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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (477)

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Pikmin 4 4/5
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Iron Brigade   PC (Steam) 

Brings New Meaning to the Term ‘Trenchfoot.’    4.5/5 stars

“Iron Brigade” was originally developed under the title “Trenched,” but was forced to change due to some sort of copyright nonsense. Coming from the creative quirkiness of development studio, DoubleFine and its charismatic head, Tim Schafer, “Iron Brigade” takes a stab at the popular modern convention of combining an active player on the field with the typically passive Tower Defense genre. I’m no fan of Tower Defense in general, but the active player conceit is usually enough to push a Tower Defense game into my sphere of interest.

Presentation
“Iron Brigade” mixes stylish, hand-painted stills for cutscenes with fairly run-of-the-mill polygons for gameplay. Of course, the character models, animation, and design aesthetic all have the signature DoubleFine weirdness, which makes the game look quite delightful.

The audio is solid as well, with a pleasantly evocative soundtrack and two excellent voiceactors taking the leading roles of the villain and the player character’s commanding officer. The stable of playable characters also ooze personality via the quips they spout during gameplay.

Where “Iron Brigade” falls flat, however, is in technical presentation. Having been developed with Microsoft payola funds, “Iron Brigade” was saddled with the now-deprecated and practically obsolete Games for Windows LIVE (GFWL) DRM, which requires the player to sign-in with a GFWL account in order to even start playing the game (fortunately, the Microsoft Account I was forced to make by Windows 8 worked). GFWL also encrypts the player’s save data and throws an obnoxious (and misleading) save corruption error if the player isn’t logged into GFWL when resuming their game.

Unfortunately, GFWL isn’t “Iron Brigade’s” only technical fault. The game suffers from significant lag and stuttering during certain stages and frequently exhibits audio drop-out/corruption when too much stuff is happening on-screen at once. All in all, “Iron Brigade” feels like a Beta version that is in dire need of an update, both to remove GFWL and to fix its performance issues.

Story
“Iron Brigade” takes place in an alternate universe in which, some time shortly after World War I, a mysterious signal simply known as The Broadcast hit the Earth. Every radio operator who heard The Broadcast died except for two: Frank Woodward and Vlad Farnsworth. These two survivors were crippled (well, Frank was already crippled in WWI when a tank crushed his legs), but in exchange demonstrated spontaneous engineering genius. Frank developed prosthetic leg technology, while Vlad developed television technology. Of course, both of these technologies are crude and Steampunkish in appearance, with Frank’s legs consisting of 10-foot-tall monstrosities that are anything but subtle.

Before long, Frank and Vlad find each other on opposite sides of a new conflict. Vlad has created an army of synthetic TV-based life forms, called Tubes, in order to spread The Broadcast across the entire world, and beyond (I think this has a lot to do with Tim Schafer’s passive aggressive hatred of TV, as also espoused in “Psychonauts”). Frank’s leg tech, on the other hand, has co-opted the entire United States armed forces, replacing all 4 branches with the new Mobile Trench Brigade. Seeing as WWI was fought primarily in the trenches, the quirky logic of the game world simply crafted trench-like bunkers and plopped them on top of some of Frank’s oversized legs to create a type of crude mecha robot.

As Frank and Vlad battle it out, their conflict takes the Mobile Trench Brigade through theatres of war in Europe, Africa, the South Pacific, and – thanks to the fact that the Steam release includes the DLC expansion at no extra cost – the surface of Mars.

“Iron Brigade” has plenty of thought provoking (yet thoroughly goofy) alt-history – complete with period-styled magazine covers – and enough back and forth between the main characters to provide a solid sense of storytelling. I would have liked the war-of-words cutscenes that occur several times during each mission to be skippable after the first go-around, but that ability was unfortunately left out.

