Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Brütal Legend (Double Fine/Electronic Arts, 2009/2013)

Heavy Metal.

I grew up in the 80s. Heavy Metal was my pop music. My family signed up for cable as soon as it was available in our area, and we had a channel called MTV. I'm not about to go into an old man rant about how MTV doesn't play music anymore. At this point we've got live action shows on Cartoon Network, reality shows about trucking on The History Channel, and reruns of Cops on G4, so MTV giving up on music is only a small part of what is wrong with modern television. Don't even get me started on what The Discovery Channel has devolved into! The point is, back in the 80s, MTV was awesome. It didn't take the network long to replace Devo and The Buggles with Quiet Riot and Def Leppard. From that point on, metal became the soundtrack to my generation. While some abandoned metal for hip hop or grunge in the early 90s, many stayed the course enjoying the riffs and solos as they transitioned from popular, to passé, to revered classics.

Metal and video games have had a long history. Once CD-Roms started replacing cartridges, real music tracks started appearing in games, and it didn't take long for designers to realize that metal tracks could give their games a type of energy that other music genres simply couldn't match. Sports titles such as the Madden franchise started playing metal tracks before games to pump of the players. Rhythm based music games such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band would lean heavily toward metal tracks (no pun intended) to feed the cravings of a whole new generation of axe wielding head bangers. But, no game has ever sung the praises of heavy metal and all that it encompasses more than Brütal Legend.

When Brütal Legend was first released, it was a PS3 exclusive. The ads made it look awesome, and my friends who had it made me extremely jealous. But, I didn't have a PS3, so I was left out of the fun.

As I mentioned in my Alice: Madness Returns review, my amazing wife got me a PS3 for Xmas, so of coarse, the first game I purchased for it was Brütal Legend.

The game follows the adventures of Eddie Riggs (Jack Black's greatest role since School of Rock), a long time heavy metal roadie disenchanted with the current state of hard rock music who by an unexplained supernatural chain of events gets transported to a fantasy realm based around metal. He doesn't know how or why he is there, but it quickly becomes apparent that he has to help the good guys and stop the bad guys. Luckily, his roadie experience gives him just the perfect set of skills that the world needs.

I'll admit that the story doesn't really make a whole lot of sense when you think about it, and the drama and romance are presented with the level of care you'd expect from a summer action flick, but that's all part of the charm. It's not trying to reach beyond that, and in that respect it seems to find itself exactly where it wants to be. The voice cast on the other hand is an amazing ensemble. In addition to the amazing Tim Curry, and the expected Kyle Glass (the other half of Tenacious D), there are several cameos by rock n' roll royalty including Rob Halford, Lemmy, Ozzy Osbourne and Lita Ford. I need to go ahead and say right now that if the previous sentence didn't get you exited then you might want to stop reading this review right now because the game probably isn't for you. For the rest of you, read on.

After so recently playing through Darksiders II and Alice: Madness Returns I was expecting more of the same, an epic single player action adventure with a lot of Hack n' Slash and a little RPG thrown in for good measure, all set to an all star soundtrack. For the most part, that's what I got, but there was something else, something unexpected, and something that if you don't wrap your mind around it early on might turn you off of the game. For the major encounters in the game, the plot turning level ending epic build up moments just before you watch the next cutscene and unlock the next world area, the game turns into an RTS.

Real-Time Strategy games have never been my favorite genre, but I've enjoyed the few that I've played. For whatever reason I just don't seem to get hooked on them as much as others do. The RTS elements of this game are presented differently than in most games. Rather than having a disembodied view floating over the battlefield, you still control Eddie. In earlier sections, you simply run around and command the few troops you have which feels more like squad combat, but as the game progresses, and you amass a greater variety of troops, Eddie gains the ability to fly over the battle, easing you into a more traditional RTS experience. The entire time, you are still playing an active role in the battle yourself. You are still being attacked by the enemies and can at any time run up to them and start attacking them directly. You can also team up with any of your troops, which ranges from getting a piggy back ride to driving a tank. By teaming up with a troop, you gain some of their special abilities.

