Wot I Think: Iron Brigade

By Alec Meer on August 24th, 2012 at 9:00 pm.

Double Fine’s playful mech-tower defence mash-up Iron Brigade (née Trenched) arrived on PC just over a week back, far too many months after its console version. I’ve been meaning to write about it for some time, but became waylaid by a different kind of big stompy robot and by creating big trouble in little Hong Kong. Now I am ready. Ready for what? Why, to tell you exactly what I think, of course. Let slip the trenches of war!

I love it, basically. I have a nagging feeling that perhaps I shouldn’t, because it doesn’t run too far with its concept and it’s causing me to grind, but it would take an awful lot of error to rob the joy of controlling a trench on robot legs while being shouted at by a mad Russian who lives inside a television.

The trio of quick, small, high-concept games from Double Fine in the wake of their foiled attempt to go big-budget have been a joy. Costume Quest hit its own ceiling far too soon but was swathed in the charm of a dozen Michael Palins, while Stacking was a simply glorious adventure game that I’m baffled went largely ignored by those same people who feverishly funded Double Fine’s point and click Kickstarter as though it was the last and only hope of such things ever existing again. The sillies.

Iron Brigade, the artist formerly known as Trenched, has just joined its pint-sized brethren in moving to PC, and it’s just as deftly joyful, and surprisingly able to turn a very silly idea into something that immediately and completely makes sense. Specifically, defeating a monster invasion by piloting a mobile trench.

You might well have seen it described as a tower defence game, which is both wildly inaccurate and has perhaps steered genre snobs away from it. It does have towers. It does involve defence. It does not require placing dozens of towers in convoluted rows to manage the movement of dumb legions of enemies. It requires going BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG while stomping around large, third-person-perspective maps in World War 1-themed mech, and depending on which type of Word War 1-themed mech you’re using, there might be a handful of towers also going BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG to help you deal with the weight of numbers that are seeking to trash the base(s) you defend.

Even were you to pick the most tower-centric mech (as opposed to the most heavy weapon-centric ones), you will be directly in the fray and going BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG at all times. It’s a third-person action game in a string of arenas, with the focus on finding and buying better weapons for your walking trench as the number and deadliness of enemies – alien-esque thingies constructed out of monitors and radio equipment – steadily increases.

There isn’t much to it, as while there are dozens of weapons and turrets they’re just stat-upped variations on around 10 types, but the pursuit of upgrades, the slow stream of new enemies and an unfailing air of cheerful b-movie weirdness, that scarcely matters.

Simply, it feels good to blow up those TV-beasts by stomping around and unleashing massive guns, and on Normal the challenge is not too cold, not too hot – just right. Never quite frustrating, and always that sense I could do better if applied my brain more rather than lazily went BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG.

While simple and low-priced, it’s reasonably long and also heads off the risk of over-familiarity at the stompy pass by deciding to up-sticks to Mars in the latter stages of the game (I believe these levels were DLC for consolekin, but are part of a seamless whole here). Plus, there are funny hats and outrageously horrid mech colour schemes to unlock. Like I say – I love it. It’s characteristic Double FIne ludicrousness, applied to something that works, both as bare-chested entertainment and as a tactical action game.

The bad news is Games For Windows Live if you want to play co-op, though I would say it’s the most buttoned-down, low-key use of MS’s loathed multiplayer infrastructure I’ve yet seen, any issues involving installation and profile recognition your might encounter aside.

Between enjoying being thoroughly self-interested in my own odyssey of destruction and collection and a deep-seated, unprofessional distaste for GFWL, I’ve felt absolutely no pull towards the co-op, but like Orcs Must Die 2 (which is a very useful reference point in terms of that halfway point between action and strategy Iron Brigade squats in) it ups the carnage and the ability to manage to overwhelming odds. It doesn’t meaningfully change what’s a very simple, straightforward game, nor does it need to.

Like Stacking before it, it’s been released too late and with too little fanfare, even by an audience who supposedly hang on Double Fine’s every move. This is a shame, because it’s great. I can’t put it any more clearly than that. Oh, maybe I’ll try: IRON BRIGADE IS GREAT YOU SHOULD BUY IT. Also, in the later levels the baddie remote-controls a giant bear by sticking a TV on its head and a mighty bear on its chin, so there’s that.

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38 Comments »

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  1. Revolving Ocelot says:

    “…tell you exactly what I think, of course.”

    I do not approve of the recent trend of using ‘what I think’ in the opening paragraph, and will shortly raise an OUTRAGEOUS SCANDAL over these egregious spelling mistakes.

