There's something special about turn-based games: something fascinating about taking part in in large scale battles without losing any control over the various participants. Of course, the amount of time it takes to position each individual character or unit means that turn-based games require quite a bit of paitience and dedication to play.
In the high points of the genre, such as XCOM or Jagged Alliance, it's not unusual for a single firefight to last anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours, and since a game can consist of up to a hundred firefights, they tend not to be titles that attract the casual player. Developers have spent years on failed attempts at modernizing and speeding up this process, mixing the pace of modern real-time strategy (RTS) games with the borderline OCD-level micromanagement that the hardcore strategy gamer craves. Until Brigade E5, all of those attempts have been failures.
Fairly traditional in its structure, Brigade tells the story of a mercenary sent to a small central American country where three opposed factions are in constant, open war with one another. It's the mercenary's job to pick a side—organized crime, the facist government, or the socialist rebels—and ensure that they win the war. This is accomplished by recruiting other mercenaries and then going on missions that generally involve killing an awful lot of people.
The combat engine makes up the meat of the game, and it works stunningly well. Fights take place in completely 3D arenas, and the player can move the camera freely to get the best possible look at the situation. Once they've got a handle on things, players plot out movement paths and fire weapons at the enemy, but instead of using some sort of nebulous 'action point' system, they're told how long it will take the mercenaries to perform said action in seconds. Once the moves have been decided on, it's a simple matter to unpause the game and let all of the mercenaries (and their computer-controlled foes) go about their actions. Making everyone move at once already speeds the proceedings up by fifty percent, but the improvements don't stop there. The pause/unpause system also allows players to react to enemy tactics in real time. Turn-based games always attempted to simulate this with things like overwatch fire and turn interruptions, but it never worked as well there as it does here.
In addition to the overall pause/unpasue system working so well, the game also gets all of the minutiae of combat right. There are a wealth of movement types and concealment options, players have to manually clear the jams on over-used weapons, even tape spare clips together to speed up reloading times. The game features a huge variety of weapons as well, and in a nice touch, each one is completely modeled in-game, along with all of its accessories, so the weapons fetishist can zoom as close as they want and get a look at the action. Sure, the graphics that represent the weapons might be three or four years past impressive, but still, it's a nice feature to offer.
Sadly, though, the combat is every bit as successful as the rest isn't. There literally isn't a single other part of the game that doesn't have major problems. It's as buggy as anything in recent memory, the dialogue interface is a mess, the translated-from-Russian writing is passable at its best and unreadable at its worst, and the difficulty level is so badly managed that it deserves two paragraphs all to itself.
In an attempt to create a constant level of challenge for the player, many role-playing and strategy games institute a system of matching advancement. The idea is that as the player levels up, the enemies level up as well, so their relative difficulty stays exactly in tune with the player's skill. This is an admirable idea in theory, but in practice it can go very wrong very quickly, a problem that Brigade E5 could serve as a textbook example of.
The problem wouldn't be so bad if the gunfights were fair to start with, but from the beginning of the game the player is always up against superior numbers with better weapons, a condition that scales up as the game continues, so no matter how experienced the player's characters get, they'll never have an advantage in a battle, or even have a fight that isn't a ridiculous chore to win. The problem is so bad that when I went online to look for solutions to the problem, the only advice I could find was to generate the worst character possible, so that the game could be beaten without ever leaving the early difficulty levels. As counterintutive as that seemed, I had to admit that there was a lot more fun to be had in pistol duels with gangs of banditos than in full on war with dozens of heavily armored stormtroopers.
Even if the game falls apart fairly quickly, and has bugs and interface quirks that make the main story borderline unplayable, it still deserves a measure of attention and admiration. In finally discovering a way to speed up strategy games and make them more accessible without sacrificing a single strategic element or bit of micromanagment, the developers deserve more than a little applause. Now if only that discovery were used to make a halfway decent game, they'd really have something.