Indie Wonderland: Iron Brigade

Continuing on with what seems to have become a sort of impromptu clearing-my-backlog month, this week’s review target is Iron Brigade, from the fine folks at honorary-indie Double Fine. Given the relative abundance of ‘Double Fine bundles’ on your indie games sales websites of choice, it’s entirely likely I picked up this game during one of the many times I guilt-tripped myself into buying Psychonauts. I own Psychonauts so much, you guys. I own it like five times. And that’s not even counting my two PS2 disc copies.

Anyway, Iron Brigade. I know nothing about it. Apparently it’s a fancy tower defense game of some sort? There’s really only one way to find out; reader, I’ll hope you’ll take this fact-finding trip with me.

(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low. Mechanical, medium.)

Opening

Huh, that’s odd: Iron Brigade is prompting the CD key for manual entry in a Steam popup. I’ve seen that done before, but not all that often. In fact, the last I remember seeing that was when a game came bundled with…

Oh no.

Oh no.

~Nooooooooooooo~

Oh yes.

Alright, pull yourself together. Games for Windows Live is not necessarily a reason to uninstall the game and salt-‘n-burn the hard drive sectors it’s installed on. Dark Souls uses Games for Windows Live too, and I’ve accepted that.

Granted, Dark Souls is a proven title of high quality that I’m playing together with friends. And granted, I’ve patched Dark Souls a lot in order to avoid Games for Windows Live’s shitty everything systems as much as possible. But… listen, I forgot the point I was making here. Let’s just keep going and I don’t regret this decision.

Login, fine. Games for Windows Live needs updating, fine. Games for Windows Live needs to restart before being operational, fine. Games for Windows Live… shut itself down, leaving me free to play Iron Brigade without any hassle. That’s… that’s actually fine, I guess.

Iron Brigade’s opening screen does a lot to improve my mood.

Look at all this MANLY ACTION.

Pressing Enter immediately launches Iron Brigade into its still-frame animated intro. And what an intro it is.

My testosterone levels are gradually climbing here.

Iron Brigade’s no doubt riveting story is told through the sadly time-lost medium of man magazines. It goes a little like this: the time is World War I-ish. A former front line soldier who lost his legs and a radical professor called (sigh) Farnsworth somehow manage to catch and hear an otherworldly Broadcast. The soldier, Frank Woodruff, alights with new intelligence, building mechanized legs for the USA war effort. The professor, Vladimir Farnsworth…

…let’s just say Vladimir Farnsworth takes things in an altogether different direction.

You suck, *Vlad*.

Compared to the lavish title and intro, Iron Brigade’s opening menu is rather more subdued.

How… how manly?

Which is to say that the menu is functional, but nothing to write home about. It has Audio Options, and Video Options, and Key Rebinding Options, and all of them are good. The option to enable subtitles is (counterintuitively) in the Graphics Options sub-menu, but what the hey. It’ll probably take a while before developers reach consensus on where to put subtitles.

Moving on: The title menu has Challenges, Call of Duty-style, and Achievements… Games for Windows Live-style. I guess those can be good for your Gamerscore, those five of you reading this that actually care about that. The Leaderboards don’t seem to work, owing to my current disconnect from Games for Windows Live, and the How-to-Play help is…

Well, I’m halfway hoping you all know my opinion on menu-bound play help by now. Iron Brigade’s one is not a particularly bad example of the genre, it’s just a bad genre. I can’t parse this information as of yet, making it functionally useless and practically rather confusing. Though it does make a few intriguing references to something called a ‘Mobile Trench’. Wonder what that’s about?

Are we talking, like, self-digging and self-filling tunnels here? Or is this more of a coat situation?

Only one way to find out, I guess. I start a New Game, and…

Initial impressions

…and the title menu fades away, leaving me looking at a lonely trench on a war-torn beach. A single soldier in a gas mask quickly gets up under admonishment from the soldier from the introduction.