Gameplay
“Iron Brigade” pretty much nails the type of gameplay I like to see in this hybrid style of Tower Defense game. The player controls a single character piloting a fully-customizable Mobile Trench from the gameplay perspective of a typical Third-Person Shooter. Each of the game’s 20 missions provides a recon map during the mission briefing and a gear recommendations to ensure the greatest chance of success (sometimes these don’t help at all, such as when the recommended gear for a mission is ‘Luck’). The player is then free to swap out a large number of different Trench parts, including core components like legs and chassis, a vast array of weapons, and three different grades of turret. The variety of turrets isn’t particularly large, with all of them falling into Light Weapons, Heavy Weapons, and Support categories, and most of the individual turrets simply being improved version of each other.

“Iron Brigade” minimizes the Hack ‘n Slash RPG elements compared to a game like, say “Dungeon Defenders,” as each weapon of any given model is identical to every other weapon of that model. Random loot does still play a heavy role in improving the player’s Trench, as the best weapons are only available via the loot boxes that drop from large, threatening enemies, whereas less-impressive weaponry is available for purchase with in-game money via the shop.

Successfully completing missions provides the player character with experience and cash. Experience raises the character rank and allows them to equip higher-grade Trench components, while cash allows them to buy said components from the previously mentioned shop.

Each mission consists of a variable number of waves (though 15 is common) with a few seconds (10 is common) of down-time between them. The player starts with a small amount of Scrap (typically enough to summon one turret, which are actually huge artillery shells fired from a nearby aircraft carrier that self assemble upon impact) but can collect more from the corpses of destroyed Tubes over the course of the mission. The defense objective is different for each mission, and its remaining health at the end of the mission determines whether the player earns a Bronze, Silver, or Gold medal for that mission (these medals do nothing aside from GFWL Achievements).

The core missions require solid strategy and constant awareness in order to earn Gold, while the DLC missions require that in order to clear them at all. Unfortunately, “Iron Brigade” did fall into the trap that seems epidemic in the Tower Defense genre, where all DLC add-on missions are freakishly difficult compared to the core game. It seems, however, that the increased difficulty in the DLC in an attempt at forcing more multi-player co-op. “Iron Brigade” includes the ability for 4 people to team up in each mission map (increasing enemy health with each added player), and the large maps, diverse array of enemies, and skimpy amount of available Scrap in certain missions all seem like ploys to force players to cooperate with each other instead of simply going it alone. None of my friends own “Iron Brigade,” and I have no desire to try to play an online game using the horrible GFWL infrastructure, so I struggled through alone.

Aside from the unwelcome difficulty spike in the DLC missions, “Iron Brigade” has but a single gameplay flaw that constantly bothered me: No mini-map! In Tower Defense, it is very important to be able to see where enemies are coming from and their current locations at any given time. “Iron Brigade” makes this more difficult than it needs to be by briefly displaying an icon with the enemy type’s name on its spawn point as it is spawning. If the player isn’t facing that particular spawn point while the icon and name are displayed, they might not even know that enemies are coming from that location until it’s too late.

Overall
“Iron Brigade” is an immensely fun entry in the hybrid Hack ‘n Slash RPG/Tower Defense genre that goes light on the RPG elements to focus instead of mech customization of Mobile Trenches. The quirky DoubleFine/Tim Schafer writing just adds more fun to an already engaging package. Unfortunately, this great experience is marred by numerous technical issues that make the game far more cumbersome and intrusive than it should be. With most high-profile games actively removing Games for Windows Live DRM, we can only hope that DoubleFine takes this delightful low-profile game and gives it the love and attention it deserves.

Presentation: 2.5/5
Story: 3.5/5
Gameplay: 4.5/5
Overall (not an average): 4/5

Update, 2015:
It has finally happened! Games for Windows LIVE has finally had its vile, corruptive influence removed from "Iron Brigade." Happily, all of the other technical issues that plagued the game have disappeared along with GFWL.

The only downside to the update that fixed "Iron Brigade's" technical presentation is the fact that it erased EVERYONE's game saves. Of course, now that the game actually works properly online, everyone who owns it can re-experience the game with co-op that works the way it was always intended.

Presentation: 4.5/5
Story: 3.5/5
Gameplay: 4.5/5
Overall (not an average): 4.5/5

 

 


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