Indie Wonderland: Brigador

A few hours in

Well, I didn’t *not* level the planet.

At this point, I’ve sunk a little under four hours into Brigador. I started with the Freelance mode, buying a big mech and a cool pilot and a few neat-looking guns, and thinking I’d wreak some havoc and that’d be the end of it. But it turns out Freelance mode is actually pretty hard: far from a fun rampage-for-all, in Freelance mode you play Operations that consist of at least three interconnected maps, that you must clear in a single vehicle. No doubt they’re rewarding to clear, but randomly buying vehicles and guns and throwing combinations at the wall didn’t really seem to get me closer to doing so. Not even with the easiest starting pilot — and all later pilots only make the game more difficult, if also more financially rewarding.

For instance, this one slowly ramps the difficulty up over time, from lowest to still-fairly-low, for a modest reward. Also, she’s cool.

I zagged into Campaign mode instead, and found that this consists of much easier single missions. What’s more, in Campaign missions you don’t assemble your own vehicle, but instead pick one of four predetermined loadouts. This gives it sort of a try-before-you-buy vibe, a playground of options for different mechs, tanks, and Agravs with different weapons and special abilities. It’s also a good way to get the controls under your belt. And, as a bonus, the Campaign missions pay out fairly well: not only are there bonuses for getting all objectives, destroying all optional buildings, and avoiding alarms, but there’s a special ‘first clear’ bonus for each combination of mission and loadout. Meaning you can do each mission four times with four different vehicles, and come out the other end with a cool 20 million or so.

I have no idea what any of these guns or special abilities are, but I’m very literally about to find out!

With a loaded wallet and a bunch of experience, I finally found a loadout that worked for me: a super-heavy tank with a laser gun and a weapon that, to paraphrase 8-Bit Theater‘s Jeff, I call the Really Very Huge Cannon That Cost-Effectively Shoots Your Places. I took it through the initial Freelance operation and sort of swept everything off the board. Then I bought another, more difficult operation, and cleared that on my first try as well. And then I put down Brigador, sort of, and I haven’t picked it up since.

It was fun while it lasted, but I ran out of houses to destroy.

It’s easy to write reviews about games I like. Reviews about games I like tend to have the breathless, sort-of-rambling cadence of me just talking about it, because I want to tell you about this cool game I played! It’s also relatively simple to review games that I dislike or hate: in these cases, you’ll see me slip into my more cold analyst mode, listing pros and cons and studiously dissecting flaws. I mean, I do that with games I like, too, but then I am a scientist at heart.

But Brigador is one of those rare-ish games that just don’t elicit much of a reaction at all. I played it for four hours, and my mental verdict was… ‘neutral’. It certainly is a game that exists. It has art (cool) and music (electronic) and gameplay (shoot the things before the things shoot you), and I find it very hard to imagine a scenario where I boot it up again after this review is over.

This sounds like textbook damning-with-faint-praise (praise so faint you’d need an electron microscope), but that’s not my intention. Brigador is a perfectly cromulent game, for lack of a better phrase. The art is really pretty okay, the sound design is neat (particularly the whoomp of the larger guns), the world building is interesting, if a bit of a slow burn, and the gameplay…

The thing about Brigador‘s gameplay is that, moment-to-moment, it’s pretty alright. There’s a wide variety of maps to play on, ranging from railyards to cyberpunk slums to space ports to country clubs, and the objective is always ‘kill or destroy all marked targets and then make it to the exit point, and we don’t care what else you kill or destroy’. In fact, not only does Brigador not care what else you destroy, it actively rewards you for any damage or death you inflict. Anything. Random civilians? Worth a few bucks. Housing block way out of the way? Lob a shell into it, watch your score go up. The proper main and side objectives are worth the most money (I want to say ‘obviously’), but there’s a decent economy to be had in just wrecking everything you can.

You say ‘container yard’, I say ‘payday’.

