Iron Brigade: Rise of the Martian Bear was developed by Double Fine Productions and published by Microsoft. It was released February 1, 2012 for 400 MSP. A copy was provided for review purposes.

Iron Brigade is a game with a rich history. That history involves a plethora of fun, customization, shots fired, explosions, lawsuits, name changes, and now, a chapter about bears in outer space. Rise of the Martian Bear is the first downloadable content to be released for Iron Brigade, Double Fine Productions’ take on tower defense originally released in June of last year. The add-on expands upon Iron Brigade in almost every way imaginable, giving fans more of what they loved, and plenty of new toys to boot. By now you’ve certainly heard that two-handed salutes have made their way into the game, but let’s dive into the rest of what awaits us on Mars.

Here’s what we liked:

Content aplenty- In exchange for the 400 MSP price of admission, the amount of content you get here is an absolute bear (no pun intended). You get five new campaign missions which take you from Earth to Mars. You get two new Survival maps which provide you with incentive to keep grinding to reach the level cap, gain new loot, and best personal records. You’ll fight several new enemy types which shake things up a surprising amount and lend a new flavor of variety. In essence, you get more of everything that originally made Iron Brigade great. There’s a ton of content here to keep you playing for quite a good while. You always have a reason to come back with a few friends and try to beat your previous best. Outside of the sheer enjoyment you get simply from playing the game which makes the add-on worth downloading on its own.

Updates to visuals and balance- Double Fine didn’t take the easy way out with Rise of the Martian Bear and just add new content. They went back to the drawing board and made improvements to what was already established. Much of the new content looks noticeably better than the original coat of paint Iron Brigade had. You’ll notice it the most in the way enemies look. Many returning enemy types have a new visual flair that will catch your eye. Subtle little touches like this show how much love Tim Schafer and gang put into their products. Additionally, its apparent that the development team took a step back and looked at the balance of the game, and addressed things they found troublesome the first time around. They created new enemies to fill certain tactical voids. They created new weapons and emplacements that function differently from their old counterparts which may not have had the original intended result. Overall, these tiny adjustments and updates make a big difference and drastically expand and refine the game’s sandbox.

Loot galore- One of the most addicting elements of Iron Brigade was the customization. There seemed to be an infinite amount of builds to try out. You find yourself constantly tinkering with your setup, trying to find the perfect mech for your play style and every situation. With all the new items made available in Rise of the Martian Bear, you’ll find yourself at it once again. There’s upgrades for familiar weapon types, and there’s some completely new categories altogether which open doors and create new possibilities. And of course, there’s plenty of style points to be won. There’s new paint jobs, outfits, hats, and yes, the already infamous double fisted salutes. Homages to Stacking, Costume Quest, Brutal Legend, and the absolutely hideous plaid paint job are just the tip of the iceberg. Long story short; You’ll spend hours pimping your ride and trying new things thanks to all of the DLC’s additions.

Here’s what we didn’t like:

Not so solo- There’s an issue that’s plaguing games right now and its called forced co-op. More and more developers are adding cooperative modes to their games, which is only a good thing. There’s tons of fun to be had playing games with others, no one can deny that. That said, when level or section of a game is designed exclusively for cooperative play, it can be frustrating for the renegade gamer. Unfortunately, on one particular map (which doubles as a campaign mission and a survival map) you’re nearly forced to play with three others. While this particular level is indeed possible to finish by yourself, you’re most likely not going to be able to get a gold, or even silver medal. You’ll have to tinker with your build and just use trial and error until you finally nail everything down and finish it by the seat of your pants. Try survival mode by yourself on this map (called Settlement) however and you’re likely to go nowhere. If you’re someone who enjoys soloing content, the Settlement map is going to give you trouble and cause irritation. This problem only affects one level of the game, but stands out as a flaw nonetheless.

Final boss (spoiler alert!) – Let’s just lay it out there; The concept of Rise of the Martian Bear is amazing. Vlad has transplanted his consciousness into his pet bear (which rocks a beard and mustache) and flees to Mars. The mobile trench brigade quickly follows suit by launching the U.S.S. McKinley into space after him. You can’t make this stuff up. A game that draws heavily from World War I that involves mechs introducing space flight, Mars and bears into the equation. Only the fine folks at Double Fine could concoct a scenario like this. Why then, is the final boss so lackluster? You basically stand and shoot at massive wall that changes from a building to a tube fortress, to a mechanical version of Vlad’s head. You don’t have to move, you don’t really have to do anything but shoot straight ahead. We really hoped to fight the Martian Bear himself, but you never even really see him other than on televisions throughout the game. You even go the length of the game without encountering martians, despite seeing a few of their residences here and there. While Double Fine usually outshines almost every other developer in the creativity category, it feels like there is some missed opportunity here.

We’ve been in somewhat of a mainstream gaming dead zone for the past few months. After the dust settles from the holidays, things always tend to slow down a bit. Fortunately for us, Xbox Live Arcade has helped bridge the gap and has provided us with plenty to play during this “downtime”. Whether you’re sitting on your couch with nothing to play, or still delving into your backlog, Rise of the Martian Bear is worth every penny. There’s an incredible amount of fun to be had, and a smorgasbord of things to do. If you own Iron Brigade there is simply no excuse for not jumping on this opportunity to expand the experience and shoot up more tubes. Simply put, Rise of the Martian Bear is one of the first must buy releases of 2012. Do yourself a favor and add it to your collection today.

Score: Buy It