Developer: Double Fine
Publisher: Xbox Live Arcade
We were so stoked when Double Fine announced Trenched way back in March. We love all things mecha, we love Double Fine and we certainly love tower defence games that go the extra mile to provide new gameplay experiences - so this was cause for messy, unbridled celebration that carried on long into the night. Unfortunately, Microsoft was soon mired in a bitter trademark dispute with a Portuguese board game manufacturer over the brand name, causing the title to miss its European release window and suffer through months of ignominious neglect. Several months later and sporting a brand new title, Iron Brigade finally available in our green and pleasant territory.
But there's a problem. The last few months have heralded the release of several tower defence hybrids that completely revolutionised the genre. Does Iron Brigade pack big enough guns to mix it up with the likes of Orcs Must Die! and Dungeon Defenders after its torturous hiatus?
Yes, just about.
The overarching premise is pure Double Fine chicanery. Television is set to conquer the world in the most literal way possible, since an insane scientist is hellbent on propagating his insidious broadcast with a legion of telly-themed Monovision monsters. Thankfully the brave lads of the Trench mobile infantry are on hand to save the day with their enormous bipedal tanks (the legendary Trenches) - and are set to do so in incorrigibly charming World War II style.
Gameplay boils down to defending key installations from waves of enemy troops. The Monovision forces, known colloquially as 'Tubes,' attack along preset routes much like any classic tower defence title, and you'll need to stamp around the increasingly-hectic levels to cut off their advance and pulverise them with your outrageous weaponry. Controlling your Trench from a third-person perspective is instantly accessible, and more importantly, feels satisfyingly weighty. Despite the varied enemy types who will charge, hang back at range or scream overhead to attack your bases directly, you'll always have the warm sense of accomplishment that comes from being the most powerful thing on the battlefield.
You can't be everywhere at once, though. Trenches are cumbersome metal monsters that slowly stomp around the maps, so picking up scrap allows you to deploy and upgrade a number of static towers including shotgun emplacements, mortars and debilitating support units. Unfortunately, these emplacements never feel quite as powerful as they ought to be; they're momentary distractions rather than stalwart bastions even when fully upgraded. This isn't necessarily a flaw since it puts the emphasis squarely on massive robot combat, but players who choose to specialise in engineering will soon realise that they'd have been better off with some great big honking guns. The exception to the rule are the flak turrets, which are literally essential to combat the fast-moving aerial attackers who ignore your ground-based defences.
It's lucky that the customisation is so addictive, then. Any mech fan knows that the real battle is waged in customisation menus - and Iron Brigade gives you some fantastic toys to mess around with. Different chassis and legs allow you to specialise in attack, tower placement or speed, and the selection of weapons is exceptionally varied. Will you shred the Monovision filth into tiny shards with multiple machine guns, puncture them with sniper cannons, obliterate them with artillery or mix up your strategies with a versatile loadout? The lack of weight limits and a handy constantly-updating shop mean that you've always got new boomsticks at your disposal without having to faff about too much. It's a shame that you can't easily compare different weapons, but on the whole, the customisation options are as deep and exciting as you'd expect.
Of course, it also gives you gives you good reason to replay earlier levels for more resources. And herein lies the problem.
Played solo, Iron Brigade never quite comes together. The samey missions tend to bleed into one another and the need to specialise means that you'll frequently be caught short in eleventh hour flanking attacks without the means to fight back - exacerbated by the relative uselessness of your emplacements for all but aerial assaults. Throw in a few friends, however, and Iron Brigade goes from solid to brilliant. Each player can choose different chassis and specialise in different areas in order to collaborate on the defence (as well as better covering the different access routes, naturally). It's tense and rewarding, though it's worth noting that there's still a little lag from time to time. Winning multiplayer matches also provides regimental bonuses that benefit all involved, making for yet another reason to team up in the face of the Monovision menace.
As a multiplayer game, therefore, Iron Brigade should have boasted major sticking power. Unfortunately, though, the fifteen linear levels are all you have to play with - there's no randomised survival mode, no multiplayer-only missions and little in the way of variation. Even with friends, the experience eventually starts to grate.
Presentation is somewhat inconsistent, thanks to an art style that's simultaneously imaginative and surprisingly bland. The Tubes are outrageous, vibrant, unique and beautiful beasts (many resembling beasts from Eastern mythology merged with cathode ray tubes), but the environments tend to be fairly barren with little in the way of visual flair. Graphical quality is also rather middling - though solid for a downloadable title - and the in-mission voice acting soon becomes incredibly repetitive. Thankfully Double Fine's trademark off-kilter humour manages to save the day, resulting in a game that's arguably much more than the sum of its parts.
- Accessible third-person mech combat
- Addictive customisation options
- Mechs. Double Fine. Come on.
- Desperately needed something beyond the fifteen singleplayer levels
- Highly repetitious
- Multiplayer lag and occasional choppy framerate
The Short Version: Iron Brigade shines as a cooperative mech title, but lacks the lasting appeal and variety necessary to keep us playing for more than a few weeks down the line. While it lasts, however, it's an absolute blast... and fans of blowing stuff up with massive robots should definitely queue up the download.