    • PopeJamal says:

      Becoming more and more American everyday!
      Muahahahahahahahahahahahahahaaaaa!

  2. Haxavier says:

    Played it on the consoletoy, though it was great fun, now it’s on PC so I don’t have to deal with those fiddly analog sticks anymore.

    Bought it a few days back, it’s been great fun if a little grindy. I’m a little surprised there was no mention at the hilarious dialogue, animation, and of course those really funny pulp-magazine loading screens with quips like:
    ____
    PIRATES TOOK MY CAT

    I should have listened!
    ————–

    • dE says:

      I’m actually surprised that the White Knight Brigade hasn’t picked up on those covers yet…
      But yeh, this game has a lot of style. Lighting your cigar with a gun while looking smug? This game has it.

      • taedkmila says:

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      • Phasma Felis says:

        “I’m actually surprised that the White Knight Brigade hasn’t picked up on those covers yet”
        What?

  3. Premium User Badge

    AmateurScience says:

    I move that the ‘Michael Palin’ be made the SI unit for charm. Someone call the Bureau international des poids et mesures. Stat!

  4. Demiath says:

    Played the first few levels (of this PC version). Became bored very quickly, even by tower defense standards. I’d say there are more interesting and lively entries (I’d rather play Revenge of the Titans, Sanctum or Orcs Must Die) in the genre than this surprisingly generic mech romp.

    • Stromko says:

      It depends how much you like the theme, I think. I finally got around to playing Sanctum (got it on sale eons ago) the other day, and I found nothing in the theme to enjoy. Future people in spandex running around in some sort of dreamy clean VR-scape fighting blobby glowy monsters with glowing weakspots while plonking down big squares with which to build turrets on. That is a lot of stuff going on, but nothing I particularly like.

      Lumbering mechanical robots set in a alternate-past great war setting, I can get behind that. Where Sanctum was clean, clinical and tactical, Iron Brigade is mostly smoke, fire and barely managed chaos.

      Granted it has glowy monsters too, but they have a definite electromechanical theme. It is a little unfortunate there’s no locational damage, but the lack of weak spots makes dumb turrets a lot more useful, and when the game gets difficult (which isn’t too long if you demand an 80% rating on every mission) you won’t really have the time to aim at individual enemies let alone parts of them.

  5. dawnmane says:

    it is lovely.

  6. Cooper says:

    GfWL has rendered too many games I have bought with it inoperable. Which is a shame as this ounded lovely. having completed Space Marine recently, I’ve been looking for some BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG…

    Hopefully it’ll be as easy to remove GfWL with the same dll that removes it from Fallout3 and GTA 4. but until I can see that verified, I just can’t run the risk of having another unplayable game or another game that looses dozens of hours of save games again…

  7. Premium User Badge

    Lorewin says:

    The setting and atmosphere are done with Double Fine style, but for substance it actually made me go back and (re)play the similarly themed but superior Toy Soldiers.

    Sadly no coop in TS, and a stronger emphasis on towers- although you can choose to directly control the turrets, drive around in tanks, and on several maps even fly aircraft, giving more variety to the direct control bits as well. But also no need to scrabble about for coins in between waves to upgrade or deploy towers, which I find annoying in IB, and the waves seem better balanced,

    The upgrades seem a bit lackluster as well – possibly my loot whoring receptors are being swamped by Darksiders 2 at the moment though.

    I’m happy with the purchase, and look forward to trying the coop, but it’s not quite a hit for me.

  8. Scythe says:

    My initial enjoyment of the game was tempered by fury at the menus in the game, and their interaction with my joysticks. It seems that any button held down, say by virtue of a switch being in a certain position on my flight sim throttle, counts as either a “menu select” or “exit level of menu”, making it impossible to play without going into the joystick control panel and flicking switches until no buttons are on. I could grovel under my desk and unplug my joysticks, but I’d really rather the option to instruct the game to disregard all joystickery.

    Also, steam/steamapps/common/ironbrigade/data/binks/. Rename ESRB.bik, Legal.bik, Trenched_DF_Logo.bik and XBLA_logo.bik to some other extension. Voila, instant startup.

  9. SkittleDiddler says:

    I don’t know what was going through my head, but a few days ago I bought Gatling Gears thinking it was Iron Brigade. Derp.

    From what I’m hearing from others in this thread though, I made the right accidental choice. Iron Brigade may be the first Double Fine game I don’t bother picking up.

  10. JackDandy says:

    I’d love to play this if GFWL wouldn’t fuck my region over.

  11. mr_zen256 says:

    Buyers beware: There is currently a bug which causes the game to stutter in later levels. The stutter is somehow related to scrap retrieval and as it stands, makes the game unplayable.