It's a great system once you get used to it, allowing you to have the active invested connection to the action that you would get from a single player action game while still experiencing the overall battle in a way usually reserved for the less personal RTS genre. The problem with it is not in the implementation, but in the presentation. The first few times this happens, you have a handful of guys following you around that you can give basic commands to such as follow, wait, guard, or attack. It reminded me a bit of the Oddworld series.

The thing is, these first few encounters can also be hacked through just by running around and taking out the enemies yourself, so you can almost ignore that these sections exist for a while and continue playing the solo adventure you've been playing. The other problem is that these encounters only happen at specific sections of the game, and there is nothing like them throughout the rest of the game. This leads them to being very disorienting and frustrating when they first start getting complex enough that they require an entirely different approach to gameplay. At a certain point, I just had to make the conscious switch in my head that "this is the type of game it is now, and I have to play it like this instead of like that". But again, once I finally wrapped my brain around it, I enjoyed it a lot.

The rest of the game plays like an open world hack n' slash RPG thrown in a blender with Grand Theft Auto. You'll be exploring the land, battling fantastic creatures, uniting the kingdom and overthrowing the great evil, all with a heavy metal flavoring. The sidequests are repetitive, but fun. Most of them are more of mini-games than they are additional RPG content. Again, once you wrap your brain around it, it's highly enjoyable.

The solo combat is just plain fun. Your main weapon is a comically oversized axe, a possible jab at late 90s JRPGs. I couldn't help but think of Cloud's ridiculously large sword from Final Fantasy VII the first time I saw it. It's a great melee weapon and it's fun to hack your way through hoards of fodder on your way to the big guys. Your second weapon is your guitar. You bring this guitar with you from the real world when you are transported, but in this world it has amazing powers, taking the place of the magical elements from standard fantasy games. The guitar can be used quickly in combat to hit enemies from a distance and cast elemental effects on them such as lighting them on fire. Throughout the game you learn a number of riffs for the guitar, borrowing from Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. These riffs are played by quickly hitting the right buttons at the right time Guitar Hero style. Some of them are combat moves such as the amazing Face Melter which literally melts the faces of your enemies like they're Nazis opening the lost ark. Others are used to activate alters and open tombs.

The UI follows the modern trend of less is more. Pulling a trigger to select a guitar riff or manage your troops will bring up radial displays in the center of the screen, but for the most part there is no UI at all. This style has both its advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, it allows you to enjoy an unobstructed view of the game world as if you were watching an animated movie. The view does look clean without random icons and meters crowding the edges of the screen. On the other hand, it's not as easy to keep up with your current status as it would be if you just had a health bar on the screen. A game like Dead Space can get away with putting UI elements directly on the player's suit, but that wouldn't work in a game like this. Instead, the music itself becomes the player's health meter. The more damage you take, the more filtered the music becomes, getting thinned out until it sounds like a tiny transistor radio. When you are close to death, the screen also begins to redden, but for the most part, it's the music that lets you know what your current health is. This makes it difficult to play the game with the sound off, but if you're playing this game with the sound off, this probably isn't the game for you.

The game's soundtrack is one of the best collections of classic metal that's ever been compiled. Not only will you hear some of the biggest hits the genre has produced, there's also a great collection of some of the best songs that never made it to constant rotation on the airwaves. Borrowing from classic MTV, the artist name and song title pop up in the corner of the screen as each new song starts while you cruise around in your car.

It's fitting that a game like this came from the mind of Tim Schafer. Unlike most other forms of entertainment, the gaming industry doesn't really have celebrities. As far as game designers go though, Schafer is about as close to a rock star as you can get. Overall he brings the same level of charm that he has to his past classics, Psychonauts, Grim Fandango, and the Monkey Island series. Time will tell if this title will be remembered in such high regard years from now, but if you're looking for an epic adventure with some RTS sections sprinkled in and a metal soundtrack of epic proportions, then I highly recommend this game, especially now that it's finally available on PC.

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