Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
Let’s make no mistake of it; Tim Schafer is an undisputed god of game design. As heralded as Shigeru Miyamoto and Sid Meier, Schafer is known for his great humor, strong storylines, fantastic new worlds and oozing production values in the games he has created. His last opus, “Psychonauts”, was an example of his great design. So how does his latest creation, “Brutal Legend” fare up?
Well, before I continue to give verbal fellatio to Tim Schafer, let me be clear to say that “Brutal Legend” is a great game. It has a lot of the Schafer hallmarks, such as cartoony characters, witty dialogue, a fleshed out world, and fantastic images, but it also contains one of his major setbacks, and that is overall a fairly weak gameplay mechanic.
The game has you star as super roadie Eddie Riggs who, after a freak accident, is transported into a land which is essentially a breathing Heavy Metal album cover, complete with S&M demons, giant sword statues, an Aztec jungle, and a menagerie of flora and fauna that looks like it was cut from fine chrome. Here, Riggs joins up with a resistance movement to take down the evil demon Doviculous, who has basically enslaved mankind in this world, which leads to a strange hybrid of action and real time strategy.
Now a lot of people who have been disappointed with this game seem to be surprised by the RTS elements, which is understandable in some respects, but also kind of surprising in others, since the past few months the marketing for the game has pushed it as an action RTS to begin with. The core gameplay has you traversing an open world in your hot-rod from the gods and completing story based missions, like all sand-box games. The missions range from solo treks in a God of War-like hack and slash battle, to driving missions where you need to fend off enemies, to the aforementioned RTS missions called “stage battles” here, where you partake in the hallmarks of any RTS, acquiring recourses, in this case fan geysers, leading to stage upgrades that lead to troop deployment to engage and defeat enemy troops in combat, until one stage is destroyed.
The best part of these stage battles is that you can partake in the action as well, giving your troops support through special guitar solos that can melt faces, slow down enemies, make them depressed, and so forth. You also can direct troops to specific waypoints and dish out specific orders to your unit’s types, such as killing specific enemies or attacking a specific tower, but the main problem with this mechanic is that it’s too obtuse in the controls. It is hard to maneuver the controls properly and even harder to set specific units when the action is extremely high end, leading to a case of brute force over strategy and tactics almost every time.
And it’s a shame that the lightweight RTS elements don’t hold a candle to the major RTS players out there. “Halo Wars,” for all its faults, was coherent enough to be as close as a console RTS can be when you’re not hot keying commands on the keyboard. Brutal Legend tries the minimalist approach, and while it’s competent in this regard, the problem is it pales in comparison to others in the genre. Even in multi-player it is fairly weak, which is a shame because this is basically the bread and butter of the game, with all of the sandbox exploration being just the backdrop to these stage battles.
When you’re not dishing out the heavy metal thunder with your magic guitar and giant axe, you can tackle a bunch of side-quest missions to gain upgrades for Eddie, being new axes, car parts, and even guitar strings. This also includes six or seven different scavenger hunts which flesh out the back-story of the Brutal Legend World, offer visual treats for the player, or just give you more power in terms of health and resistance. While not totally boring, a lot of people would probably skip these side-missions and “find X amount of Y” quests because of the time it takes to complete them, making the game go through literal overkill. Plus it doesn’t help that the main story, while really good and easily the strongest point in the game, is at best ten hours if you take your time with it.
For all the weaknesses of the gameplay, the games design nearly makes up for it. The world would indulge in every adolescent fantasy of blood encrusted demons, magic axes, nitro infused cars, and panthers that shoot lasers from their eyes. From the halls of the Battersmith, a Helm’s Deep keep that looks like a giant anvil, to the valley of Bladehenge, where giant swords grow out of the ground, the game looks like what it’s supposed to be. So Spinal Tap in its appearance it’s hard not to love it, and it clearly shows that the guys and gals at Double Fine not only know their Heavy Metal, but wanted to give it as much respect as it could, right down to the last, chrome detail. It also helps that the designs are a bit cartoonish in their appearance, which just adds to the awesome hilarity that is bestowed upon the viewer, and again makes a case that games can be art, from an aesthetic standpoint at least.
The sound also augments the design. Anyone who did not want to play this game just because Jack Black is the main voice is a fool. He not only underplays it here as Riggs, but he’s actually endearing, like a kid who, for all intents and purposes, knows his surroundings despite never being there before. The supporting cast is also amazing, which include some fantastic voice work from the world of Heavy Metal, including Ozzy Osbourne in a hilarious role, Rob Halford of Judas Priest fame in two separate roles, and Lemmy from Motorhead being, well Lemmy. The other cast members, right down to the lowly units you control, each have personality to them, and it shows. It also helps that the dialogue is punchy and really a hoot to listen to. Finally, the soundtrack is amazing. Containing 107 different songs from the known and unknown of metal, handpicked by Schafer himself, it is a treat to listen to the ones you know and the one’s you don’t know, offering a myriad of play styles as you roam the landscape. Sure, some major names like Iron Maiden and Metallica are forgotten, but this can be forgiven because the strength of the soundtrack is fantastic.
Tim Schafer has made fantastic games before, but when compared to the rest of his work, “Brutal Legend” pales in comparison. Perhaps it’s due to the score or the scrutiny of his last offering, or his entire career would make Pixar studios jealous, but for whatever reason, “Brutal Legend” does not hold up as well as other Schafer games. It holds up well enough over most games in general, despite the schizophrenic gameplay that is a strange hybrid of RTS and hack and slash sandbox. If one of these gameplay elements was removed, perhaps it would have been a stronger game. But in this case, it seems like Schafer wanted to have his cake and eat it, and it unfortunately detrimented the experience to the point where only the bravest of souls, the harbingers of metal, and the hardcore of the hardcore would likely dare to play the game.