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Gaming: Brutal Legend

Eddie and Ophelia in the Druid Plow

Wikipedia fact: "Though Brütal Legend was originally to be published by Vivendi Games prior to its merger with Activision, Activision had dropped the game from its portfolio after the merger. It was later picked up by Electronic Arts, though Activision and Double Fine brought counter-lawsuits against each other over publishing issues. The issues have since been settled out of court."

Year of Release: 2009

Developed by: Double Fine

System(s): Xbox 360 (version played), PlayStation 3

Summary: Roadie Eddie Riggs finds himself transported to a world built around Heavy Metal, where he is enlisted into the fight to free humanity from their demon overlords.

The Guardian of Metal

Wikipedia fact: "In addition to Black, the game features voices of heavy metal musicians including Lemmy Kilmister, Rob Halford, Ozzy Osbourne and Lita Ford and other celebrities such as Tim Curry, as well as more than one hundred metal songs selected by Schafer for inclusion in the game."

Thoughts: Eddie Riggs is a man born in the wrong time, stuck being a roadie to ‘boy band’ metal groups instead of serving the legends of heavy metal, wishing he’d been born earlier (he’s asked: “Like, the seventies?”  Eddie replies, “Earlier.  Like, the early seventies.”).  Following an accident, he is transported Wizard of Oz-style into a heavy metal fantasy land where he can wield an axe with ease and use his guitar to blast enemies with pyrotechnic magic attacks, swiftly putting his roadie skills to use mobilising humanity and recruiting them into an army to fight against the demons who lord over them.

Unlike most put in that kind of situation, Eddie is truly in his element, let loose in a world he truly understands (more so than the world he came from).  There’s one moment early on where he comes across a tall, lithe nun with her back to him, and Eddie predicts that she’s actually a scary demon and is quickly proven correct (“kind of sexy though, in a weird way”).  He’s the perfect man to shape the resistance movement, while always adamant that he’s the support and not  the leader, doing all the work to make others look good.

So how is it as an actual game?  Fidgit’s Tom Chick sums things up rather well:

Brutal Legend isn’t a very smooth game, which is surprising considering the low-rent graphics engine. It seems like it was built so it could be scaled down to the Playstation 2. It suffers from bad frame rates, details magically popping into the near distance, and lots of blunt “you can’t go here!” level design. A lot of the gameplay is similarly clumsy or basic. The fighting is standard-issue. The driving is rudimentary. You have to play a rather complicated real time strategy game at certain points in the story, which is going to give some people fits. At times, Brutal Legend is flat-out bad in terms of gameplay.

But that would be a pretty short-sighted way to evaluate what developer Double Fine has created. Regardless of how it holds up as a game, Brutal Legend is a staggeringly imaginative, sincerely heartfelt, joyously child-like place to go, full of innocence and wonder and awesome cussing and cool characters and hidden jokes and sweet places to drive your bitchin’ car and heroes to fight alongside and villains to vanquish and secret destinies to discover. It is like being fourteen all over again, and I’ll take that over a slickly done game any day.

So yes, most of Brutal Legend‘s gameplay is simply okay.  The main combat is a functional Zelda-style brawler that gets a bit overwhelmed in large fights, the driving is merely adequate for the task, and the strategy elements could possibly overwhelm and frustrate those who would otherwise be the target audience, even if it’s a very hands-on, light RTS that never takes you out of the fighting.  But to dismiss Brutal Legend on those grounds would be like dismissing Psychonauts as a functional platformer or Grim Fandango as an adventure game with obscure puzzles and awkward controls.

As with the above examples, where the game really shines through is in its characters, its dialogue and the world.   Jack Black excels as Eddie, a character not worlds apart from others he’s played in the past, and really brings the character to life.  It’s unclear exactly how many of Eddie’s lines were from Double Fine and how many were ad-libbed by Black, but it’s all top notch.  Likewise, aside from a few over-repeated phrases every character is written well and are a genuine pleasure to talk to simply to hear what they have to say, whether they’re metal legends making cameo appearances (like Lemmy and Ozzy Osbourne), or the most minor of voice roles.

The realtime strategy elements are probably going to be the most divisive part of the game, because in all other respects the game seems to set itself up to be an action adventure (or maybe even a light roleplaying game), meaning it’s going to take some people by surprise.  RTS elements do dominate later on (in fact most of the later part of the game follows a strict formula of having you escorting the stage bus and then having a stage battle) but fit perfectly in the setting, being a battle of the bands affair that requires taking control of fans (by building merchandise booths atop fan geysers) to build up your army and destroy the opponent’s stage.  It’s actually a solid RTS (if a bit chaotic), and by borrowing heavily from other genres serves as a good example of how to make RTS mechanics work on a console, beyond simply finding the best way to make a controller replicate mouse and keyboard controls.

Eddie and some Headbangers

The Headbanger units are Eddie's first recruits, and are a personal favourite of mine.

The world itself is a lovingly-crafted tribute to heavy metal album covers, where even the flora and fauna are built from pieces of the stage or other metal props.  Dotted around the world are viewing platforms for showing off the major landmarks, such as giant guitars thrust out of the ground or a wall of speakers under bombardment from microphone seagulls (generating deadly feedback in the process).  There’s even a detailed lore revealed through finding them on the map, about the history of the land and why metal is so thoroughly embedded into the culture and the world as a whole.

They actual story you play through isn’t quite as perfect, being fairly traditional outside of its very untraditional setting, with some moments in particular that really seemed a little forced.  To quote Resolution Magazine’s review:

The real problem is that Eddie Riggs makes a series of decisions that are painstakingly obvious to the player, and are not something you’d choose doing if you were given that choice. That a good third of the game wouldn’t take place if you were given the choice of whether to be a dick or not is perhaps telling.

I don’t see it as a major drawback though because the game really is a lot of fun.  I’m not a fan of heavy metal music in general, but there’s such a varied selection of licensed music from the genre that even I found plenty to enjoy, with certain songs in particular used perfectly (“Mr. Crowley” being one example).

Brutal Legend is both a fun game and (much rarer) a funny game, with excellent writing, a great world, great performances from the voice actors and a loving tribute to heavy metal, which all come together to make Brutal Legend one of the more memorable and enjoyable games of the year.

The world of Brutal Legend

Tim Schafer quote: "But I thought, if we were to make a fantasy game it would be cool to out-fantasy the fantasy games and go even farther. And what would be the name of something like that? And that's where the name Brütal Legend came from, because it just sounded like the hardest core fantasy thing out there."

Trailers:

Demo: The demo is available on both Live (which you can queue to download here) and the PSN.  It features the whole opening of the game, which should give you a good feel for the humour, the writing and the combat.  The only major absence is the strategy element, which is a bit of a shame as it’s by far the most divisive part of the game.  I don’t think it would be a ‘deal-breaker’ though even for people who don’t like it (I actually enjoyed them more than the regular combat), so anybody who enjoys the demo should enjoy the game as a whole.

Image Sources:

Eddie & Ophelia and Ozzy: Fidgit

All others: Eurogamer

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