Playing Strange Brigade is like turning up at a Halloween party. There’s the mummy, lapped in loo roll; the shrivelled Zombie with a lipless smile; and look, there’s Anubis, with pricked up ears and accessorised with ankhs. But wait! Here come the crashers: the matinee adventurer of granite chin; the colonial captain, wrapped in Her Majesty’s Royal red; the African warrior, daubed in bodypaint and bangles; and the grease monkey, all dungarees and derring-do. It looks as if they might all break into song and dance.
They don’t, of course, but it’s to developer Rebellion’s credit that it feels like they just might. Such is the game’s buoyant tone, and, as the Uncharted series has proven, it’s a much-needed prescription: mass-murder is a more palatable pill the higher the wattage of the game’s grin. So is repetitive third-person shooting, and with tongue planted firmly in cheek, some of the genre’s worn-soled conventions are cattle-prodded with wry humour, courtesy of the game’s narrator – whose hammy delivery is a droll relic of radio’s Golden Age.
Set in Egypt in the 1930s, the game sees the heroes dispatched to foil the conniving of Seteki, a 4,000 year-old Witch Queen. Choosing one of the four aforementioned adventurers, you can team with up to four players, or go it alone. Your adventure has you shooting and rooting – dispatching your foes and going after treasure – with a satisfying filibuster of puzzles.
After a couple of hours’ play, the colourful varnish thins, and one thing becomes clear: despite the crisp camp of its title, Strange Brigade is far from out of the ordinary. The over-the-shoulder shooting; the environments strewn with collectible tchotchkes; the reviving of downed comrades in the face of enemy waves. These are all things we've seen before, but so what? The developer's name is just as misleading: the studio shines for its reasoned, well-executed design, and often brilliantly refines the order of the day, rather than rebelling against it.
As such, there was much for me to smile about. In fact, I feared I must have looked a fool to the helpful rep guiding me through. I couldn't help but revel in the texture of environments. It's brought to life with Rebellion's hard-wearing Asura engine, protean variations of which have ferried the likes of Aliens versus Predator, Rogue Trooper, and Sniper Elite to our screens. It’s tough not to gawp at the broiling daylight and dust, with dusky caves and dewy greenery all jostling for your eye. Where the engine grates is in the crump and clamour of shooting. While satisfying in bursts – the sort you found in Sniper Elite, if things go awry – it's too chewy as the undead ranks swell.
Your foes take a lot to go down – owing perhaps to the fact they've been buried long enough – and you have to keep fleet feet in order to stay ahead of the horde. During my play session, constant movement was the order of the day. It wasn't the sort of brinksmanship you find in Doom, say, where movement and tempered aggression in extremis were an exhilarating cocktail; this was more frantic, reliant on running backwards and firing at the flock.
The cure for that headache, as it happens, is another head, and it's co-op where you see the glint of gold about Strange Brigade. Crowd control becomes an equation, one liberally dotted with volatile variables and demanding quick thinking and communication. There are satisfying ways of keeping ahead of the rush, familiar to any London commuter: a melee attack comes in handy to regain your immediate personal space; environmental hazards are there to be exploited; and, if things get really hairy, grenades are mapped to a shoulder button and capped with a cooldown.
On top of that, there’s a multifarious armoury of hardware, from carbines and rifles to grenade launchers and the mighty blunderbuss. I gravitated towards the full automatics – their high capacity and firing speed triggering a cascade of crushed skulls. Then, there are the amulets: each with its own devastating power, charged up with blue orbs that linger over felled foes. By way of palate cleansing come the puzzles; these aren’t as taxing as the Gordian knot, but they are solved in similar fashion. One puzzle had my partner calling out symbols in the order I had to shoot them on an enormous tomb door. There’s nothing like fire power in the face of a conundrum.
In fact, firepower in the face of most things is a jolly good idea; fully aware of this, Rebellion has added in a Horde mode, and, for stoking the fires of friendly rivalry, a Score Attack mode. The former is a breezy version of what you’ve seen elsewhere: killing – and killing stylishly – nets you a splashy spill of gold, which you spend upgrading your weapons and abilities between waves. The latter is a spat-inducing rush for glory, taking full advantage of the fact that environmental hazards will buffet your rival.
All are emceed by the narrator whose wryness was particularly potent at one point when, playing a campaign mission in co-op, I killed an end-level boss. Slipping almost into pantomime routine, he remarked at how surely he would remain dead this time – Oh, no, he, won't! This is one of the questions hanging over Strange Brigade, after a couple of hours with its various modes. Are sardonic humour and a stylish skin enough to alleviate staling, albeit well-delivered ideas? If they aren’t, then co-op – where the game’s heart truly beats – just might be. You may not need the strange, but the brigade feels like a must.
Strange Brigade launches for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC on 28th August.
Note: It's worth bearing in mind that a full campaign will likely bring with it welcome variety, and there may yet be tweaks to shooting, and all manner of other things.