It’s never a pleasant feeling when you wake up on a Saturday morning to discover that your computer will no longer turn on. Or rather, that it will turn on, and then off, and then on again, and then off again, ad infinitum. After an hour of disassembling it into its component pieces and then adding said components one at a time to try and diagnose which one was bust, I finally yanked the culprit from my machine: a four year-old stick of RAM that must have become corrupt or otherwise burned-out. As far as breakages go this is probably the most benign thing that could have happened as the nice thing about RAM sticks is that they come in matched pairs, meaning that I still had one perfectly good one and my PC was back up and running within ten minutes of identifying the problem. Still, it was a Saturday, I couldn’t get a replacement set of RAM delivered until Monday morning, and so my plan of spending the weekend playing the new Witcher expansion was out the window since it had no chance of running smoothly on just 4GB of RAM; similarly I probably couldn’t go back to Total Warhammer either. What I needed at that point was an interim game that was relatively low-tech, something punchy and enjoyable that wouldn’t tax my crippled system too much1 and that I’d be done with it the space of a single weekend.
In fairness to Brigador I’d been looking forward to it for a while and so I didn’t really go into it thinking it’d be the disposable experience it ended up being. It’s an isometric game in which you control a big stompy mech (or tanks in both tracked and anti-grav varieties, as well as a few more exotic vehicle types) and so I’ve seen a couple of sites compare it to Microprose classic Mechwarrior; I’ve also seen said sites express confusion that Brigador is not a mech strategy game, which is a bit weird since it was never presented as such and literally ten seconds spent watching any of Brigador’s trailers would have disabused them of that notion pretty quickly. The second, more natural comparison reached for is that of a twin-stick shooter, and here they’re closer to the mark — although still some way away from it. Brigador does involve a lot of shooting. And explosions. And property destruction. And tiny pixel men being liquefied by an immensely satisfying ripsaw-like gatling cannon. Honestly if you asked me I’d say that the closest touchstone for Brigador is actually ancient Amiga classic Walker, as it captures much of the same spirit while having gameplay that is very different from a simple arcade shoot ‘em up – or even a twin-stick shooter.
Brigador appears to have a fairly elaborate backstory. If you buy it on Steam it comes bundled with an audiobook and there’s a fair amount of written text in the game. Problem is, most of this text consists of unit and/or weapon descriptions, which is useful for flavour but doesn’t really do much to explain who you are or what you’re doing here — and anyway, you have to spend the proceeds of your successful missions on unlocking this text a paragraph at a time. The mission descriptions for the campaign are similarly lacking in fine detail; at the end of it I wasn’t really any wiser than I was after I watched the trailer, which fortunately manages to cram a lot of story into just twelve words:
GREAT LEADER IS DEAD
LIBERATE SOLO NOBRE TONIGHT
BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY
(Not that it’s all that accurate, since what I did manage to glean from the campaign blurbs was that I was a mercenary — one of the eponymous Brigadors — who had been hired by an unscrupulous outside party to take advantage of the power vacuum left by said Great Leader’s death. That’s not really “liberation” by any stretch.)
Brigador is split into two play modes. The campaign is a series of 4 tutorial and 17 proper missions that consist of a single level that you can tackle with one of four pre-set loadouts. A loadout in Brigador consists of a vehicle which has two weapon mounts — which can be different types ranging from Small to Main to Heavy to Auxiliary to Turret — and two weapons to be attached to said mounts, as well as a backup “defense” option that’s something like dropping a smokescreen or activating optical camouflage. In the campaign this is all chosen for you and all you can do is pick which of the four static loadouts you want to take into the mission, which is probably necessary as the campaign missions are usually tuned in such a way that they provide a specific challenge structured around the layout of the level and the loadouts you have available to tackle it. One level drops you in without any ammo and has you dodging suicide trucks to try and get to the ammo reload stations before assassinating a specific target. Another forces you to choose between one of four relatively underpowered loadouts so that you have to use your speed to avoid and eliminate the four colossal death robots it has you fight. These are the extremes, though; usually it’s a bit more of a freeform killing spree where you have to blow up X number of structures or Y number of targets, and you have some flexibility to how you approach the problem within the confines of the loadout you’ve picked.
