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Wot I Think: Brigador

Or 'the one where you trash a city in a mech'

Ice-cool cyberpunk, mass destruction, Syndicate-esque pro-tyranny tone, vast cityscapes, fluid action. Consequence-free chaos in the city of tomorrow. With customisable mechs. And hover-tanks. And Killdozers. And a neo-80s soundtrack. You're gonna love Brigador [official site] - unless you're looking for a mech strategy game.

Sure, you can choose your mech loadout and have to manage the old walker chestnut of legs/torso pointing in opposing directions, but this is closer to a twin-stick shooter than anything else. Albeit one with solid mouse and keyboard controls and the extra complication of movement switching between rotating and strafing depending on whether you're piloting a mech or a tank. There is a strong need for tactics, particularly in terms of ammo and health management, weapon physics, crowd control and particularly targeting specific enemies before they sound the alarm, but where it most deviates from anything bullethellish is that your manavoureability is starkly limited by the tonnes-heavy deathmachine you're controlling.

There are smaller, faster, more fragile mechs and tanks available, but even then shields and counter-measures mean it's never the frantic dance of a Robotron. Save for the fact that the screen is a near-unending hive of bullets, lasers and explosions. If anything, it looks and feels like I remember Syndicate feeling, but of course it's far more detailed and far more adrenal than that now slow and stark game ever really was.

Brigador is glorious to behold - sweeping, detailed cityscapes clad in neon-flecked night, ordered and peaceful when a level begins, shattered and smoking by the time it ends. On the one hand it looks lo-fi, but on other the tide of destruction and intricate units make me feel as though I'm playing a tabletop game come to explosive, carefully-lit life.

A carefully-deployed explosive can create a chain reaction of tumbling buildings, and, of course a well-timed stomp can dispatch a horde of enemies simultaneously. It's a very specific power fantasy, recreated with clear love, prizing scale and effect well above anything like simulation. Not what the die-hard Mechwarrior fan craves, no, but the broader category of mech-lovers will be in hog heaven.

I love everything Brigador does, and yet I don't quite love it, because despite its wonderful robo-toys, industrial-scale carnage and impeccable aesthetics it can be a frustrating old dear to play. It's not that it's hard as such, but the interface presentation makes life harder than it needs to be- and death more frequent than it's probably supposed to be.

Perhaps this is a consequence of playing on a 1440p monitor (oh woe is me, etc), but the abiding darkness, tininess of all the units and lack of a zoom means I have to squint to work out which way my mech's legs or tanks' fronts are facing, which wouldn't be such a problem if only the time taken to perform said squint and then correct direction to suit is often all that's required to end up dead - as it charging headfirst into rather than away from a powerful enemy cos I didn't realise my mecha-crotch was pointed in that direction.

It perhaps further reduces the simulation side of things, but I do strongly recommend turning on the directional indicator arrow in settings - although even then it's tiny and easily-obscured. The night'n'neon aesthetic is cool as heck, but I think perhaps it's a little too dark for its own good.

I had a similar problem with how far away the health/shields/ammo meters, positioned at top-left, are from the action, which broadly rages in the central area of the screen. Again, the time taken to pan my eyes from what I'm shooting to what condition my poor mech is in is often enough to be lethal, so I don't do it anything like as much as I should. Most of the time, I don't quite realise I'm in trouble until I'm suddenly dead.

It'd spoil the minimalism I know, but health and ammo bars hovering over the mech itself would solve this problem entirely. Hell, simply more warning signs such as klaxons and smoke would help. It only takes a heartbeat to glance up and left, yes, but in the midst of Brigador's delightfully heated battles, a heartbeat can be all it takes.

My major frustration with Brigador is that death seems so sudden - this being a game where death costs all progress in what are usually large and challenging maps. I don't dispute that it's always ultimately my fault for being too reckless or under-utilising evasion tricks such as smoke grenades and temporary invisibility, but not being able to constantly be peripherally aware of key information I need only compounds my clumsiness. Some of the campaign levels are unashamedly brutal too - granting hugely overpowered units such as tower-block sized mobile fortress with one hand, then piling a relentless tidal wave of fast-moving units it struggles to track with the other.

The good news is that getting stuck or disheartened in the campaign is not a roadblock. You can jump instead to Freelance missions, which feature less fixed maps, new challenges and, importantly, the option to configure and buy mechs, pilots, weapons and abilities, rather than be saddled with the pre-fab options offered in the campaign. In-game cash earned in either campaign mode or freelance can be spent on these upgrades and unlocks, which include new maps too. So if you're butting heads against a particular mission, just buy a new one.

The downside of this is that the entirety of Brigador risks becoming something of a crash grind, in pursuit of the bigger, weirder, more devastating mech'n'gun options. It doesn't help that the storytelling in the campaign is so deliberately cold and even obtuse that, while its fealty to sinister future corp-speak is impressive, there can be no emotional investment in it. This means it doesn't feel appreciably different from Freelance missions, other than it can be ever so slightly more setpiece-y and it randomly rolls out wonderful toys from further down the tech tree long before you'd be able to afford them. (Not that this will save you from a spanking, mind).

C'mon though, this isn't a game you're playing for the story, but one you're playing to trash cities and squish soldiers. It's just good to have options, different places to go and try out, rather than become stuck in a funnel. The impressive variety of vehicles is a joy too: if big'n'stompy isn't cracking a particular nut, how a fast hovertank that can turn invisible, or a giant bulldozer than lobs EMPs? Or a tiny, almost man-size walker which, though fragile, is damned tricky for the bigger beasts to get a lock onto?

The weapon choice is sprawling too, from simple machine guns to slow-reloading railguns to daisycutter bombs to a sort of Superman heatray and a ton of cannons and rockets in between. If anything, there are too many weapons with too similar names, and figuring out, let alone remembering, exactly what does what isn't straightforward, but half of the fun of Brigador is only discovering what your new investment is actually capable of once you take it out into the field. Or rather, the industrial zone which will very shortly become a field. A flaming, smoking, rubble-strewn field.

Make no mistake, Brigador is a toybox first and foremost - assemble your dream mech or deathtank, take it out for a spin in Bladerunnerville, trash everything, have a bloody great fight. A few UI frustrations can't take away the innate pleasure of that, especially when it looks so delightfully, tangibly model-like too. It's not Mechwarrior, no, but it scratches pretty much every other mech itch going, and with style.

Brigador has left early access and has a full release as of today for Windows, Mac and Linux.

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