Review: Brutal Legend

Despite having only developed one game prior, there were a lot of expectations for Double Fine Productions’ follow-up, Brütal Legend. With founder Tim Schafer behind the wheel, this heavy metal world translated to videogame has been turning (or would it be banging?) heads since its official announcement in 2007. The folks who made Psychonauts? Sign us up!

It’s had a somewhat rocky history, with its publisher, Sierra, being acquired by Activision. Its new mega-publisher overlords made the decision to pass, perhaps thinking the new IP too risky, leaving Brütal Legend in the dust. Electronic Arts, on the other other hand, believed in what Double Fine had to offer, and here we are today… Brütal Legend is finally in stores.

But exactly how brütal is Double Fine’s sophomore effort?

Brütal Legend (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Developer: Double Fine
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: Rocktober 13, 2009
MSRP: $59.99

If you’re a fan of videogames and heavy metal culture, Double Fine’s Brütal Legend should be the greatest game that has ever been made. Hatched from the creative and (sometimes) twisted minds of Tim Schafer and company — one of the gaming industry’s most lauded designers — Brütal Legend is truly the over-the-top world of heavy metal brought to life. It’s an homage that pays respect to the genre — its music, imagery, and artists — while at the same time having a laugh at some of its most ludicrous tenets. In that respect, the world as brought to life in Brütal Legend is brilliant, and sometimes awe-inspiring.

Schafer has gone on record as saying the goal with Brütal Legend was to take every scene, every single still image you could possibly get from the title, and use it as the cover for a heavy metal album. From an art standpoint, Brütal Legend delivers on that promise, offering a land littered with skulls, architecture that looks strapped in bondage, and skies seemingly painted in the blood of demons. The world as a whole looks like a watercolor work, like an absurd Boris Vallejo painting brought to life, with Double Fine interpreting the words and imagery of heavy metal music to influence its aethestic. For those familiar with metal culture, the world will feel both unexpectedly alien and immediately recognizable; for those not in the know, the game will be like a subliminal heavy metal master class.

As expected, this extends to the game’s writing, which is, unsurprisingly, Brütal Legend‘s biggest strength. The game follows modern-day roadie Eddie Riggs as he gets sent “back in time” to a world where heavy metal (or at least the spirit of it) ruled the land. Tasked with using his roadie skills of organization to lead an uprising of metalheads to overthrow the oppressive Doviculus, Eddie ends up becoming a key player in a war that’s been brewing for centuries. Brütal Legend has enough snappy dialogue and plot twists to keep it captivating from beginning to end, with a cast of characters that are surprisingly well thought out, despite being based on well-known cliches.

Fans of Jack Black might be disappointed to hear that his delivery as the voice of Riggs isn’t typical of the actor’s over-the-top rock-n’-roll comedy persona. His more restrained performance is good for the game, however, and Riggs comes across not only as tolerable, but likeable. Performances by the rest of the cast, including everyone from Tim Curry to Lita Ford, are mostly solid across the board. Hell, Ozzy Osbourne even managed to deliver understandable dialogue as an in-game merchant.

The connection to the story and the characters does suffer due to a few of the game’s technical hiccups. For instance, in-game dialogue is sometimes delivered with the wrong timing — an environmental cue will trigger a conversation too early or too late, for example — which can be a bit jarring and confusing. Even some of the game’s odd editing, including sloppy transitions from in-game action to cut-scenes, can interrupt the flow of the narrative. Simply put, the impressive efforts in writing simply don’t translate as well as they could have with a bit more polish.

As far as the gameplay is concerned, Brütal Legend is a mish-mash of gaming styles and genres. While it’s an interesting approach to design, the problem here is that not a single one of these elements is as satisfying or as fleshed-out as it should be. If you’ve played the demo, you’re already familiar with the game’s third-person action mechanics. Eddie can swing his big heavy metal axe to dismember, slice, or decapitate his foes. Alternately, he can use a guitar for attacks, including playing a button-pressing mini-game to perform one of the most amazing attacks you’ll see in any game — the “Face Melter.” Aptly named, the attack will literally melt the faces of your enemies. Yes, it’s as awesome as it sounds.

But for all of that, the third-person combat can also be repetitive and sloppy. With the block button mapped to the out-of-the-way “B” button, we rarely used it; instead we’d quickly hit “B” plus the analog stick while locked on an enemy to dodge attacks. Holding down the “B” button to block left us without a good way to attack, and therefore we mostly ignored it.

As far as the lock-on is concerned, it’s not exactly the most intelligent setup. Combat can sometimes get hectic, with Eddie and his army (more on that in a bit) taking on huge groups of baddies at once. Attempts to lock on to an enemy directly ahead of you, but a bit off in the distance, sometimes will cause you to lock on to a closer enemy to your left or right… one that’s already engaged in combat. All the while, of course, that enemy off in the distance is repeatedly pounding you with some kind of ranged attack. It’s fortunate that in big battles such as these, there’s little reason to target enemies — simple button mashing generally does the trick. While you can upgrade your abilities as you progress through the game, that button mashing feeling never truly goes away.