Depending on the vehicles and weapons you bring, Brigador‘s play experience has some range, too. Mechs are fairly mobile, and can get more accurate by crouching. Powersuits are hard to hit, if restricted in the weapons you can realistically bring. Tanks are buff and have momentum, favoring a forward dash over the hit-and-run strategies of the Agravs. Even within each category, different vehicles have different stats for health, shields, weapon range, turning radius, and so on. Where one mech loadout might see you dash from cover to cover to fire a slow-loading single-shot weapon, another has you dash into the fray with shotguns and machine gun fire, frantically scavenging ammo off of dead enemies before it expires — or before you accidentally blow it up. Enemies have similar range too: small bikes zoom around you and hit you from the side and back, while larger tanks and mechs stay at a distance, maybe even lobbing arcing projectiles over walls that you haven’t destroyed yet. There are even human soldiers about, bless their brave little hearts.

I tried to get a screenshot of some of them, but I *also* tried to evaporate them in laser fire.

Brigador‘s gameplay seems straightforward, but there’s a bit more going on behind the scenes. For instance, enemy awareness plays a role: enemies that don’t see or hear you aren’t activated, and — if you have a proper distance weapon or a silent enough mech — can be taken out easily if you sneak up from behind. Conversely, explosions and heavy weapons make LOUD NOISES that draw in enemies from miles around. Depending on where you are when you fire that giant cannon, you might find yourself swarmed by enemies from all directions. Those considerations were never on my mind when I was actually playing, but from a distant perspective I appreciate the level of detail and simulated world accuracy that goes into this.

And while it’s easy enough to describe the gameplay clinically, when things go south in Brigador, things go south. I said earlier that my first few attempts at a Freelance operation ended with me getting my butt kicked, and that’s technically accurate. But that doesn’t quite convey how the first time, I spawned on the left end of the map, and had a pretty relaxing drive down the street, until I fired my big cannon and suddenly there were enemies everywhere. Or the second time, when my Agrav spawned in the top right, and my weak flying hovercraft was immediately spotted by an alarm-raising enemy, resulting in a harrowing hit-and-run as I tried to get away from reinforcements that were inexplicably everywhere. Or that time — still on the same map! — that my sluggish mech got surrounded by small bikes and cars, and while struggling to get a bead on any of them with my long-range weapons I didn’t notice the heavy weapons truck that casually drove closer and closer.

If you’re wondering how that particular encounter ended, let me advice you to look to the top left. The bright green bar is my remaining health. The bright blue bar is my remaining shield. You’ll notice that I have half an actual bar between the two of them.

So I won’t deny — and in fact, will defend — that the moment-to-moment gameplay experience of Brigador has real potential. How much I got out of it at any given point depended a little on how much I felt I was either ‘working with’ or ‘struggling against’ the controls, which probably also explains why my final vehicle of choice was the slowest, hardest-to-damage tank juggernaut I could find. But if by some miracle you’re actually good at the weird Agrav strafing… I also feel I should point out, again but also for real, that this game can be real pretty at times.

Look at this! It’s like someone mashed up MechWarrior and SimCity 2000.

But what Brigador lacks for me is connective tissue. It’s not enough for me that it’s fun to blow up tanks and bull rush into country houses. I need more of a reason to keep playing. Maybe an interesting story, or maybe some larger achievement to reach, or even a leaderboard in a pinch. But Brigador doesn’t really provide in any of these areas.

Pictured: the story.

I mean, there is a story. I’m pretty sure. There are oodles on oodles of descriptive text in the Campaign missions, which describe who or what exactly you’re blowing up and why that matters in the nebulously-defined grand scheme of things. Liberating the planet from Great Leader and all that jazz. And normally I’m into that sort of thing, but… I don’t know. It didn’t hook me in Brigador. It felt like endless paragraphs of purple prose, stringing together a meta-plot that had lost me from the start, for the benefit of nobody but itself. I know I’m supposed to want to care about what I’m doing, but the presentation and the gameplay aggressively engender a sense of un-caring, where everywhere between you and widespread senseless destruction is so much chaff. The story doesn’t influence anything, it’s not connected to the player in any way. You are, in almost the most literal sense of the world, a disposable goon in a three-way battle for conquest. You don’t have an avatar to call your own, because you always inhabit different pilots, and you don’t feel a sense of ownership over your things, because the game goes out of its way to let you know that you don’t and that you shouldn’t get uppity. No, really, there’s a contract involved and everything.

