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Iron Brigade XBLA 360 is as thoroughly charming as Double Fine's other games, but couldn't overcome this reviewer's difficulties with the tower defence genre.
Well, if anyone was going to overcome my difficulties with tower defence games, and indeed the real time strategy genre in general, then it was Double Fine.
I was utterly charmed by Double Fine's previous two outings on Xbox Live, the family friendly RPG Costume Quest and depression-era puzzler Stacking, and indeed ended my review of the latter by saying that I was looking forward to Iron Brigade (then called Trenched) in spite of my reservations about its genre.
Well, I tried. I really did. But sadly I still can't make myself enjoy tower defence games no matter how innovative and characterful they are. Sorry, Double Fine.
Iron Brigade's story is the kind of humorous, quirkily retro affair you'd expect from the developer behind Stacking, positing an alternative history where the course of history is altered shortly after World War I when two injured veterans of that war survive exposure to a mysterious, and otherwise lethal, alien broadcast.
The two survivors are both gifted with incredible powers of invention, creating rival technologies that allow people to overcome their injuries: Frank Woodruff invents Trenches, giant robot walking platforms restoring mobility, while Vladimir Farnsworth invents Monovision, a TV-type network that allows people to experience the world without ever moving.
When Vladimir loses his mind and starts spreading Monovision worldwide with an army of TV-headed robots called Tubes, Frank fights back with his Mobile Trench Brigade, soldiers in giant robot armour. The player gets involved as one of Frank's recruits.
It's a crisp, distinctive alternative history that walks a fine line of not taking itself too seriously while avoiding trivialising warfare too much. The art style of the game, and the breathless rabble-rousing narration, pulls from propaganda, war comics and period pulp to create a brash conflict between all-American heroism and hordes of sinister, identical robots.
It's a crisp, distinctive alternative history that walks a fine line.
Typical Double Fine, then, although for personal preference I found the wartime bombast of Iron Brigade less engaging and endearing than the more childlike and whimsical worlds of Costume Quest and Stacking. However it wasn't the aesthetics or the story that caused me to grind to a halt with Iron Brigade, but the gameplay itself.
Iron Brigade combines the traditional business of tower defence - placing different weapons and units to defend the tower against waves of enemies - with a third person shooting element whereby you take on the Tubes yourself, gunning them down as they approach.
Your Trench allows this dual-gameplay, allowing the player to stride up and down the battlefield between whichever factories or facilities you need to defend, laying down markers for weapons to be deployed while unleashing the Trench's own ordnance against the Tubes, which come thick and fast from spawning points at the edge of each match.
It's a frantic mode of gameplay which requires quick thinking to juggle bursts of in-person violence with deploying and repairing auto-weapons, as well as grabbing a few seconds to hoover up the scrap remains of destroyed Tubes, the currency by which new units are created for the player to deploy.
I just didn't find it very fun to play. The shooting is functional enough, but I didn't really enjoy battering back wave after wave of faceless (literally, with their CRT heads) enemies, trying to leave most of the work to the units I deployed but finding them largely ineffectual.
I had more fun playing the game in co-op, where I could outsource a lot of that action to a friend, but as a single player experience I found Iron Brigade a grind.
A complete incompatibility between me and the real time strategy genre.
For me, Iron Brigade lacks the kind of engagement I like with an environment - stomping around a tiny strip of land in a robot suit, letting the enemies come to me rather than exploring, just doesn't do anything for me.
If you like this sort of thing, then Iron Brigade has a lot of goodies to keep you interested, with a progression system that rewards the player with new weapons for the Trench as well as variant uniforms and other modifications.
I, as is quite obvious by now, don't like this sort of thing. I don't think that's a flaw in Iron Brigade as such, more a complete incompatibility between me and the real time strategy genre. Iron Brigade has great character and looks lovely, I just can't get along with it.
In other words it's not you, Iron Brigade, it's me. Sorry.
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