    DF are actively working on a fix for the bug but there is currently no time frame for it to be resolved.

    I’ve shelved the game until the patch is released.

  12. Grape says:

    For fuck’s sake, Alec Meer. This game is “meh” as shit. 99% style, 1% substance. And even the style isn’t that amazing. To make it perfect, it’s also one of those really uninspired types of Tower Defence where the enemy never actually fights back against the turrets. They just happily wander straight forward and let them massacre them. You writing “BANG” a hundred times for HILARIOUS comic effect does not even begin to remedy that.

    • Premium User Badge

      Napalm Sushi says:

      There are certain enemy types that attack turrets, and they destroy them very quickly if not stopped.

      Personally, I’m more than getting my £7’s worth from it.

    • Stromko says:

      Yeah it’s really critical to have a turret defense strategy later in the game. I found against Knobs, it was best to spam a whole lot of machine gun turrets rather than upgrade just a few, though you lose a lot of firepower that way and a few of them will get destroyed every wave. Investing in so many un-upgraded turrets also leaves you very vulnerable to more durable enemies (IE: all of them), and is only a meager delaying tactic vs other types of turret-killers (which are all slowly and thus easier to kill with direct intervention).

      Big stompy enemies will also destroy any turrets that they run into while headed toward their main target. There is no refund for lost turrets, so it becomes quite difficult to survive if you don’t prioritize their protection.

      There are also several enemies that are completely focused on disabling you. All the Trenches have a lot of hitpoints so it takes a lot of hits to get knocked, and in most missions it’s only a temporary (but ill-timed) setback.

      But, the moment you’re KO’d all the enemies that were focused on killing you will focus on destroying the objective. Same with enemies that target turrets but run out of turrets to kill. Trench-killer and turret-killer enemies can do a LOT of damage to the objective, so getting knocked out halfway through a wave of Blitzers can be a quick defeat.

      The game has a definite difficulty curve, with a few jumps. It starts out gentle but it gets tougher. The last level of the campaign is damn near impossible when you get to it even if you grind, but simply attempting it unlocks three different 50-wave Survival Maps. I’ve only made it through a cumulative 75 out of the 150 total waves, but it’s unlocked some good end-gear guns that will help with the final mission.

      • KDR_11k says:

        Specifically, enemies are color coded. Blues go straight for the objectives, cyans go for turrets first and reds prefer your trench.

        Are you sure about the survival unlocks? On the 360 they unlocked as soon as you beat the missions they were based on.

    • Phasma Felis says:

      I like how you didn’t play as far as level 4, which is when the first turret-busting enemies show up.

      More to the point, from from the very beginning there are enemies that will attack the player, which isn’t even an option in most tower defense games.

  13. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    ..meh. Sorry, can’t get worked up about it. Maybe if it had a demo or a good trailer.

  14. tobecooper says:

    If “defeating a monster invasion by piloting a mobile trench” is a “very silly idea,” I would like to see Alec Meer defeat the monster invasion by traditional means. It’s not going to work!! You need mechs! We need mechs! More mechs for everyone!!

    • Stromko says:

      I prefer high-performance fighter jets, later augmented with reverse-engineered alien technology, and elite soldiers, similarly augmented. Worked for X-Com.

      Of course it wouldn’t stop the aliens from just flinging giant asteroids at us, or blanketing the atmosphere with death-spores. We just have to hope the aliens want a sporting fight. We’re pretty much at the mercy of anyone who happens by so long as we don’t even control local space.

      • tobecooper says:

        Damn you and your logic Stromko!
        Though, I remember dying a lot in X-Com, so I’d say it didn’t work out so well.
        Still, I don’t think the aliens would bomb us with asteroids or death spores. That might damage the planet. And it’s a nice and valuable planet. They’d just want to get rid of these pesky humans and keep the earth with its various resources intact. Or maybe they won’t care one way or the other. Having evolved way past our understanding of the universe.

      • KDR_11k says:

        The good news is that these monsters are terrestrial, they were built by a human so no worries about orbital drops. The bad news is that it’s the early 20th century, your “high performance fighter jet” would be a biplane.

  15. Tei says:

    I love this game, Its great to drive a mech, and combined with coop and towers defense make that great :D

  16. ScorpionWasp says:

    So there’s grinding and tiered item design? Comparing this to Orcs Must Die is blasphemy.

    • RegisteredUser says:

      Yes.
      While you can move onwards without the grinding, it means you’ll just not get to use the items you actually have in your inventory. Which of course would have helped.
      Basically it ends up unecessarily punishing you for no good reason as you get _nothing_ new from the game nor any great joy in replaying anything.

