Review: Brutal Legend

By Pete Haas 2009-10-13 13:10:01 discussion comments
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What do Full Throttle, Psychonauts, and Grim Fandango have in common? They were all designed by Tim Schafer, loved by critics, and not played by you. Schafer's first next-gen project, Brutal Legend, will likely rack up as many accolades as his previous games but I'm still not convinced you're going to play it.

To Brutal's credit, it has one thing that none of Schafer's other creations had: star power. Film actor and Tenacious D singer/guitarist Jack Black voices the lead character, Eddie Riggs. Eddie is a roadie who longs for the days when heavy metal was king. While working backstage for a contemporary pop rock group, he suffers a seemingly fatal accident. However, instead of dying, he's teleported to an alternate dimension/universe/whatever where humanity is enslaved by demons. It's not the sort of situation that a roadie would normally be able to fix but it seems that rock and roll music has magical properties in this world. The landscape is littered with musical relics left by the long-forgotten Titans and Eddie must harness their power in order to free the humans.

Shit, I'm losing you already, aren't I? Alright, let's talk about Jack Black more. It's a good thing that managed to snag him for this game because I can't imagine anyone else who could've done it. Black's perfected an over-the-top rocker persona in his time with Tenacious D and he brings that same energy to his portrayal of Riggs. Not many other people can sound funny yelling the word "Decapitation!" but Black pulls it off.

Brutal isn't just a series of Jack Black monologues, though. He's assisted by a strong supporting cast that includes voice acting vets Tim Curry and Jennifer Hale as well as real-world rockers like Ozzy Osbourne and Rob Halford. They've all got good lines to read, too; the writing is sharp and very funny at times. I lost track of the plot a little bit toward the end but that's because of a structural issue I'll explain later.

In addition to sounding great, the game looks great, too. It's not the smoothest experience; I experienced a decent amount of pop-in and framerate drops during my play-through. However, the technical issues are balanced by strong art design. The world of Brutal, which you'll freely wander in a hot rod called The Deuce, is a surreal mix of medieval fantasy and rock and roll. Giant stone guitars stand in quiet prairies. A giant wall of speakers sits at the edge of the ocean, its feedback turning seagulls into dust. Many of the characters owe their appearance to one music fashion trend or another - one of the villains is dressed like a hair metal musician and an opposing faction is composed of emo rocker zombies. Other games might have more polished visuals but few can boast visuals as memorable as Brutal's.

Much of the footage you've seen of this game has probably centered around Eddie swinging an axe and shooting lightning/fire from his guitar. You'll do a decent amount of this, with one button controlling your axe and the other your guitar (with some mixture of the two for combos). Don't think this is a straightforward hack-and-slash game, though. Instead of waging a one man war against the demons, Eddie recruits and leads an army of rebels. This is the central part of the gameplay and maybe the most divisive.

When it comes time to storm some enemy stronghold or the like, your army will set up a concert stage. Here, you'll train units like Head-bangers (humans with enlarged heads that literally bang their craniums against enemies to kill them) and Roadies (heavy metal guys carrying speakers with nasty feedback that can topple structures quickly). Units are purchased by spending Fans, which you earn by building merchandise booths on top of Fan Geysers situated throughout the battlefield. To win a Stage Battle, you need to take and hold enough Geysers so that you can build a large enough force to storm your opponent's concert stage and destroy it. It's the same basic structure as most real-time strategy games.

What makes Brutal different from an RTS though is that you don't control your units with a mouse icon. You're still playing as Eddie so you have to direct your units through him. Each arrow key on the gamepad corresponds to a different command: go to that point, defend this position, attack the target, and follow me. You can still use all of your normal combat skills but you'll soon notice that you don't do too much damage against heavier enemy units. Eddie can get killed pretty quickly if enemies focus their attention on him, as well. He'll merely respawn at the stage when this happens but the point is, you need backup to be victorious.

You're still an asset in battle, though. Eddie can approach any unit and perform a special double team move with them, effectively giving you manual control over them. In the case of the Head-bangers, you'll form a mosh pit with them and swarm whatever enemy you approach. Eddie also has a number of guitar solos he can use to buff friendly units, harm enemies, and otherwise change the course of battle. When you select a guitar solo, you'll be prompted to press a series of buttons (not completely unlike Guitar Hero) to pull it off. To put it in real-time strategy terms, Eddie is like a Hero unit.