“What, are your legs broken? On your feet, soldier!” What’s your problem, old man? I am standing! What are you…

The soldier pushes a few buttons, and the trench they’re standing in rises from the sand.

I, er… yeah, I don’t think I saw this one coming.

Aaah. Mobile Trench. I see what you’re doing here, now. Clever. Very ingenious. I’ve only been playing for two minutes, but I’m already entirely on board with this idea.

“And take that mask off, you’ll get used to the smell!” Which leads me into selecting one of four actually animated and voice-acted soldiers, too. Double clever.

I pick this guy, because he’s European.

As the camera pans to place itself in a comfortable behind-the-character third person view, Frank ‘Intro Soldier’ Woodruff rambles on a bit. “The only way to get hurt in a trench is to get out of a trench. So we’ve made some small modifications to eliminate that need…”

I’ll let Frank Woodruff tell you the rest.

As Frank rambles, I try to take in the surroundings a little. Lots of sand, fire, ruined buildings. And what in the devil are those blue glowing things in the background?

Whoops, no time for introspection, the tutorial marches ever-on.

Movement and camera controls seem straightforward enough, in that moving the mouse moves the camera (even in the correct direction, after inverting the Y-axis) and the WASD keys move my giant mechanized legs across the battlefield. No jumping with Space, or ducking with Ctrl, but then again, these are giant diesel-powered robot legs.

Mousing around also aims the four guns mounted on my Mobile Trench, and the left and right mouse buttons fire them. Which is to say, the left mouse button fires both guns mounted on the left side, and the right mouse button… you get the idea. There doesn’t seem to be any way to fire either left-mounted gun individually, so in practice, it feels like I ‘just’ have two massive machine guns. R reloads, as R does in games.

I practice shooting my machine guns at cardboard plates with weird monster drawings on them.

Weird cardboard monsters are no match for BULLETS!

The building to my left, marked with green flares, is some sort of valuable ammo depot. My job in this tutori-mission is to protect it. Protect it from what, I briefly wonder…

…before an image of Vladimir Farnsworth flies in, on… I guess it’s a cluster of TV monitors strapped to giant blue electrical wires? And floating, somehow?

It’s probably easiest if I just show you.

Vlad brags a little, about his desire to ‘spread the Broadcast’, and about how our soldier — which is to say, me, the guy in the Mobile Trench — will never stand up to his soldier. Which appears to be a hound-like monster made of the same television screens and blue-glowing electrical wires.

I find it best not to question this.

From one of the black-blue egg shapes in the distance, a whole wave of the Resistor monsters appears! They slowly make their way over to the ammo depot, intent on destroying it with their wiry appendages, and oh hey I just killed all of them in ten seconds flat. I didn’t even have time to make a screenshot.

Undaunted, Vladimir sends another wave of monsters! These creatures, ‘Tommies’, have large ranged weapons on their tails, lending them a more scorpion-like appearance and necessitating that I strafe around a bit before equally effortlessly murdering them.

At least I managed to get a screenshot of their dim, distant outlines before immediately and effortlessly blasting them to bits.

Vlad, now enraged, sends two massive waves of enemies at once, many more than I can realistically handle! Luckily, Woodruff promises immediate help. Which arrives in the form of…

…giant gun turrets dropping from the sky. Somehow, somewhere, somewhy.

I feel I should be more confused by this than I actually am.

And now the boat lying just off-shore is walking onto the beach, crushing one of the egg-like conduits beneath its tread boots. No, you know what? I’m perfectly okay with this.

Boats walk in this universe, I’ve internalized it as truth. What’s for lunch?

I win the mission! For doing so, I gain experience. Plus even more experience, money, and a shiny gold medal, because I kept the base objective at >80% health throughout. This experience brings me to ‘level 2’, which…

I’m actually not too sure what level 2 does. But Iron Brigade makes a point of telling me that I’ve now unlocked something called a ‘light sniper cannon’, which looks much more like a cannon than a sniper rifle.

Which I suppose is probably the point. Why would you have a walking mech trench if you *weren’t* going to mount massive cannon-sized sniper rifles on it?