The campaign mode is all all very tightly focused, though, which is why for those who want complete freedom to pick and customise their vehicle there is Freelance mode. There is an unlock system for vehicles and equipment in Brigador where you spend money earned from completing mission contracts on buying more stuff, but the prices are set low enough that completing three or four campaign missions will give you sufficient cash to buy any single combination of equipment in the game — and it’s all fully purchasable from the start. Brigador’s guns are all works of art and you can guarantee that something suitably pyrotechnic is going to happen when you push either mouse button to fire one, and your only limit in what you can take is what will physically fit on the vehicle you’ve chosen; a lot of the stock loadouts for the campaign pair a large-bore, slow-firing cannon with a “backup” machine gun which is nevertheless more than enough to take out medium-sized vehicles, but there’s nothing stopping you from sticking two massive gatling cannon on there if the vehicle has the mounts to take them. There’s a lot of variety here, too, from howitzers to lasers to chain guns to chemical weapons, and a particularly nice touch is that a lot of the weapons have a penetration quality that lets them shoot through multiple baddies – or buildings. It’s always entertaining when you carve a gigantic hole in two apartment blocks because your target was standing behind it.
Anyway, Freelance mode is much more of a sandbox experience than the structured missions of the campaign. Each Freelance run comprises three or more levels (all the way up to 18, although I don’t know who would have time to play an 18-level run since each one takes about 10 minutes). The levels are set maps but the enemies populating them are randomised according to a difficulty modifier. One of the other things you can outfit your mech with is a pilot, which are bought just like any other equipment item, and the particular pilot you have is what sets the initial difficulty of the Freelance run, the rate at which the difficulty will increase per level, and the maximum cap for the difficulty level. After completing the first level of the run you can quit at any time by fighting your way through a final spaceport level to an extraction shuttle, but the reward for this is commensurately tiny; the goal of Freelance mode is to do as many levels between those start and end points as you can, as this will both boost your base score — you’re paid money for everything you blow up during a mission — as well as the final difficulty modifier multiplied to it. Of course doing this is incredibly dangerous since it’s very easy to die in Brigador; if you’re piloting a lighter mech then one mistake will probably kill you, and if you’re piloting a heavy one then it’ll put you in a state where you might not survive the spaceport extraction. And if you die once during a Freelance run you lose everything.
On the face of it this is precisely the sort of risk-reward mechanic I’d normally applaud. However in Brigador’s case I have some issues. First, as alluded to earlier, Freelance runs take forever. You’re looking at about half an hour clearing three levels for a 3 million dollar payout, when a 10 minute run of one of the campaign levels will net you the same amount (or greater). Second, thanks to their randomised nature the levels are all pretty much the same; you have the same objectives on each one, and while there are apparently three enemy factions I couldn’t tell the difference between them meaning that the baddies only really differ in their quantity rather than their behaviour. Third, and probably most annoyingly, there’s no real long-term reason to do Freelance runs since money doesn’t really mean anything; you’ll find an optimal configuration for your mech relatively quickly and you’ll always have money for experimentation, so after an hour or two you find yourself spending money simply because you have it, rather than because you want the things it unlocks. Finally, aside from the cash payouts Freelance runs are distressingly ephemeral since there’s no high score table or other permanent record of how well you’ve managed to do. This means that the only real reason to engage in Freelance runs is because the core gameplay of blowing shit up is fun enough to justify it on its own.
