Another Take – Brütal Legend

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Sales: Brütal – Legacy: Legendary

Brütal Legend was originally released for Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 back in 2009 and has now very recently been released on PC. It was the second major release for Tim Schafer’s Double Fine studio after the dearly beloved but financially disappointing Psychonauts. When you factor in marketing, Brütal Legend didn’t do much better than Psychonauts financially and despite mostly positive reviews, wasn’t as well received. The source of this perhaps has much to do with the difference between the demo and the final product, the former of which allowed players to experience only one aspect of the game. The game can accurately be described as an overworld adventure game for the first few hours, but these few hours slowly introduce aspects of real-time strategy that is soon to become the games focus. And an aspect that cannot be avoided if the player wants to see the game through to the end. This may seem like a terrible bait and switch, but the game was always conceived as an RTS and if anything, compromised its RTS roots in the final product.

While many who loved Psychonauts will no doubt insist that anyone who hasn’t should play it, and those that have should play it again; fans of Brütal Legend, may be less insistent. Or maybe not, I am generalising a lot here. The real-time strategy genre has less appeal in the mainstream than open world action/adventure titles and for good reason. RTS requires knowing about and controlling multiple units at one time. The players mind should never be in one place, especially when dealing with a human opponent. In short, it is not a genre generally suitable to casual play, and it doesn’t help that it is the kind of genre where losing an hour or more of progress is always a risk . This is probably what put so many off Brütal Legend. For the first few hours of the game, you are in control of Eddie Riggs, the titles protagonist but you are soon rescuing heavy-metal themed characters that become producible units and leading them against enemies. You go from controlling one character to controlling many, across large stretches of terrain. And despite the careful lead-in, it is rather jarring when you lead your warriors in their first “Stage Battle”.

If you aren’t into metal music, don’t know much about its history or the faces of metal, than there is a lot in Brütal Legend that will fly over your head. I quite like the genre and even I found myself missing things, and looking up musicians and bands in-between play sessions. But despite this and the aforementioned reservations, it is a title that I would recommend at least trying.

Brütal Legend tells the story of a roadie named Eddie Riggs who through an unfortunate stage accident at a nu-metal concert, finds himself in a land of demons, devils monsters and scenery lifted straight from rock albums. He soon finds a lonely group of humans boxed in by an evil that has swept the land. Apart from a little confusion about whether or not demons and devils are cool or actually evil, the story is a metal inspired epic. Eddie Riggs is voiced of course by Jack Black. While I’ve heard quite a few people describe his performance as “Jack Black playing Jack Black”, I think this more than a little unfair. His dialogue, with the exception of a few (dare I say) Blackisms, comes across as earnest and his character listens a lot more than he speaks. Indeed Riggs considers his roadie title as more of a philosophy or lifestyle than a job and insists on a backstage roll, even as the hero of the story.

Tim Schafer games are arguably loved more for their dialogue and characters than the gameplay and Brütal Legend is no exception. In fact, a major reason I recommend the title is the story campaign which can be completed in less than ten hours. From the hilarious way the game asks if you’d like a swear filter at the start, through all the snappy banter between characters as the story unfolds and twists to conclusion, the game can be enjoyed entirely on its narrative. It is greatly helped along by cameos from famous rockers like Ozzy Osborne, Kyle Gass from Tenacious D, comedian Brian Posehn and Hollywood legend Tim Curry to name a few. Jack Black’s boisterous and somewhat obnoxious real-life persona takes a definite back seat to these names; his character often setting up some hilarious one-liners.

Outside of the character interactions, the entire overworld is almost a character on its own. It is sparsely populated and there are not a lot of side-missions/attractions when compared to most other games in the genre. But when the landscape itself is so interesting, it is hard to complain. The design for the world is inspired heavily by heavy metal album covers and lyrics and it is done so well that I had inferred as much before I learned it to be so. The initial landscape is littered with imposing structures, bones of giant beasts along with wild ones still roaming. There are mountains, caverns, imposing metallic spikes and even the sparse vegetation looks dangerous. A giant bridge and even a rock-inspired (and customizable) version of Mt. Rushmore also compliments the landscape. As you progress more areas become available, one a swampy area with a gothic theme, a jungle all on the way to the hellish finale. Throughout there are vistas that zooms the camera out and circles the scenery, which truly are rewarding to find. Indeed Brütal Legend is a true testament to how well a great art-style can trump visual fidelity. This is also true of the simple character designs that still express clear emotion despite being technically inferior to many other games.

From very early on in the game, you get access to the Deuce. A fiery hotrod with a sweet stereo that acts as Eddie’s transport and can be quickly summoned by playing a riff on his guitar. This car gets Eddie around quickly and is also a lot of fun to drive off the various cliffs and ramps along with running over the smaller beasts that rove the landscape. But it also becomes a very useful weapon when you get to the real-time strategy ‘Stage Battles’. Despite being an RTS, controlling Eddie is still important to success, much like the hero characters in Warcraft III are. Having units attacking, defending and capturing resource points (fan geysers) is important, but Eddie can make all the difference when the battle isn’t going the player’s way. Eddie can not only use his own attacks but also do team attacks with all the other units which makes any one unit, far more powerful. So reluctant RTS players should realise that effectively using Eddie, is often far more important than merely giving orders. And fans of the genre can take heart, that there is extra challenge to be found in doing the opposite.

Over the course of the single player campaign, players will be introduced to three different enemy factions, two of which are playable in the games multiplayer and the earliest being a hair-metal variation of the Eddie’s Ironheade faction. Ironheade, the Tainted Coil and the Drowning Doom all have their own hero character and unique units, and the single-player does a good job of introducing them. Although the latter two can only be used in multiplayer. When I first played multiplayer, some months after the original release, it was difficult to get a game without organising one with friends. However, what I did play was a lot of fun and certainly helped by some of the map designs, a few of which had their own dangers outside of the opposing side. So if you can get one friend or three to play with you, there is a rewarding, if not especially deep multiplayer.

Brütal Legend’s soundtrack is best described as Metal 101, featuring hundreds of tracks from dozens of artists, new and old. Despite two obvious omissions of AC/DC and Metallica (possibly due to licensing issues), you have an amazing introduction to a wide variety of metal, most of which can be listened to while driving the Deuce through the hellish landscape. Accompanying this is an amazing original score, which thunders in at various plot points, in the menus and when different landscapes and characters are first introduced.

I must admit that Brütal Legend took me a while to appreciate. I rented it and then later bought it and played to about the same part twice before stopping for a long time. When I finally sat down and played it through, I almost immediately started again and I am now saved about a quarter of the way into my third playthrough. There are a lot of good reasons not to like the game. The gameplay can be awkward, especially so in the RTS ‘Stage Battles’, and it is generally rough around the edges with bugs, bad path-finding for A.I., occasional game crashes and I even had Eddie get stuck in the terrain on more than one occasion. It is also a game that has taken the risk of being more than a single genre which nearly always dilutes the gameplay. But it is in the good company of games like Killer7 and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines where the positives far outweigh design flaws. So if you were reluctant before, or this your the first time reading about it, I recommend you give it a go.

April, 2013

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