Unfortunately, most of my time during these battles was spent trying to shepherd friendly units toward their targets. Units only respond to your commands when they're within a certain distance of you. This means that if you create new units, you'll have to schlep back to the stage to get their attention and direct them into battle. Eddie can fly during combat (long story) so getting across the map is pretty quick. However, you have to stay relatively close to the units to issue commands to them. You can't, for example, tell newly made units "follow me" immediately fly over to the enemy base, and expect them to follow. You've got to stay near them and keep issuing incremental movement commands until they get where you want them to go. There are guitar solos that allows you to plant a rally flag (a location that units will head to as soon as they're created) or command all units on the map to come to you which makes things a bit easier but these solos are hidden on the game map so I actually didn't have them until after the campaign was completed. These battles often just made me feel like I was playing a mouse icon with Jack Black's voice.

There's just not a whole lot of strategy in these matches, either. While there's some rock-paper-scissor at work here with the units (some are good against buildings, some against vehicles, etc) but you really don't direct individual units much. Your commands apply to any units within a certain radius so you're directing large groups at a time. You can control a specific unit by using a double team but with all the time you spend directing units' movement, there's not much opportunity to do this. There's some functionality for picking certain units out but it's awkward (hold the A button down while looking at the unit and then press the button for the appropriate command) and there aren't many situations where you actually need to use only one unit's services. In fact, the only time this ever came up was when I needed the Roadies to sneak up (they have a cloaking ability) on a turret tower and destroy it - and that was during a special campaign mission so I never had to see those turrets ever again.

For the most part, I just felt like battles came down to me building up an army of the maximum size allowed and then making them all "zerg" the enemy base. There's rarely any sort of extra objectives or battle conditions to require a more complicated strategy. The fact that Fan Geysers never seem to run out of juice ever means that there's never any sense of rationing or urgency. Battles can take an unexpectedly long amount of time, with both sides simply manufacturing new units, sending them off to their death, and then building replacements.

You'll do the first battle about a couple hours into the game and almost every major campaign mission after that will center around one of these encounters. The campaign rotates between a few other stock mission types as well, such as leading a group of units on an assault (without having a stage to build reinforcements) or escorting your army's massive tour bus and shooting any attacking enemies with your car's weapons. The more clever ideas even get repeated. In one mission you round up herds of animals on a motorcycle so their body parts can be used for weapons. A couple hours later, you're rounding up a different type of animal with a motorcycle so you can tame it. It felt like there was a bit too much padding in what was ultimately a pretty short campaign (around 6 hours). There are two big moments back-to-back at the end and it almost felt like there was supposed to be more missions between them but that they were never added in.

Truth be told, the single-player portion of the game can take a lot longer than 6 hours. You're allowed to wander the game world between campaign missions (and after the campaign is finished) and there's plenty of extras to find there. Among the things you'll encounter are shrines that teach guitar solos, stunt jumps, and side missions. Missions earn you Fire Tributes, a currency that you can use in Metal Forges (another thing to hunt on the map) throughout the world to buy new combos as well as upgrades for your car, axe, and guitar. Sounds good in principle but grinding out side missions for extra Fire Tributes isn't all that appealing because most of these missions fall into three very conventional categories: car race, attack enemies, and defend against enemies. Upgrading Eddie isn't all that vital, anyway, as Eddie's combat proficiency doesn't really matter once the campaign refocuses on real-time strategy battles. Furthermore, you can only have one upgrade on your axe or guitar at a time, putting a definite cap on your advancement. It's nice that there's all this additional content jammed into Brutal's world but I wish its rewards were more useful within the campaign.

The other way to extend your Brutal experience is the game's multiplayer. Two teams of up to four players can duke it out in Stage Battles on maps based on locations from the campaign. The multiplayer battles allow you to try out two other armies in addition to Eddie's crew: the demonic Tainted Coil and the emo undead Drowning Doom. Both factions have unique units and lend themselves to slightly different playstyles. The Coil, for example, produces units that in turn create other units so they can raise an army quickly in the field. Drowning Doom's units can infect their opponents with a variety of debuffs. The fact that you can play with up to seven other people at a time should make things different than the campaign's Stage Battles, which were always 1v1 affairs. I say "should make things different" because I was only able to find 1v1 matches before the game's release today. Even if going from 1v1 to 4v4 doesn't turn out to be a game changer, the new armies and opportunity to play against other humans gives Stage Battles some new life.

With loads of humor, a good story, and great visuals, it's easy to see how people might enjoy Brutal. It's a bit of an acquired taste, though. Not everyone will like the game's emphasis on an experimental breed of real-time strategy, especially if they pick up the game expecting a hack-and-slasher or sandbox action game. That, combined with the shortish length, make me consider it a better rental than purchase. It's worth giving a spin, at any rate.

Players: 1-8 Players
Platform(s): Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Publisher: Electronic Arts
ESRB: Mature
Rating:
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