And it is. To a point. The art for the levels is very pretty, and everything in them is destructible. It’s always satisfying to fire your weapons and watch the ensuing fireworks, especially since Brigador hasn’t forgotten to include vast crowds of civilians for you to explode and/or trample underfoot. There’s also a more cerebral element working at the back of your mind as your weapons have very limited supplies of ammo, ensuring you’re always thinking of how to get to the next ammo refill – this comes in the form of four ammo depots for different ammo types scattered throughout each level, as well as temporary generic ammo pickups dropped by enemies. Unfortunately both of these can be destroyed by the very pyrotechnics you’d otherwise take such glee in creating, so conservation of ammo is important both to ensure it doesn’t hit zero and that you don’t hit your only chance to top up for that level. Brigador has made the unusual decision to adopt tank controls (where WSAD moves/turns the vehicle relative to the vehicle’s current facing rather than relative to the screen), and while this renders anti-grav vehicles damn near unplayable it’s not so much of a problem for the actual tanks and the mechs as you quickly get used to it. It does mean that avoiding enemy fire is not so much a case of dodging balletically as it is driving in circles and hoping they don’t hit you, but I’m sure that’s something that I’d get better at if I were willing to invest more time into Brigador.
Unfortunately I’m not willing to do this. Part of it is because of my reservations about the long-term draw of the metagame, but another large part is down to my single biggest issue with the combat. The problem is that Brigador is a 2D game that is trying to model height. This makes a certain degree of sense for projectiles that travel on ballistic arcs, but it also does it for every other gun in the game. Your weapons will be mounted at specific points on your vehicle, and most of them will fire in a straight line from those mount points to wherever your mouse cursor is. However, because your are probably driving something very big, and because most of your opposition is very small, the fact that your guns are mounted higher than them means you have to be pixel-perfect with your mouse positioning as the trajectory of the projectile won’t intersect with them otherwise; if you’re out by a fraction you’ll end up hitting the ground ahead of or behind them. Brigador attempts to alleviate this by having the projected trajectory of your weapons displayed on screen at all times – that’s what the purple and blue lines in the screenshots are — but because it’s isometric 2D there’s a definite disconnect between what it shows you and what actually happens; thanks to the perspective you’ll miss far too many shots that looked like they should be dead-on hits.
Not being able to hit what I’m aiming at is a pretty big point of frustration for me, and it’s something that’s made worse by the scenery; it’s never really clear if a certain piece of scenery can be shot over or if it’s tall enough to block a shot, since the projected trajectories will simply be drawn through them either way. It’s telling that my preferred Freelance loadout ended up being a Treehouse tank with two heavy machine guns mounted on it. The Treehouse is a huge, tower-like tank with a high angle of attack that at least ensures it will hit the ground where the mouse cursor is, and the fire rate on the HMGs was high enough that I could saturate the ground in a straight line with a flick of the mouse, similar to a fighter doing a strafing run with its cannon. It’s good that Brigador had enough variety to let me find something that worked, but still not great that my eventual solution to the overshoot/undershoot problem was to both undershoot and overshoot and hit literally everything in between.
I’m sure that all of this fiddliness — the tank controls, the unnecessary exactitude required to hit anything with any degree of accuracy — is just because Brigador is supposed to have a higher skill ceiling than your typical arcade shooter, but I’m not going to invest the time required to get good at something without a compelling reason, and Brigador didn’t provide one. As it stands I don’t see any point in playing Brigador after completing the campaign and a few Freelance runs. It’s definitely fun. The sheer destructiveness of it makes it a pretty enjoyable game — for a while. It’s just that it’s much more short-lived than I was expecting; despite the vast array of weapons and vehicles available I feel like I’ve already seen everything Brigador has to offer, making it an entirely disposable game to be played for a few hours and then dropped in favour of something else once you get bored. While that’s certainly what I was looking for this weekend, I can’t pretend it’s anything like an optimal outcome for Brigador.
- Interestingly Overwatch also works perfectly on 4 gigs of RAM, but I’ve had some difficulty getting into it and it’s going to take me some time to form an opinion on that one anyway. ↩