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Iron Brigade

Platform(s): PC, Xbox 360
Genre: Action
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Release Date: June 22, 2011 (US), Nov. 30, 2011 (EU)

About Brian Dumlao

After spending several years doing QA for games, I took the next logical step: critiquing them. Even though the Xbox One is my preferred weapon of choice, I'll play and review just about any game from any genre on any system.


XBLA Review - 'Trenched'

by Brian Dumlao on July 3, 2011 @ 12:45 a.m. PDT

Iron Brigade has you fight as part of the Mobile Trench Brigade and it is your job to fend off an invasion by Monovision, an alien race hell bent on colonizing earth, using a variety of highly customizable mechs.

Ever since Double Fine decided to focus more on smaller projects as opposed to big AAA titles, their games have become certified hits. They've also become hits that tend to use some unusual gimmicks to draw people into those game worlds. Costume Quest, for example, was an RPG where kids transformed into their costumed personas all in the name of obtaining candy, while Stacking had you playing an adventure involving the famous Russian Matryoshka dolls. To that end, many people were expecting the latest title, Trenched, to be just as wacky in its premise, and they would be right. People would also be right in thinking that this would be another excellent downloadable game from the developer.

It is the end of World War I, and just when everyone thought that things would return to normal, another world-wide disaster occurs. A strange radio transmission called "The Broadcast" hits, decimating most of the world's population. Among the survivors, two war veterans actually benefit from "The Broadcast," gaining super intelligence in the process. Frank Woodruff, a vet disabled during the war, goes on to create mobile trenches, mechanical walking platforms that give the disabled soldiers the ability to move once again. Vladamir Farnsworth, on the other hand, creates Monovision, a device that gives common citizens the ability to see and hear the world from their homes. However, Vladamir soon loses his sanity and begins work on robots created from the initial Monovision technology. With the robots destined for world domination, it's up to Frank and his army of mobile trenches to stop the threat at all costs.

Instead of adopting one genre like the last few Double Fine games have done, Trenched blends third-person shooting and mech customization with the tactics and pacing of a tower defense game. Every mission tasks you with protecting a specific building — or buildings, in some cases — for a designated number of waves. Enemies will always come out of the portals already laid out on the battlefield, and enemy forces, except for the airborne ones, will always take a specific path toward the building. You can use your mobile trench to do away with the enemy, and while you have unlimited ammo, you need to deal with the slow reload times of each weapon on your trench. Defeated enemies leave behind scrap, which can be collected and converted into different ballistics or EMP-style towers you can place almost anywhere on the battlefield at any time (not just between waves). At the end of each mission, you earn cash for completing the task and bonus money depending on how well you defended the building. That money can be spent on mech and tower upgrades.

Aside from the tower defense and third-person mech shooting categories, the game also takes a few mechanics from some other genres. Every mission you complete gives you experience points, which are used to unlock both useful and useless items. Depending on the level, you may unlock something great, like a new pair of legs for your trench, or you may unlock something like a new uniform for your pilot, which serves no purpose other than to make your pilot stand out a bit more. Unlocks also come through the completion of certain tasks given to you over a lifetime. Those tasks are split up into two categories: personal and regimen. As expected, you do personal goals on your own, while with regimen goals, everything done by the team on your boat counts toward the totals. The tasks are fairly common ones, such as accomplishing a certain number of kills with your turrets alone or using certain weapons to take care of the Monovision creatures, but they are varied enough that you'll have plenty of things that can reward you with items or cash. Finally, there's the idea of loot drops. Every once in a while, the enemy forces will drop more than just scrap when defeated, and while the item isn't revealed until the mission has been completed, fans of dungeon crawlers are quite familiar with the sense of accomplishment in getting something rare or powerful; it's nice to see that extended to a new genre.

The mashing of different genres and mechanics works out much better than expected. The action is always fierce, whether it's a boss fight or on a simple mission eight waves in. There's rarely a time when you don't spend a wave pumping a new Monovision character full of lead. The constant upgrades in both your armaments and enemy type always require you to employ new strategies per level, including how your trench will be configured and what emplacements you want to bring with you, so you'll rely on your brain more than your trigger finger. Whether you end up describing the experience as a smarter shooter or a more action-packed strategy game, the blending makes it feel like the two genres have always belonged together, and the loot drops and bonuses simply feel like extra perks thrown in for good measure.

There are a few things that Trenched could have done better. For one thing, there's no way to see the entire battlefield once you set foot on it. For the whole game, you're stuck seeing everything from the perspective of the trench, and pure strategy fans might not be immediately able to handle this. There's also no sort of random map generator in the game. The campaign isn't very long, and the desire to grab extra loot is very high, so new maps outside of the campaign would have made the game infinitely replayable from a single-player perspective. With what's provided here, it's not enough to drag down the game.

Trenched works fine as a single-player title, but it becomes much more fun as a multiplayer endeavor. There is no competitive multiplayer, but online co-op is good for up to four players. With the level of difficulty scaling for the amount of available players, even the easier levels become more than just random shooting sprees, as you'll have to strike a balance among the players concerning who will be on the defensive, who will be laying out the towers, and who will collect scrap, modifying his mech and tower layout accordingly. Combined with the random loot drops, the ability to salute each other on the ship just for laughs, and the fact that everyone's actions contribute to half of the overall goals in the game, and you have a very strong reason for keeping this game in your multiplayer rotation for a while. Sadly, your multiplayer fights will have to be strictly online, as there is no option for local split-screen play. While it's not that big of a loss, having some local action with this new take on tower defense would've been nice, since there are already some local co-op tower defense options on the console.

The game looks quite nice, maintaining a good standard for downloadable games to follow. The environments start off with the same brown color we've all become familiar with, but it soon opens up to more colorful settings as you progress into different areas. Even then, the environments come with some nice details, including almost legible posters scattered throughout the ship and nice textures to the blown-out buildings. The trench designs are a bit square and industrial as opposed to the more streamlined looks we've come to expect, but they fit in perfectly with what would've been developed during the era and sport some great animations, especially since you can see your pilot actually moving about and operating every switch and lever needed for the beast. Despite all this, it's really the Monovision creatures that steal the show. The combination of TV screens surrounded by living wires to produce grotesque-looking creatures is astounding, and they move extremely well. Even in their death throes, they remain one of the more fascinating things cooked up by the game.

For the most part, the sound is good. The music evokes the same tone and themes we've heard in other war games set around the World War II era. It's rousing material, but it doesn't exactly overwhelm the player since you only hear snippets on the title screen and between waves of enemies. The effects are done well, with the gunfire and heavy steps of each trench conveyed clearly through the speakers. Each trench also has different sounds to its steps, and the roars of each Monovision creature are also distinct, adding some variety to what would have been a small bank of sound effects. The voices are good, though you only hear three of them most of the time. The performances are a tad cheesy — but intentionally so — to provide the game with some humor. Interestingly, for a development studio known for its use of humor, Trenched ends up being the least humorous title it's had so far. It's not that the jokes fall flat, but there aren't too many jokes being told. It's still a funny game with some funny lines every now and then, but expect a gut-busting experience.

Trenched stands out as one of the best downloadable titles this year on any platform. The mix of genres works out just right, as the tactical notions of a tower defense game blend in well with the action of a third-person mech shooter. The single-player experience has a good length to it, though it's easily enhanced by the random loot drops and quests, while the multiplayer gives this game excellent replay value. It may not be the most humorous Double Fine game to date, but Trenched maintains the playability and fun for which the studio is known. Unless you have no interest in either tower defense or third-person shooters, Trenched should absolutely be in your Xbox 360 gaming library.

Score: 9.0/10

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