Brütal Legend isn’t necessarily all about its one-versus-all combat, though. It’s also an open-world game that Eddie can navigate in the Deuce, a heavy metal hot rod nicknamed the “Druid Plow.” The Deuce can be summoned nearly anywhere in the world and at any time by simply playing a heavy metal riff, and you’ll be doing this often, as the game’s story objectives and side missions are scattered all over the game’s world. Here’s where the problem comes in — navigating the world is a bit of a bitch. While you can can access a map by pressing select, the game’s clean “we don’t need no damned HUD” design means there’s no constant mini-map on your screen.

While it’s great that developers are looking for ways to immerse players in the game experience, doing that at the expense of having to pause the game to see a map every 30 seconds is unacceptable. Yes, you can set a beacon/waypoint on the map, which you can then follow to your destination, the turn signal of Eddie’s car helping with general navigation. Regardless, there are times when you simply won’t be able to see the beacon (if it’s not in your line of sight, for instance), or the turn signals are giving seemingly odd direction advice… so it’s back to the map screen, slowing down the action.

As for what you’ll be doing in this open world, it’s a mixture of missions that will advance the story and side quests that can earn you credits for various upgrades for Eddie and his metal army. The game’s side missions are generally very basic, and nothing we haven’t seen before in open-world games — things like fending off an enemy attack or point-to-point races, for instance. As for the story missions, while some of them are basic “kill the enemy” or escort missions, it’s only a few hours into the game that Brütal Legend reveals its hand and makes a surprise turn as a real-time strategy game.

You read that right: a huge part of Brütal Legend — including most of the missions that will let you advance in the story, and those that serve as boss battles — is a real-time strategy element that mixes the basic concepts of standard RTS games with squad-based console control mechanics from titles like Rainbow Six. It’s unfortunate that this is such a significant portion of Brütal Legend‘s core gameplay, because quite frankly, it’s the most tedious, least fun, and most broken part of the game. These instanced RTS battles generally have two factions battling for fan geysers to build “mech booths” on, which then provide you with resources to spend on units that you’ll use to destroy your opponent’s rock stage (or in at least one instance, the door to a fortress) or protect your own.

While it’s clever of Double Fine to incorporate such a disparate and unexpected style of gameplay into Brütal Legend, it simply doesn’t work on so many levels, and it kills the overall experience. Imagine, if you will, playing a real-time strategy game with no mini-map to keep track of troops; instead you’re given the ability to oversee only part of the battlefield by flying up and hovering above the action. The only way to order your troops is by way of clunky point-and-click beacons, and stop/go/attack commands that (if you’re lucky) your troops will only listen to half of the time. Frustrating doesn’t begin to describe these experiences, forced throughout Brütal Legend.

Some of the battles can go on for upwards of one hour, with you fighting off hordes of enemies with your own troops, the back-and-forth struggle more repetitive and boring than fun. With zero checkpoints in the battles, it’s possible to fail (or in many cases, you might simply turn off the console in frustration) 30 or 40 minutes in, and then get sent back to the start to do it all again. Simply put, these RTS sections are a miserable addition to a game that features otherwise inoffensive (if not somewhat obvious) gameplay.

Being forced to participate in a number of these battles, including most of the major boss battles, was simply painful. With each RTS battle presented, we would groan, wishing at the most that Double Fine would have been able to refine this console RTS experience to make it more playable, and at the least, enjoyable. (Full disclosure: Towards the end of the game’s story, we were forced to switch to the game’s easiest mode, “Gentle,” just so we could complete a particularly frustrating battle to “get it over with.”)

As it turns out, these RTS sections are simply a tutorial for the game’s online multiplayer, which mirrors these instanced sections in just about every way. The multiplayer mode does offer a bit more variety in that it lets you choose from three of the game’s factions: Ironheade, Drowning Doom, and Tainted Coil. Each has its own look and unit types, as well as its own leader, which is directly controlled by the player. However, when it comes down to it, each is balanced evenly in terms of strenghts and weaknesses. The online mode also offers four-on-four battles. Having three other teammates admittedly makes it a bit easier to manage troops than in the single-player, and it opens the game up to eke out a bit of fun. But considering the multiplayer is built around what is easily the one gameplay style that ultimately destroys the single-player experience, it’s hard to imagine this mode will have legs in the long run.

Again, Brütal Legend should be one of the greatest video games ever made; the key word here is “should.” It’s with a heavy heart that, after almost 15 hours of play (including multiplayer and single-player side quests), we have to report that it simply doesn’t deliver the way we wanted it to. For fans of metal, there are enough inside jokes and nods here to make you smile, and even casual observers of the culture will find something to hold their attention. But ultimately, the game disappoints, with some “been there, done that” gameplay mixed with some potentially interesting concepts that either fall flat, or sometimes feel like a chore.

Is Brütal Legend brutal? Definitely. Is it metal? The world, its inhabitants, and the 100-plus metal tracks that nearly tear out your speakers as you play are proof enough of that. But unfortunately, those things didn’t quite add up to an amazing game, instead leaving us with a title that could have been so much more.

Score: 6 — Alright (6s may be slightly above average or simply inoffensive. Fans of the genre should enjoy them a bit, but a fair few will be left unfulfilled.)

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Nick Chester
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