Brütal Legend

Brütal was better than I was expecting. Just from the film-footage opening of Jack Black in a record store, the game had already put me in a good mood, but that sort of thing was to be expected from Double Fine.

The RTS side actually had some pretty good things going for it, but, there just wasn’t enough depth to it in the campaign. I was on board with the Dawn of War-style capturable resource points, as well as the premise that some units were best suited to destroying buildings, others to vehicles, and the rest to infantry, this also familiar from Dawn of War. Unlike Dawn of War, there were only three or four of these capturable points, on some really simplistic maps: just open fields and ground units. The player doesn’t even build structures.

The idea that the commanding officer had a physical presence and could put himself temporarily in harm’s way to buff his allies was a pretty neat idea, but since there was no penalty for death and little else for the player to do but request units and point out where they needed to attack, this mostly meant suicide-bombing yourself by dropping in where the enemies are thickest and playing the song that summons the Hindenburg–kind of a cross between Guitar Hero and Ocarina of Time–over and over again.

But that’s not so bad–it’s interesting enough of an idea to last you through a few short single player campaign missions, if you never expected to get involved with multiplayer matches anyway. What’s worse is the button-mashing, God of War combat when you’re on the ground. I was never really that big on it in God of War. AXX chains into AXAAA and then hold X, wait out the canned animation, and so on. Memorize two out of fifty arbitrary combos that seem to have little to actually do with your character’s performed movements, and let those get you through the game. Never actually once think “This situation calls for AAXAX and then A+X at the same time.” I had to really cheese the final boss by running around in circles waiting for the guitar hero moves to cool down, because even if I could’ve hopped out of my car at virtually any moment and used some combos on the wildlife, the end boss was pretty much the only actual fight in the game where I didn’t have a car or allies helping, and I was totally unprepared to actually use any proper combos.

But if the game was 10% Dawn of War, and 20% Guitar Hero + God of War, the other 70% was driving around. And as a matter of fact, the driving felt good. The gamepad controls used the analogue shoulder buttons for acceleration/reverse, and also incorporated nitro and handbreak turns, which is better than what a lot of high-budget sandbox titles do with their driving. And yet considering the total absence of cities and traffic, there’s a mundane emptiness to it, like the driving missions in the original Mass Effect, or Borderlands, and ultimately comes down halfway between that (the worst of driving) and something like Driver San Fransisco (the best). Somehow I never once got my car stuck, either, which is certainly a point in Brütal’s favor.

The game has some archaic, N64-game viewpoint on collectible items, and I stopped far short of grabbing them all. Due to some bug on the Windows version, I wasn’t being told what the rewards were for gathering them anyway, but from the wiki, it appears I didn’t miss out too badly. Either way, if a game tells me I can collect 180 items and get 18 rewards, I’m always going to suggest that there instead be only 18 items to find. I did track down all the items that provided story lore, since story and dialogue are the reasons to play a Double Fine game, but if the driving had been less polished, I’d have found the scenes on Youtube and saved myself an hour.

The most annoying thing I encountered in the game was when I’d drive to the other side of the world and then when I was within a minute of finding whatever I had been driving towards, I’d accidentally drive off a cliff and die, forcing me to make the 15 minute drive from scratch. This happened several times. Progress toward collectibles is autosaved, but the game only checkpoints the player’s location upon finishing a mission or driving into a garage, so I often had to choose between the gamble of not bothering to checkpoint, and the probably-thirty-seconds it would take to get in and out of the garage (also, Ozzy talks too much). If not for the fact that driving around launching over stuff while listening to Judas Priest and Angel Witch was the sovereign pleasure available in gameplay anyway, I probably would’ve stopped playing.

I did complete all the side-missions, but while most were completed in a minute each, they were pretty simple and tedious. You had the “be up to date on car upgrades and hold down the shoot button” turret-defense challenges, the “play two songs on your guitar and sit back while things play out” ambush missions, the “drive around for an hour looking for 10 more of those stupid things to kill” hunting missions, and a couple others. The races were actually the most fun, predictably, although there were only two cars and the course indicator lights were sometimes misleading.

If I might allow myself to suggest changes to the game without any respect to feasibility, I think the combat should be thoroughly replaced–say, with something timing-based, like Sleeping Dogs or Batman, or Assassin’s Creed, or even Zelda, rather than the button-mashy God of War stuff that wasn’t really very good at its best. I’m not really an expert on the hottest approaches in melee combat action games right now–what is there? The new Metal Gear game, Revengeance? Haven’t played it–but combat is Brütal’s weakest link, so that’s where I’d start.

I’d prefer some variety to the car weapons, too, like something you can hold down to lock on to multiple targets before launching at all of them. Lower the health of everything so more enemies are being killed faster. Perhaps some could shoot slow rocket projectiles at you, to be dodged or shot out of the sky. Maybe some mounted claw or drill weapons that would be guaranteed to one-hit-kill anything they got their hands on. Maybe you could channel the nitro into the drill. I’d also expand the environments, not so much visually (the game’s landmarks look good and have a cool style) but by populating the world with more cars and varied events. I don’t know what exactly why a driving game like Sleeping Dogs is fun and a moon-buggy game like Mass Effect isn’t, but I’d wager it has less to do with sweet jumps and more to do with roads and the complexities of moving in light traffic.

As for the RTS sections, I would probably like them better if they were more discrete from the other parts, although not necessarily all the way (for an example of “all the way”, see ActRaiser’s two separate game modes). Flight would take you off the board to something more grid-based for placing buildings and the like–bunkers, unit upgrade stations, the usual RTS fare–and would occupy larger pieces of territory, with choke points and aerial units. Eddie would still be able to launch down to a specific location (it might take longer), and would still able to change the tide of minor skirmishes with face-melting guitar solos and led zeppelins, but he would occupy more of a supporting role overall. Given the persistent nature of the “board” I would place a larger emphasis on the hero’s resourcefulness in being able to construct bridges and the like, which could even be prepared while free-roaming to give the player an edge once the campaign battles begin. If you’ve ever read One Piece and have seen Franky build a staircase as fast as he can run up one, that’s what Eddie could have played like, and that seems like a pretty amazing take to me.

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I’d also change a lot of the controls for giving orders, hopefully still allowing it to remain simpler than the typical RTS the mechanics are derived from: maybe selecting all units in or around a certain square on the grid, or selecting a unit type from a menu that can be called up on screen, instead of walking up to a unit of that type and holding down a button.

The story is pretty solid, apart from a contrivance or two to create a conflict or twist, and despite the various problems–namely tedium–the game is worth playing because it’s funny as hell and it can be completed in a day or two.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.
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