Iron Brigade which is available in Steam and XBOX 360 is a mongrel game, a union of mech action and tower defense that both rises above and falls somewhat short of its competition. Its ingenuity lies in the ‘mobile trench’, which contains the two defining elements of a Double Fine game: the character and the joke. The game opens after an alternate World War I in which an otherworldly force called The Broadcast brings a sudden leap in technology, allowing soldiers to walk confidently across the battlefield on giant robot legs while still hiding in their trenches. It’s a deft visual gag that might have sold Iron Brigade to a wider audience had its gameplay not drawn liberally from strategy and tabletop games.
Indeed, half the fun occurs between missions, where you’re free to customize and decorate your trench. Looming above your battleship command center, it visibly reflects new upgrades; its legs sprouting six terrifying Razor of the Gods machine-guns, or perhaps a Wave Disturbance Prototype that causes ‘deathsplosions’. Each successful battle yields XP that opens up more sophisticated upgrades in the shop, and most also present free upgrades as loot boxes collected in the field. MechWarrior fans and gearheads will feel instantly at home in this modular sandbox, with its three chassis types and six weapon classes. Between short- and long-range guns, explosive and energy weapons, and specialist battle or building trenches, the tactical variety at first seems satisfyingly deep.
Played alone, Iron Brigade’s promise is only partially met on the field. Your trench, again, puts its best foot forward, with cannon delivering a fearsome report and legs convincingly pounding the ground. You walk at a glacial pace and cannot fly; your sole advantages are firepower and foresight, and you must use them to defend several military installations on multiple fronts against the attackers, TV-based enemies cunningly named ‘Tubes’.
Arriving in finite waves, some Tubes attack bases, some destroy your static defenses, and others charge your trench; some attack from afar or by air, some are tiny and hard to hit, while others are factory-sized. You must rethink your approach to these threats from wave to wave, and according to your load out. Breathlessly moving from point to point to rescue each base, often in the nick of time, you will curse the weight of your otherwise omnipotent trench. Without the ability to zip freely about the field, you must multitask – which is where ‘emplacements’, or defensive towers, come in.
Slain Tubes will drop TV sets that pay for emplacements, and you scramble to grab these in the seconds before the next wave. Paint the ground with crosshairs, and an emplacement comes shooting from the sky and burrows into the earth. You’re free to put emplacements wherever they’ll fit, which brings forth more questions: do you fortify a base with guns, or cripple Tubes at their doorstep with mines and dampening generators that slow their advance? Can you afford to place a dedicated sniper or flak turret, when your basic defenses could use an upgrade? And should you even bother with the repair crane that quickly heals you?
These questions are ultimately short-lived, as Iron Brigade lacks the tight balancing of a dedicated real-time strategy or tower defense game. Compared to a walking mech with at least one ranged weapon, dedicated sniper and flak turrets are of limited use against faraway enemies. Dampening generators don’t delay Tubes as much as you can yourself. At best, turrets buy you time as you race to clean up the next mess. You never make a truly difficult tactical choice, because you rarely need to rely on your defenses, and probably shouldn’t: even a fully upgraded mortar turret seems less potent than an assault chassis toting magnetic grenades. Boss battles, which close each of the three stages, render turrets even more extraneous.
‘Tower defense’ is something of a misnomer here. Few levels require you to deploy emplacements optimally, with just a handful presenting distinct pathways for a gauntlet. The rest, set on wide-open beaches and murky mountainsides, privilege organic chaos over organization. Most critically, Iron Brigade doesn’t provide an overhead map or radar – giving you no ability to instantly assess the state of your bases and defenses. Your knowledge is limited to what you can see on the ground, and off-screen indicators and verbal cues from your commander are inconsistent as well as being of little help. Without a tactical battlefield view, you’ll naturally take the run-and-gun strategy. The action remains furious and fulfilling, if undermined by cheap shots on occasion, such as an 11th-hour flank attack that triggers no corresponding visual or aural cues.
Play the game with a friend or three, and you can overlook most of these design issues. Lacking radar, players can simply park their trenches by different entrances from where they can divide and conquer each wave, some picking off Tubes with machine-guns and others clearing the remainder with artillery. Some might risk piloting an engineering chassis and scouring the field for turret sites, while their squad hunts stray Tubes. And there’s just something about piloting bipedal war-machines that inspires camaraderie.
However, with only 15 campaign missions playable solo or with friends – and no survival mode – Iron Brigade won’t last long. Ultimately, the game’s underlying sense of humour and its obvious affection for giant robots save it from feeling ordinary, but its favoring of trenches over tactics makes for a competent mech game with extra flair rather than a completely seamless genre blend.