The gods of metal are confused
There is something powerfully ironic about Tim Shaffer’s Brutal Legend, a game designed to be a love letter to heavy metal…a letter which would likely include a parcel containing a still-beating human heart. After all, it got published by the biggest third party developer and subsequently sued over by the second-biggest company over publishing rights. Maybe it’s that “selling out” is the anti-thesis of metal-ideologies (ideologies that I guess include “don’t sell out” and “get fookin’ smashed every single night”) and yet this title is being fought over by the two largest record labels in gaming. Or perhaps metal has already sold out years ago, if not in the 90s with The Black Album but in recent years with the Guitar Heros and Rock Bands of the world, turning legendary guitar riffs into $3 online digital nuggets of profit. Mind you, I understand why Double Fine had to sell their souls to the Electronic devil. Their last game, 2005’s Psychonauts, was so great that store clerks wanted to protect every copy of the game possible from evil customers, and did everything in their power to ensure no one bought the game. Whether it was hiding the boxes in the back of the shelves or telling the curious and imaginative 11 year old potential shopper “no, you should buy Grand Theft Auto instead, the kids in school will like you more” it seemed like the fates conspired to keep otherwise intelligent shoppers from purchasing a true work of electric genius.
Now, with the backing of EA, a celebrity voice cast and about one hundred licensed metal songs, Brutal Legend stands poised to make an impact. Or at least make people miss Psychonauts more.
You play as Jack Black playing as Eddie Riggs. He is a roadie facing the exact same problem as we all are; that today’s music sucks. However, an unfortunate accident fortunately transports Riggs into a universe of druids, vikings, chicks with guns and just about every other demonic and misogynistic image ever used on a metal album cover. It’s almost refreshing in today’s era of silent protagonists or JRPG reluctant (teenage) heroes that do everything in their power to reject their world-saving quest (think about The World Ends With You.) to see a character in Riggs whom almost immediately embraces his situation. Here is an individual that seems to be having more fun upholding a rebellion than a dancing Che Guevara marionette.
There isn’t much to hate about the plot or world of Brutal Legends. Amps grow from the earth with more frequency than flowers, t-shirts with a band logo are more sacred than country flags and panthers shoot laser beams out of their eyes. The game is rife with humor that just about any rock follower or emo kid can understand, and maybe hundreds of in-jokes that I never even noticed. On the other hand, a dramatic turn near the end of the game feels out of place, and too many heavy-handed story moments happen within succession of each other, making the story feel too compressed. One gets the feeling that Brutal Legend was intended to last longer than 5-6 hours (not a terribly short length for a game, mind you) but you’ll be quick to forgive such a short length anyways. After all, not only are Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy Kilmister in the game (as a merchant and healer, respectively), but it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that neither of the two have any idea what their in-game roles are actually. After all, Ozzy is listed as the “Guardian of Metal” as opposed to “Guardian of Wares.” But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
So there’s a certain inkling to explore the Brutal Land of Brutal Legend, if just for the prospect of new sight gags and listening to the wicked soundtrack. There are literally mountains of possible dialogue that changes after each mission, and you’ll get a kick revisiting each character (or at least Lemmy) and hearing their thoughts on life, the universe and headbanging. The world is open and expansive, and you can summon your soulmate/car at any time to roll around, shoot giant animals and regret shooting them after they retaliate with fire breath.
It’s when you drive around the world of Brutalia (don’t correct me) that you begin to see where Brutal Legend falls apart. As a sandbox game, you can explore the world but your sandboxiness is limited to doing a series of optional missions that range from “get from A to B really fast” to “use this gun turret” to the game’s personal favorite “ambush these enemies.” If inclined, you could spend more time doing ambush missions than Ozzy spent in rehab. Your reward is simply money to spend at the Ozzshop for assorted upgrades that you can survive without because rock and roll is about machismo and you sir are too tough to need any “improvements”.
