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Broforce Early Access Review

Cool story, bro.

by

GameSpot's early access reviews evaluate unfinished games that are nonetheless available for purchase by the public. While the games in question are not considered finished by their creators, you may still devote money, time, and bandwidth for the privilege of playing them before they are complete. The review below critiques a work in progress, and represents a snapshot of the game at the time of the review's publication.

With its 10th annual commendation, Oxford University Press bestowed its prestigious Word of the Year honor upon "selfie." Anyone who recalls the past year mostly as a series of blurry, flash-obscured images can see the logic of that choice. But let's spare a minute for the versatile "bro," which stepped up in 2013 to serve as much-needed shorthand for any aggressively masculine, keg-fueled fraternity lech. That feat of summarization would have been commendable in its own right, but "bro" had more in it. It burst like a portmanteau cluster bomb: bromance, brogrammer, brony...any venue for male kinship proved ripe for the affix. But like so many other neologisms (see: "vlog" or "truthiness"), it's tough to wield "bro" with anything but trademarked modern sarcasm. So where, say, Tolkien's Fellowship was disarmingly earnest, Free Lives' Broforce has its tongue set in one very square jaw.

With all the explosions rocking the screen, it's easy to lose your bro.

The titular Broforce is an assemblage of human wrecking balls culled from the past 30-ish years of big-screen action. Facsimiles of Schwarzenegger's Terminator, Indiana Jones, Blade, and MacGyver all theoretically occupy the same space here, moving from left to right and mowing through baddies with guns, swords, and the odd bomb hidden in a cooked turkey. These are men with a very particular set of skills--skills they have acquired over long careers, skills that make them a nightmare for two-dimensional terrorists and pixelated attack helicopters. No Liam Neeson a la Taken yet, though, to the best of my knowledge.

In Broforce's arcade-style campaign, or its suite of alternate modes, you take on the role of a randomized bro and kill your way across jungles and cities, aiming for an exit point or a boss fight. The way you get there is at your discretion, though. The terrain gets blasted away by your weaponry the same as any enemy; in keeping with the Minecraft/Spelunky zeitgeist, tunneling through 20 feet of concrete with a shotgun is as valid a way to the level's end as any other. Such freedom opens up some interesting strategic possibilities, like shooting the floor out from underneath an otherwise imposing foe. It also makes for some zany, unpredictable runs, especially when you're paired with trigger-happy teammates who don't give much thought to blowing up the platform you're standing on. The campaign can be taken online, and there are a few local multiplayer diversions on offer, like a player-versus-player deathmatch, and another variant that sees characters fleeing an encroaching blast from the left side of the screen.

Take any path, or carve out your own with that minigun.

Speaking of throwbacks, there's something of 1992's Kid Chameleon in the way you change characters. Bros are imprisoned in cages that dot the levels. When you free a bro, you assume the role of the new bro, and the old one drops away to become a sort of extra life. There's no way to determine which bro you're freeing, meaning that, once unlocked, the full roster remains in circulation at all times. In this system, there's no way to stick with a favored bro, but it's a welcome sacrifice in the name of variety. Each bro has a well-defined role that makes clever use of his iconic arsenal. Snake Plissken's doppelganger sports a sniper rifle that trades rate of fire for range. An Agent J stand-in uses a noisy cricket that packs a wallop but flings him backward with each shot.

Somewhere between Contra's 1987 release and today, uber-soldiers seem to have lost the ability to fire at angles. With few exceptions, the bros can only hit targets that are in front of them and at their exact elevation. Consequently, attacking enemies who are located anywhere else means meeting them on their own turf, sinking down (or rising up) to their level in a very literal sense. But as any red-blooded, camper-hating shooter fan will tell you, it's easier to defend an area than it is to attack it. Facing this disadvantage but needing to progress, you rely on your capacity for preemptive warfare: shooting before the slow-to-action enemies can construct any ill intent of their own. It's the Bush Doctrine in miniature, played out in pixelated bunkers, with pixelated "Mission Accomplished" banners. There's a fitting confluence of the game's mechanics and its message.

Norris can cut through a hot knife with butter.

Taken in tandem with the hulked-out characters (even Keanu Reeves' proxy looks to be 70 percent chest, 60 percent chin), the mega fonts, and the gratuitous guitars, the message is more than a little sardonic. But Broforce's satirical boomerang never comes back around. The environments you blitz through occupy "a fully destructible Vietnam setting" where "death is instant...but this is balanced by the incompetence of the enemy." Terrorists with dynamite strapped to their chests run toward you in comically inept suicide bombing attempts, emitting noises that closely resemble high-pitched ululations. There's never a self-aware rebuke of the way the game uses collateral damage as a fireworks display. Broforce frequently feels thematically tone-deaf, to put it mildly.

There's ample cause for hearing loss. Layers of levels crumble apart under fire, setting off chain reactions that level wide swaths of the environment in seconds. At any given moment, three-quarters of the screen is engulfed in flames, collapsing, or bleeding. If there's a grander purpose to the mayhem you're wreaking, it's quickly lost in the hail of bullets and fire. Balaclava-clad enemies mill about absentmindedly, and you gun them down because they're wearing balaclavas. Giant robots with missile arms rise up in front of you, and you blow them up because they're giant robots with missile arms. The bosses that need to be killed to complete many stages are devils in business suits--a nice, efficient visual shorthand for "evil." Broforce isn't really in it for the nuance, of course. It assumes you will react instinctively: adapt quick to the simple controls, move ever to the right, leap the bottomless pits, shoot the red barrels, and grin at all the ensuing chaos.

It's mostly correct in that assumption. All the explosions can make it easy to lose track of your fragile bro, especially when paired with a screen-shaking effect that's intermittently overbearing. Not all bros are born equal: Indiana Brones' flare gun is terribly ineffective, and Brobocop's ability to charge up attacks is wholly out of place in a game that demands a generous output of lead. But the varied roster and combustible level design mean that no two runs through one of Broforce's stages feel alike, and the game's brisk pace ensures you're always being whisked away to something new. While hanging from a helicopter. While everything behind you blows up.

For no discernible reason.

What's There?

A sizable campaign, a few quirky special modes, a rudimentary level editor, and competent online support. Co-op is integrated into most of the game, and is wonderfully chaotic.

What's to Come?

A space-themed mode, if an April teaser video is to be believed. That, plus some new bros, and some shoring up of the existing modes. Broforce already feels pretty complete.

What Does it Cost?

$14.99 on Steam.

When Will it Be Finished?

Late summer 2014 is the current target date for a full launch.

What's the Verdict?

Broforce's pairing of excavation and ultraviolence works spectacularly, its pacing feels fine-tuned, and it wields action-movie nostalgia like a pro. But its sense of humor is causing some collateral damage.

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