I have a terrifying recurring nightmare.
I’m at one end of a long hallway, lit only by guttering torches. Behind me is the Chillaxe, the mighty Game Debate test machine and – I’m not afraid to say it – one of my only true friends. At the other end of the hallway is a terrifying abyss, filled with such inky darkness that I dare not look directly into it, for it contains nothing but madness and evil. And Felix.
Yes, he’s in there too. And with inexorable, terrifying regularity he sends tower defence games out from the yawning chasm of pure blackness, to march slowly toward me. Meanwhile, I leg it around madly trying to create obstacles to stop these games reaching the Chillaxe: pitfalls, swinging blades, shotgun turrets. One by one the tower defence games are obliterated before they reach my end of the chamber, but all the while Felix’s laugh gets louder and more mocking. Until I realise why he's laughing…
I wake up in a cold sweat every time.
See, the thing with tower defence is that ever since those tense firefights in New Nova Prospekt, it’s been done six ways to Sunday. Have a look at the Android Marketplace and see what kind of games people are putting out for mobiles. Tower defence! As far as the eye can see! So I’ve grown a little jaded toward the idea, if I’m honest. Defenders of Ardania, Dungeon Defenders, Orcs Must Die… and that’s just a couple of the fantasy-flavoured ones.
Which isn’t to say the whole genre should be discarded. Bring something new to the mix and you’re laughing. Orcs Must Die 2, for example, combined the third-person shooter and multiplayer elements to make a pretty engaging game. Iron Brigade (or, as it’s known elsewhere in the world and on other platforms, Trenched) takes a very similar approach.
Playable with up to four players at a time, you each control the pilot of a mobile trench – which, to the rest of us, is basically a mech. Two big metal legs and a ton of heavy weapons thundering around the battlefield, blasting away at the Tubes, TV-themed bad guys who assault whatever you happen to be defending, in waves.
As well as an impressive array of weapons loadout options for the mobile trenches themselves, each player can place and upgrade emplacements, which are in turn paid for by scrap which is harvested from destroyed enemies. Different trench chassis can place different emplacements – take a huge, well-armed mech and you’re only going to have piddling little turrets and most of the heavy lifting (by which I mean killing) will need to be done by the player. Naturally, the inverse applies – weakling trenches armed with nowt but a couple of LMGs can place the really big and interesting turrets. There’s a wealth of options, here, and loadouts can be changed between missions for some interesting tactical choices – use shredder ammo to cause more scrap to drop when enemies are blasted and scrap-gathering utiliturrets to automatically grab it all for you, for instance, and you’ll be free to concentrate on the business at hand.
But sadly, that’s sort of it.
Levels basically consist of you, a defensive point you’re trying to keep safe, and a number of enemy spawn points. You can put the turrets wherever you want, but you’ll find yourself doing most of the work anyway. This is seemingly by design – many of the missions have suggested loadouts that commonly suggest ‘big mech, heavy weapons’ as the advised package. Which, of course, takes the emphasis off the tower defence a bit.
Double Fine are a pretty creative bunch, and a look back over their previous work brings back memories of some really, really wacky stuff (MEAT CIRCUS. That’s all I have to say). And, while Iron Brigade does a great line in lampooning the World War I / Interbellum era (right down to the pulp magazine covers, exquisitely recreated as they might appear in the Iron Brigade world), much of the really insane stuff Double Fine do so well is conspicuously absent. As the game opens, I found myself grinning broadly, but after the first mission or two it had settled into business as usual.
The missions themselves are not hugely innovative. Protect the thing, fight the monsters, with the occasional boss battle. A pretty short campaign and no really interesting multiplay modes strip out any real long-term possibility of replayability, but it doesn’t really matter because once you’ve seen what’s on offer, it’s likely that you’ll weary of it fairly quickly. That said, at a very reasonable twelve quid, it doesn’t really have to be desperately replayable to be worth the cash.
Most of what really tastes fruity in Iron Brigade happens between games. The menu interface sees your chosen marine wandering around a battleship where his mobile trench is kept, watching demonstrations of new weapons, talking to his occasionally hilarious commanding officer for new mission briefings, and tinkering with the mech itself. Weapons can either be bought or picked up from drop-boxes in-game, and there are named unique weapons with special features as well as boosted versions of the basic cannons – it all feels a little bit like the loot system from Dawn of War 2: Retribution. Which is a good thing.
So it’s decently-priced, and has a satisfying loot system, and I’d like to add that the system requirements are baby powder gentle. So long as you have a dual-core machine and some kind of halfway-modern graphics card, you’ll stomp all over the requirements here. It’s a great choice for your laptop if you have a long train journey. Well, it would be, of course, if it wasn’t for the famously-horrible Games For Windows Live, with its characteristic mewling and puking. In my playthrough, it interrupted me roughly every three minutes to tell me that I’d become disconnected from GFWL – hopeless for any kind of real multiplay success. This may have just been me, of course, but I can only speak about my own experience. Other than this hiccup, though, the Chillaxe devoured the system requirements without so much as a speed bump.
I guess I expected more from Double Fine. When they’re good, they’re awesome, but when they’re rehashing tower defence, I’m afraid they’re just Single Fine.