As you walk around slashing demons, you come to note that Brutal Legend is trying too hard to be too many different genres at once. There are but a small handful of on-foot action levels where you have to depend on Eddie’s skills with an axe and electricity-channeling guitar. Controls are semi-responsive and combat consists of your typical lock-on-and slash techniques. Eddie handles similarly to Link from Zelda: Ocarina of Time after a Valium overdose, acting frigidly and dodging enemy attacks with Meatloaf-like grace. It’s usually not frustrating and you get so few action sequences that you won’t come to hate the combat, however. Partly because the game has but a greater failure.
But first, a smaller complaint. Occasionally the game will have you partake in an escort mission on your car. There are three of these, and that’s three too many. I thought we outgrew the frustration and annoyance of escort missions two console generations ago. Perhaps a game about 70s metal can be forgiven for being a tad behind the times.
But where Brutal Legend can’t be forgiven is not only the inclusion of, but the focus on real-time strategy. Buyer beware, folks; there is no mention of real-time strategy on the back of the box, so part of me feels like this is our modern day version of Raiden from Metal Gear Solid 2. Several of the missions are “stage battles” that play out as some kind of semi-simplified version of Starcraft. You harvest minerals used to build units, and you control the units in an onslaught against your enemy. I can’t help but feel like the inclusion of an RTS element in a game about heavy metal is rather... alienating. Real Time Strategy is amongst the most cerebral of gaming genres and 70s metal is among the least cerebral of music genres (and proudly so.) I’d wager that if you travelled back in time to the 70s and introduced the patrons of a Black Sabbath concert to this exciting new entertainment product called Brutal Legend, they would be confused, bloody up your lip and throw you outside while toasting a job well done before resuming their original hobby of comparing scar sizes.
It’s as logical marketing-wise as releasing a first person online deathmatch shooter with the Sesame Street license. Or releasing a game with adult wit and humour under the guise of a kid-themed psychic mascot platformer.
The major issue with these RTS segments is the matter of controls. I feel as though there needs to be a law against console strategy games, citing that any attempt to figure out a control scheme will result in wasted cash, time and reviewers’ angry text. In Brutal Legend, these segments are still played from the third-person perspective of your character, and the game expects you to dole out verbal commands to your minions of Rock. But there are many problems with this setup; you never quite have a gauge as to the distance of which people can hear your voice. You’ll often find yourself giving an order to some troops, flying ahead (yes, you can fly in this mode) and giving out an order, only to realize you’ve gone too far ahead for anyone to hear you. And if your base produces a new set of S&M guards, you have to fly all the way back to give them instructions. And don’t get me started on giving out individual orders to a single unit type, because I could never figure it out myself. The game has some weird controller layout for such a task, but wrapping your mind around the correct button presses is asking for too much brainpower. I came to rock out, not think.
Finally, the issue of the third person camera perspective, in that it simply does not work within the context of a real time strategy game. You’re not playing with the god’s top-down view of most RTS’s but rather from the same third person Eddie Riggs perspective as the rest of the game. It’s nigh impossible for a mere mortal on the battlefield to keep track of all of the action happening in said battlefield. With no bird’s eye view, you have to put faith in the game’s AI to follow your orders and win the battle while you go back to a geyser to play the resource mining guitar solo. Small prompts will tell you if a resource geyser or unit is under attack, but their directions are generic and Eddie Riggs lacks the vocal intelligence to say the words “offer back-up to your dying comrade.” Finally, I’ve found no way to keep track of my existing followers. I have no way of knowing where exactly any number of troopers are situated on the map at any time, let alone if they’re even alive. During one mission, I’ll send a sizable army out to attack an enemy squad while I return to base to give instructions out to my new Lemmynator, only to come back and realize that my once-mighty army has vanished like rap-metal.
I can applaud Double Fine for wanting to try something new with their game project, but they wound up toying with the wrong genres of gaming and in the wrong ways. I would have thought that rock history would’ve taught the developers that “genre experimentation” often leads to disaster. And well, Brutal Legend is akin to the experimental jazz album. It’s worth renting for the comedic gags but the gameplay is broken on many fronts, and unlike Psychonauts, is the kind of game you won’t be yearning to revisit.