I also gain some points towards my personal challenges — your basic Call of Duty ‘kill X enemies with weapon type Y’ fanfare, as far as I can tell — and towards my ‘regiment challenges’, which are the same thing, except with larger goal numbers. I don’t hope Iron Brigade is primarily intended for group play? Because with Games for Windows Live being the multiplayer service of choice, somehow I don’t see that happening soon.

I find myself on the aforementioned boat, the USS McKinley. After a brief cutscene, the boat is revealed as a between-level hub: here, I can customize my Mobile Trench and select my next mission.

Except I can only select one mission, apparently. And though I can access the customization menu, most options are greyed out at the moment. I’m allowed to ‘modify weapons’, and I can sell items in the in-game store, but nothing else.

I will forever wonder what miracles these other options hold.

No, that’s not true: I can also swap out Josef here for any of the other three starting marines. I… appreciate that thought, I guess?

Anyway, I can spot a tutorial-crippled feature set when I see one. I might as well select the next mission and get on with matters. So let’s just…

…hmm. How do I… I’ve selected the mission, but… It’s not starting. Why isn’t it…

Oh, I see! I select the mission from the map room, but then I walk back to my Mobile Trench to start it. That is very needlessly complicated, but I do like the detail of the floor lights leading up to my hangar bay.

‘You are not connected to Games for Windows Live. The results of this mission will not be posted to the Leaderboard.’ Oh no.

The second mission appears much the same as the first. Which is to say that it’s the exact same map, except the conduits are now in different places. And I defend the beached boat, not some ammo depot.

Also different is my new-found ability to place the same kinds of turrets that flew in to save the day in mission 1. By pressing the corresponding number key, then holding (and later releasing) Space Bar, I can place boat-fired, self-propelled shotgun turrets all across the map. Iron Brigade handily uses red-lighted circles to suggest ‘optimal’ places to put the turrets, but I happily discover I can ignore these circles with impunity. Turrets can’t stand too close to each other, but that’s about it.

Screw your *suggestions*, GAME.

Turrets are bought with Scrap, which is left by the Tubes — the collective name for the weird enemies — when they die. Collecting Scrap involves walking across scrap, or activating a giant magnet (by holding Shift) and walking around near Scrap. The latter disables my guns, though… and between timed enemy waves and a noticeable Scrap half-life, I find myself hoofing it around the map a lot and often.

The rest of the mission plays out more or less like I expect it to. Enemies arrive from three different Conduits, two close together and one off to the side. I place turrets to guard both entrances, but I quickly find that the damage the turrets output is significantly less than the damage I can do with my Sniper Cannon and my Machine Guns. The turrets are useful for pre-work and cleanup, but most of the mission still involves me running to and fro, shooting Tubes and grabbing Scraps. Upgrading turrets, too, but even that doesn’t make them as cool as me.

Anyway, you know the drill: I fight the Tubes, and the Tubes don’t win. Some new enemies are introduced, like the exploding Blitzer, and a boss-type monster honestly called Big Willie.

It *is* big, I’ll grant it that.

Killing Big Willie gets me a ‘loot crate’, which contains a new gun. Winning the level levels me up again, netting me a new turret. On top of that, I’ve made enough machine gun kills to complete the rank-1 Machine Gun Kills Challenge, getting me another gun! Man, talk about feedback loops.

Mission three, same idea. I can now modify which turrets I bring into battle. Iron Brigade suggests I bring my new turret to the next battle, because it’s a flak turret that’s good against air enemies, and… well, you get the idea.

Vlad, just… just no, okay?

Staring at the start of mission 4, I’ve just gained the ability to change my Mobile Trench Core, allowing me to swap out gun slots for emplacement slots and vice versa. I’ve also gained some new explosive weapons (that only the new cores can use), and hints that some new enemies… but then we’ve danced this dance before. Nevertheless, this slowly expanding set of options could get pretty interesting. I’m going to play up ahead for a little while; be back after I end the Broadcast!

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