In fact, all the side lore in Brigador needs to be bought with spoils money, which should give you an idea of how much the game cares about you understanding its story.

So the story doesn’t really work. Not at first, at least; maybe it gets good 20 hours in, but I was never a fan of the Final Fantasy narrative gambit. And to cut a long second leg of the story short, there are no leaderboards. You’d figure that a game that keeps meticulous track of your performance and pays out to the dollar based on what you destroy might track score, but no. So that only leaves ‘achievement’ as a long-term goal.

I achieved… a head-shaped spaceship! Yay!

This is where Brigador‘s laissez-faire approach to balance comes back to bite it. It seems like a cool idea at first that you can use your spoils money to buy anything you want. Want a better tank? Buy one. Want a laser railgun? Buy one. Want the ability to blast kinetic force from all your pores on a short cooldown, an ability so ridiculously useful that I haven’t even thought about the other three ever since? Sure, that’ll be five million spacebucks. By playing a few Campaign missions and learning what you like, it’s easy enough to get your dream loadout inside an hour or two. And, fair’s fair: when you take that dream loadout onto the field, and it works to your strengths as you’d hoped and you flatten all opposition, it feels good.

And then…

Well at that point, there’s not really anything to strive for anymore, is there? Barring a small handful of exceptions, all the items you can buy inside a given category are the same price. All Heavy Corvid Tanks cost $3.000.000, you get the idea. Only the ludicrously expensive tanks and Agravs stand out a little; for the rest, there’s little reason to expect that any particular equal-price vehicle or weapon will be significantly more rad or interesting than what you already have. Unless you’re a completionist, or significantly more all-around curious than me — and that’s an achievement and a half — there’s no real reason to try to get everything. No real drive.

But then why keep playing?

The only reward for successful Campaign play in Brigador is more missions and money, and the only reward for Freelance play is just money. Money can be spent to unlock more operations, which lead to more play, which lead to more money. Or money can be used to get more pilots, each of which has their own scaling difficulty slider and reward modifier. Higher-tier pilots make the game more challenging by default, which can be a plus if you’re into that, but otherwise the biggest game changer is that more difficult pilots result in a larger payout. So again, more money. And you can get more vehicles and weapons, but as we’ve established, there’s a significant diminished return on investment once you get that first combination that pays off. I already have a good thing going with my tank that’s made of eight cars stapled together, which is 80% cannon by volume. Why would I ever care about trying something else?

You think I’m joking about the Cars Tank, but I’m not.

So if money only gets you new toys, which get less and less exciting as you go on, and more pilots and operations, that in return only lead to more money… what’s the long-term play hook here, again?

Final thoughts

Re-reading the previous, I feel I should establish that it’s totally valid to enjoy Brigador for the experience of playing Brigador. It is fun, I’m not trying to deny that. And if what you’re looking for in this game is an escalating series of mech-on-mech battles where increasingly complex cityscapes get leveled into dirt, then I have some good news for you: 18 Steambucks will get you all the destruction you want and more. More pilots and missions than you can shake a stick at, and I’m sure there’s some fun skill mastery to be had, too.

But all the same, Brigador didn’t work well for me. I think about playing it again, later, and I… I just don’t want to. It’s not revulsion or anything, just a deep sense of ennui and disinterest. I could level another cityscape while fighting endless mechs. I could score another set of interconnected maps for the last comm tower and the last depot that still has ammo, so I stand a fighting chance in the next level. I could do all that.

If, after reading this review and/or following my larger body of work, you have the idea that your tastes and interests align with mine to some degree, I’m going to say that there are other things you could do, too.

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Jarenth really enjoyed the phrase ‘the Transformers equivalent of a Dark Souls boss’, which is the mouse-over text for one of these images. Go find it! And tell him when you’ve found it, on Twitter or on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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