Iron Brigade, née Trenched

I didn’t write about it when it first came out, but this is a neat little game, and I’m glad the recently released Martian Bear DLC has given me an excuse to go back to it. There were a bunch of hybrid action-tower defense games released last year. I’ve tried the other big games in the still-nascent genre from last year – Dungeon Defenders and Orcs Must Die – and I definitely prefer Iron Brigade.

There’s a good balance between the action and tower defense portions of the game. The diversity of weapons and enemies keeps it interesting as a shooter. The diversity of level design keeps it strategically interesting for tower defense purposes. It can seem subtle, but small changes in turret placement, or in your own weapon layout, can have a big impact, even in a full co-op game. Regardless of build, in solo or in co-op, everyone is going to be engaging in both aspects of the game – everyone will be shooting during waves, and everyone will be laying down towers between them.

Iron Brigade is a great, laid-back game. There are a few scrambles to pick up dangerous enemies, and there’s still execution pressure, but the stakes feel low. Even when things go wrong, it doesn’t feel like a disaster. As long as you’re firing your weapon and hitting your shots, you’re doing all you can, so just go with the flow. Especially in multiplayer it’s a very relaxed social experience. It’s not going to generate the crazy highs of something like Gears of War 3’s Horde Mode or Left 4 Dead, but it’s also not going to generate the tremendous frustration of getting wiped by that damned lambent berserker again either. Sometimes you just want to relax and chat with people, and this is a great game for that. It’s still engaging, but operates at a low enough intensity that merely playing it doesn’t suck up all of the room’s attention.

While there’s obviously some repetition inherent in the game’s design, there’s enough variety in the levels and equipment to keep things interesting. Any approach you like is viable, especially with a good group to cover your weaknesses. I’m partial to a piercing sniper rifle and a sniper turret when I go with a small trench (which has the downside of not really being able to protect turrets from knobs) or an artillery cannon and machine gun when I go big. But I’ve seen lots of people who like shotguns or broadcasters. Difficulty is generally well-balanced, regardless of the number of players. It’s got the loot-lust thing going for it. It’s just a good time all around.

The new DLC makes the game even better. It’s pleasantly for the most part challenging (there’s one level that’s perhaps a little too challenging). It presents some unique challenges, like a very broad level, and a level where the base moves. The loot is maybe just ok. On the one hand, there’s less gear that is obviously the best in its class like there was on the main game (where the highest damage weapon tended to also have very useful additional properties as well). On the other hand, a lot of it seems, well, not so useful. It’s got weird properties that make it feel ineffective, or it’s got useful properties but it does half the damage it should to be competitive. The survival levels add even more. It’s great to have levels that go long enough, and have enough resources available, that you can genuinely get to a point where your turrets do most of the heavy lifting.

The writing is fun, but it’s never really front and center. They sure knows how to milk a good mustache joke. Despite being the most adult of Double Fine’s recent spate of downloadable games, the game is comfortably with its casual, goofy tone, and it knows not to try for any serious, grim moments.

The game is not without issues. It can have frame-rate hitches and lag with certain groups of people. The fact that turrets will not target Jakobs, the enemies that project shields onto other enemies, is endlessly frustrating. In particular, it makes it very hard to solo certain levels effectively. You’d like to be able to take a less heavily armed trench with better turrets, in order to cover more ground, but then you’ll inevitably encounter a wave with Jakobs everywhere, and have to cover all that ground yourself no matter what your build. And, especially when you’re having to play a level over and over again, it can be frustrating that you can’t skip cutscenes, and on long levels you’re going to hear the same barks over and over again.

But on the whole, it’s a really pleasant way to pass an hour or two. Iron Brigade is a game that not only manages to straddle genres effectively, but also straddles the casual-hardcore gap too. It’s relaxed but challenging.

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