      What amazes me so is that in Defender’s Quest there definitely, too, is grind, but the fact that you get new skillpoints and money to buy new items you can directly use with it, it actually feels less troublesome. Also there you can just place your stuff, press fast forward and 30 seconds later its over. That’s the “grind”.

      Compared to here: A mission lasting 20-30 minutes that if you abort it gives you barely a crumb of XP.

      IMO Iron Brigade decided wrong when it tried to include grind elements at all.

  17. geoffreyk says:

    As a poly-platform-amorous gamer, I have already sunk a great deal of time into this on the console-toy. At least on said console-toy, co-op is what made this game enjoyable for my friends and I; the style is fantastic, but on the higher levels (particularly survival) having an appropriately balanced group of mechs (heavies with giant cannons, engineers with heavy turrets to spare), with a good strategy for turret placement (both positioning, ordering, and upgrade prioritization) becomes critical for getting to the end.

    Also, I never found myself grinding much; the best weapons came as drops during the matches (so long as you remembered to grab crates before they fade) as opposed to being purchase-able in the store (in-game currency, not micro-transaction based). Most missions only took us 2-3 tries to identify a successful strategy and move on.

    Also, in terms of “tiered items”, you have broad categories of weapons (artillery cannons, machine guns, shotguns, transmitters, sniper cannons, etc) and turrets, which each serve different roles, but then within each category there are 2-3 different styles, and then on top of that, there are different special effects (“money”-generating, explosive/armor-piercing, splash-damage, etc) that are only on certain variants. At the lower levels, the base weapons served fine, but as you move up, there’s a very balanced progression of getting a better weapon to deal with harder mobs.

    This is not a game that can be played endlessly, over and over, forever. There isn’t that much variety. But there is a decent amount of content to be mastered, and I thoroughly enjoyed the time I sunk into it, even if I never have any reason to go back to it again.

  18. Classicgamer says:

    I’m really enjoying the game. I’ve mostly played Zero Online and the Armored Core franchise when it comes to Mech gaming. I’m looking for others to play with multiplayer. Hit me up!

  19. RegisteredUser says:

    This is nowhere near as enjoyable as OMD 1+2, which in turn didn’t get me as addicted as Defender’s Quest(soon on steam, as well as Gold version coming out).

    To be perfectly blunt: This game has the issue of the mech actually being a sluggish, hard to control mess(which is fair, as it is supposed to be a kind of OldTech Mech), which makes you constantly feel a bit like stuck in jam and managed to repeatedly infuriate me.
    There is a lot of trial and error and “wave learning” as opposed to just being able to be making good choices.

    Item dropping is completely borked, as you constantly will have “rares” drop that you cannot use because your current level is too low, so all the joy of “yay, loot box!” disappears once you realize its of no sodding use to you, because the only way to get more XP is to play/replay missions.
    You can literally finish the game 3-5 levels “under par” and have 5+ weapons and 5+ chassis still locked and unuseable. Which of course would have come in handy, given that they would have had TWICE the health and are almost a must for the “last stand” kind of boss levels.

    The “cutscenes” seem to be unskippable, and this of course means that any “last 30 seconds, last wave” death not only insults you with another 30 minute+ run retry, but AGAIN with the same x minutes of blabla you can’t skip.

    The only good thing is that the PC version already includes the Martian Bear DLC.

    I cannot recommend this in good faith as a GOOD tower defense game, especially as at some point it seems like you basically _have_ to go “manual” in chassis choice over placing turrets(turret killer enemy types make it near impossible to play actual turret defense, dito for the tank enemy).

    At best, this is a mediocre game, packed with nice quirkly gfx and ideas, that never quite seem to reach that “well done” plateau sadly enough.

    Plenty of better games doing what this one tried to do better, be it as participating TD(Orcs must die, haven’t tried Sanctum yet) or as pure TD (Defender’s Quest for me).

    Just being “whacky” alone doesn’t cut it.

    • Ragnar says:

      I haven’t tried Orcs Must Die, but Sanctum is truly FPS + Tower Defense. Sanctum is nice in that you can play to your strengths. If you’re great at hitting weakspots, spend your money on upgrading your weapons. If you’re not that good at FPS, spend your money on turrets. But as you progress through the game you start depending more and more on both. Co-op makes it a lot harder, and a lot more fun, and lets you further specialize and play to your strengths.

      Defender’s Quest is like a TD + RPG-lite hybrid. It’s super fun, and I highly recommend it, but it doesn’t strike me as pure TD. You don’t have to build a maze, for example. If you really want pure TD, maze building and all, that’s Defense Grid.