From time to time I'll supplement my usual column with pieces that guest critics pen for the site, unique in voice, but alike in rigor. You'll find them here, in the Guest Reviews section. Jay Allen (@a_man_in_black) provides the first, with this review of the stylish mech game, Brigador.
Momentum drives you through Brigador. You barrel through the dark streets, crushing and shooting and ramming anything in your way, your vehicle’s mass as much a weapon as its guns. You are there to do your job—“Solo Nobre must fall,” you are told—and leave, and everything else is a temporary obstacle. The momentum carries you through it all, to escape and relief.
Despite appearances, Brigador is an isometric-view tank sim, not a twin-stick shooter. Controls are based on the orientation of your walker, tank, or hovercraft, and the weight (or lack thereof) of your vehicle is always apparent. The Treehouse, a tank built from a huge tower of cars by the Corvid—resistance or terrorists, it’s never clear—is sluggish but unstoppable. It’s often easier to barrel through obstacles, be they enemies or buildings, than it is to bring your weapons to bear. At other times a Spacer mech, like the spindly, stealthy Sleepwalker may be more suited to navigating the narrow streets, catching enemies as they turn the corner.
In Brigador, there’s a sim-like struggle with the mechanical limitations of your vehicle. At times, you have to strain against the weight of it and its weaponry. Your turret, you quickly note, doesn’t necessarily rotate as fast as you can move the mouse. You also have to be mindful of obstacles: taller vehicles can shoot over low cover, while smaller vehicles can instead hide behind it. Each weapon has its own aiming profile: explosive projectiles are often achingly slow, while faster projectiles tend to require precise aim. Often as not the only effective way to aim is to “walk” your shots onto the target based on your initial miss.
To succeed at Brigador, you not only have to defeat enemies, but also reclaim space from them mid-fight. To refill your shields and ammunition, you have to steer back through the wrecked enemy vehicles, which means that you can’t just flee enemies or carefully snipe from long distance without slowly dying from attrition. You need to constantly weave in and out of the fight, and that necessity forces a confrontation with Brigador's weighty controls. It’s reminiscent of older console games like Desert Strike or Mechwarrior 3050, although the Monahan brothers, the developers of Brigador, both professed ignorance of those games before starting development.
The crush of this ever-present weight is the stand-in for the gravity that’s largely absent from Brigador’s sketchy story. Each mission lends you weapons from the Corvid, the Spacers, or the heavily-armored Loyalists, but you are a faction of one, a mercenary in the employ of the shadowy and vaguely sinister NEP. You get short, all-business briefings, but you learn more about your tax forms—one for residents, one for non-residents—than why you’re there or what your enemies want. Your targets must be destroyed—and every mission is a seek and destroy mission—and why isn’t any of your business.
Brigador tells its story with dimly-lit streets. Solo Nobre is a blacklight painting, dark greys and browns and greens highlighted in neon. In this terrible city, something terrifying has happened. Checkpoints are choked with abandoned cars. Upscale neighborhoods are surrounded by both neatly-groomed golf courses and heavy fortifications. Refugee camps squeeze their lean-tos in between the industrial and red-light districts downtown. Entire city blocks are given over to necropolises. You trample through sprawling graveyards, crushing neatly-arranged gravestones under foot, using ornate, multi-story tombs as cover against enemy tank fire.
The civilians are the most striking, milling about the streets in bright yellow raincoats until they scatter in a vain bid to escape the fighting. No importance is attached to them at all. Unlike their homes and abandoned cars, they are not an obstacle. There’s no reason to pay any attention to them, to avoid crushing or shooting them; your enemies don’t show any care for them. Yet more than any story snippet, their presence turns Brigador’s mood sinister. You don’t belong here. You are an unwelcome intruder. You are making things worse.
As long as momentum carries you forward through Brigador, it works smoothly. Destroy your enemies quickly, and they won’t raise the alarm or call reinforcements. But destroying your objectives inevitably attracts unwelcome attention. Brigador isn’t easy: get surrounded, get caught on debris, or simply spend too much time fleeing overwhelming odds, and you’ll be caught and crushed. Losing is frustrating—you’re sent a balance sheet with your funeral expenses included—but not terribly punishing, as a restart is three quick clicks away. To win, you must steer the momentum, around and over and through the enemy, and escape. Escape is relief from the tension, relief from the risk of instant failure.
Where Brigador fails is when it ruins this momentum. One way is by literally canceling out any forward motion unexpectedly. It’s difficult to tell dark brown debris and wrecks from black streets, and it’s easy to get snagged, then torn to shreds by crossfire. This is aggravated by the fact that taking damage darkens the screen, making it even more difficult to tell what’s happening. Similarly, there’s no obvious distinction between regular buildings you can plow right through and explosive buildings that punish any ramming attempts with instant death. One particularly egregious example: one sort of above-ground pipeline is harmless, the other will cause a screen-wide chain reaction explosion. Have fun telling which one is which on the fly!
Situational awareness is a problem. You need to be aware of enemies more than a screen away, so you’ll have to toggle off “orientation lock” to allow the camera to move away from your vehicle. When you do this, your aim point is in one place, your vehicle is in another; both of these points are important and neither of those places are near the screen’s center. Running your gaze back and forth along the aiming beam between vehicle and mouse cursor causes you to focus on where you’re going in a way most top-down games do not, but it’s exhausting, and divorces you from what immediately surrounds you.
The UI is a constant obstacle. You’re often lacking important information. The colored beams that serve in place of a crosshair help illustrate when your vehicle is still struggling to rotate around to aim, or when weapons are offset to one side or another because of where they’re mounted, but it isn’t a very useful tool for landing shots accurately. Brigador doesn’t do a good job of helping you understand where arcing mortar projectiles will land, where a shell will impact the ground and explode, or whether your aim is blocked by a low obstruction. Aiming at hovering enemies is especially unintuitive. The struggle with the physical limitations of your armament is an interesting challenge, but struggling with the poor interface at the same time often threatens to poison that challenge.
The aiming beam isn’t the only awkward element. Health, ammunition, and weapon cooldown indicators are tucked into a corner of the screen, away from both your aim point and your vehicle. There’s no way to know if you’re out of ammo or about to die until it’s much too late: there’s no cue to let you know that a weapon won’t fire because it’s out of ammo (instead of merely being on cooldown)
These interface hassles are annoying, but by all appearances they are the result of conscious trade-offs made to maintain Brigador’s aesthetic and keep the screen from becoming too cluttered. It’s less forgivable when the game gets away from its strengths entirely, and de-emphasizes the gunplay and interaction with the terrain. For example, one mission is a frustrating trial-and-error challenge to outrun suicide drones that instantly kill in one hit. Another is a firefight in a boring, featureless parking lot. The campaign does not overstay its welcome, but the Freelance mode, where you spend the money you’ve earned to purchase the pilot, vehicle, loadout, and mission course of your choice, does. Despite the greater freedom, it’s a muddled, unnecessary adjunct that bypasses much of what makes Brigador interesting. The overlong missions in this mode leave little margin for error. As a result, they emphasize memorization over exploration, and punish experimentation with quirky, less-efficient weapons.
To the game's credit, these breaks in momentum are few. More often you stay in motion: engaging an enemy squadron, drawing out the fast-moving outriders, then crashing through a building to blast their heavy tanks from behind. You feel in your hands and in your shoulders the tension of fighting the weight of your own vehicle, of driving it through the mass of your enemy's. Weight is animated in Brigador, driven ever forward with a purpose many games lack. It rolls forward until the relief of escape from the menace and chase—or until that sudden and fatal halt.