squeeze out of it, but Strange Brigade’s impeccably English carnival of tea jokes and horror tropes aren’t enough to offset its wider shortcomings as an interactive pastime.