Brutal Legend Review
Wednesday, October 21, 2009 1:15 PM
Rock on, rock off, rock on, rock off.
I don't know what it is about Tim Schafer, but he's never produced a game that I haven't fallen totally in love with.
From writing duties on Monkey Island 1 and 2, through to his LucasArts swansong Grim Fandango, and Double Fine opening number Psychonauts; there hasn't been a game the man's helped steer to creation that I haven't wanted to instantly slap a 10/10 on and espouse its greatness to all and sundry.
Until now (dun dun dunnn!)
There have been as many iffy reviews of Brütal Legend as there have been scorchingly positive, for good reason: it's not a game for everyone. The first clue is Heavy Metal. Are you a fan of this type of bass-thumpin' epic rock? If the answer's no, there's the door. You will not enjoy Brütal Legend. If, like me, you can at least stand the music and don't mind a few songs on the soundtrack, well then, read on.
Brütal Legend's all about heavy metal. Double Fine has created a world that looks like cool fantasy album covers, where the songs are a gift from the gods and the whole thing plays like some rockin' Norse epic. The setting is perfectly realised and blows pretty much every other free-roaming fantasy game world out of the water in terms of sheer coolness.
From giant stone swords littering the landscape; massive walls of speakers; mountains of bones; and subtler things like trees shaped like car exhausts; vines that look like bony hands; and Eddie Riggs' expressions, there isn't a single part of this world that hasn't been crafted with love and exquisite detail. It's simply a joy just to drive around and take in the scenery.
And driving is something you'll be doing a lot of, so it's a good thing that it's great fun (especially when you get some weapon upgrades). With 100+ of the best Metal songs, from well-known names like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest to lesser-known bands like Brocas Helm and Manowar (plus a certain Tenacious D of course), you'll be banging your head so much you'll crash the car at every turning.
Some of the songs are just used perfectly, like 'Through The Fire and the Flames' by DragonForce to a great chase sequence, although 'The Hellion/Electric Eye' by Judas Priest was wasted on an early ambush, rather than using it for the final battle as I'd hoped it would be.
Y'know, if you like that type of thing. I got on with about fifteen songs on the whole soundtrack, so I still got the feeling that I was missing out somehow. Luckily the ever-dependable Peter McConnell (who's scored all of Schafer's other games) has some lovely atmospheric music that you can listen to instead.
We've talked about the music, how about the voices? (And yes, I realise I'm talking about all the aesthetics and haven't even mentioned the game itself, there's a reason for that). A host of famous metal names are here, including Ozzy Osborne and Lemmy, but not being a metal fan I can't possibly comment on the coolness of their appearance, except that they all do an good job.
The best performances are by the proper actors though. Tim Curry does another perfect sneery role as the evil Emperor Doviculus, who simply isn't in it enough for my tastes, but it's Jack Black that steals Brütal Legend. Whatever you think of Black as a comedian, with Tim Schafer writing his lines and with no silly physical comedy, he utterly shines. He is Eddie Riggs.
I refuse to talk about the story, however; barring what there was in the demo. Eddie is a roadie working behind-the-scenes for a crappy teen boy band, before an accident on-stage somehow transports him back in time to a bad-ass world where heavy metal is a religion, humanity is enslaved by the demon lord Doviculus, and music is a weapon. After meeting and saving the sultry warrior girl Ophelia, they set off in the car Eddie unearths to join the resistance, find more of these 'religious artefacts' and free the human race.
The story is told and written very well, as we've come to expect from Schafer, with one big conceit that the ending is rather abrupt. I won't spoil anything, but after a big battle you expect another portion of the map to open up, instead you pretty much just repeat the battle again, have an easy boss fight, and then the whole thing's over. There's not much in the way of resolution in some places either, as it really feels like Double Fine are setting up for a sequel. However, there's no excuse for a rushed ending.
Now then, on to the game itself and where the problems lie. Ask anyone who's been following the game before its release 'what type of game Brutal Legend is,' and they'd say a hack n' slash fighting game with lots of free-roaming driving round a big heavy metal world. Eddie does do a lot of that, but all the advertising failed to show off the real meat of the game - strategy.
First of all, a beef I have with pretty much every review of Brütal Legend - it is not a Real-Time Strategy like Command & Conquer. It is an Action Strategy, like Sacrifice or Giants: Citizen Kabuto. You command an army strategically, but you play a character on the battlefield fighting with your troops. It's predominantly a PC genre, and failed to take off for one simple reason: not enough people liked it.
Action fans didn't like the strategy, and strategy fans didn't like the action. Making a game for that niche audience that liked both at the same time, and then putting it on consoles where issuing orders is far more tricky and then making it all about heavy metal music, well then, Double Fine's attempt to broaden out to a wider crowd doesn't seem as wise as it first seemed.
I exaggerate. While there is some strategy, the main gameplay is all about directly hacking things to bits. The main problem the game has is that it utterly fails to show or tell you important facts that you simply need to know for that strategy. The Rally Flag or upgrading units, for example. If you don't want to keep on going back to your base (a rock stage!) to tell units where to go, you need to summon a Rally Flag to get them to go somewhere as soon as they're 'built.' But does the game tell you this important fact? No, it does not. And I only found out that you could upgrade units, and how to, after reading it in the manual this morning.
A Good Gaming Rule is that if there's some important feature your players will need, first you have to tell them about it, then you have to force them to use it at least once so they get the hang of it. Brütal Legend often doesn't bother with either step. Some hints from Eddie would be nice too, instead of the "here's the answer, dingbat" pop-up message during some puzzles, like an early boss fight involving a big spider.
This post by Tim Schafer also really annoyed me. I'm sure he just wanted to help, but if you have to do a f***ing essay to explain how to play your game, if you have to snatch the pads out of our hands and say "no, this is how you do it", then you've not done your job as a game designer. In fact, there's a quote there that says the following:
"Some people find it hard to split up the army and give individual orders to individual troops. This is kinda true, mostly because you shouldn't be doing it!"
Then why the bloody hell did you put it in the option in the first place? You only use that feature, like, twice in the entire game (and one of those times is the tutorial) and it's incredibly fiddly to do, so why bother including it at all? You're just needlessly complicating something people are already going to be struggling with.
Once you do get what you're supposed to do, the "Stage Battles" (as they're called) can be fun. Either that or you'll start dreading them. I somehow managed to get through them all without failing once and I was still not looking forward to the next one. It's just not as fun as the one-on-one action, hacking with your battle-axe and frying people with the mystical powers of your guitar.
The free-roaming sections are great, with lots to see and do. Finding Legend statues to unlock tales of how the world was formed was my personal favourite thing to find, although unlocking new songs, magical music Solos that help you in battle, and cool landmark observation points are fun too.
It's just a shame that there isn't more variety with the Secondary Missions, as they all seem to run along the same lines (often same dialogue too, irritatingly) with just a couple of cool exceptions. Maybe with all the imagination on show, the pot just ran dry when it came to making actual quests to do.
There are some major flaws with Brütal Legend and it certainly isn't for everyone, but if you're not running screaming from the words "strategy", "Jack Black" and "Heavy Metal," I urge you to try it. There may be flaws, but it's such a huge, impressive work of absolute care and devotion to its subject matter that many things are easy to forgive.
You'll still grumble at every important thing the game fails to tell you (that's what the internet's for, chumps!) and give a stunned "is that it?" come end credits time, but it's definitely one of the best games I've played all year.
Rock on Mr Riggs, rock on.
Chris "Attempted to do that rock gesture with the index and little fingers and instead did a Vulcan greeting" Capel