BRUTAL LEGEND / Double Fine / PC

I feel like I should probably be somewhat harder on Brutal Legend, like a 4/5 is maybe giving it an extra point solely for effort. Other critical reviews almost uniformly are, putting the game down in the "C+ at best" range. Part of that is because it's the usual Double FIne story of an engaging game world and characters, lovely and unique visual style, great audio work, and all the intangibles and etc. being on point, but the core gameplay feeling unpolished and not entirely well thought out. Another part of that, however, seems to be a perception of being "bait and switched" -- early promo materials and the first few hours of the game make it seem like it's going to be the comedic metal version of God of War or Devil May Cry, then suddenly you're hit with a somewhat complex and frustrating RTS out of nowhere that doesn't compare to anything else out there save the obscure PC game Sacrifice and the obscure Genesis game Herzog Zwei. I thought the game was very much worth bearing with, though, and was happy that I completed it in the end.

So you play as professional roadie Eddie Riggs, currently working for a terrible tween pop-metalcore band called Kabbage Boy. Just as Eddie is lamenting that he was born in the wrong era, the idiotic antics of the lead singer cause the elaborate stage set to collapse on Eddie and kill him. This is actually a major life improvement, though, as Eddie is transported to a world seemingly made from Iron Maiden album covers, where old-school metal reigns supreme. There's actually a coherent explanation as to why this happened, but we'll have to wait to nearly the end of the game to get it. In the meantime, Eddie links up with a small human resistance fighting to liberate the land from demonic rule and the sellout glam rock human army occupying their homeland.

As mentioned, for the first few hours of the game there's no RTS battles. It's all fighting, driving and exploring the open world for hidden goodies for the most part. The story missions introduce some light tactics, such as giving basic "attack" and "stay put" directions to a small squad, but these are interspersed with more traditional solo boss battles and scenes in which you must race through crumbling terrain in your car.

When the RTS battles finally come in, they are introduced gently with the first couple being for tutorial purposes and rather easy. However, since there's only 7 or 8 in the whole game, it's a pretty rapid shift from tutorial mode to expected mastery of the mechanics, which a lot of people had trouble getting past. The RTS battles kinda look like Warcraft or tower defense or other traditional modes of the genre, just from a first-person 3D view where you have to manually move around the battlefield to issue orders in person rather than the typical "eye of god" style. This does, initially, give a frustrating feeling of lack of control, particularly in the ability to separate units and give individual squads specific orders. What you'll eventually realize (if you have the patience to stick with it) is that the game isn't actually meant to be played like any traditional RTS, where there's at least some element of defense and war of attrition; it's all about super-aggressive tactics and dynamically responding to enemy attacks on the fly. Once you "get" it it's actually pretty innovative and fun, and my main complaint was that more wasn't done with in in the single-player campaign  (rather than the more common call for it to be excised entirely). I didn't completely "get" it and start really enjoying it until the final string of 3 battles, and then the game was over. I guess that's what multiplayer was included for, but I can't stand most other people online, so that's kind of a problem.

Fortunately, there's ample incentive to wade through the RTS battles. The game's greatest pleasure is really just racing around the world taking it all in, with a rather staggering licensed soundtrack of about 100 metal classics blaring to boot. There's gameplay incentive to explore, too; you get more songs for the radio by finding hidden shrines, there's serpent statues that have to be activated to power up Eddie and his troops, and there's hidden "solos" (the game's magic spells basically) that REALLY help in the RTS battles. I usually don't even bother with post-credits wander-abouts, but I played a good bit of it here as I was enjoying seeing the history of the world by finding hidden orb statues about that I had missed, and the characters were good enough that I wanted one last visit with them before hitting the ol' "Delete Local Content" button. There are a bunch of side missions, but they're pretty repetitive and sometimes a little janky; they're really only good for earning more Metal Tributes (the game's currency) to spend on weapon and car upgrades at the shop.

Along with what must have been lavish spending on the soundtrack comes an all-star voice lineup of metal legends. There's an almost shockingly coherent Ozzie as the Metal Forge shopkeeper, Rob Halford as the villainous General Lyonwhite, Lemmy as uh ... well basically Lemmy, Lita Ford, and probably some other people I don't even know. And then there's Jack Black as Eddie. Jack Black is definitely not to everyone's tastes, what with the mugging and the dancing and the riga gu gus and etc. But here he's much more subdued than his usual persona, and between his surprisingly good voice work and the exhaustive amount of promo legwork he did for the game, he's really about half of what makes it all work.

The game was originally an Xbox 360 exclusive in 2009, and this PC port didn't come out until early 2013. It does get the benefit of improved draw distances and higher resolutions, but you'll probably still want an Xbox 360 pad as that's what the controls are optimized for. Keyboard and mouse would probably make driving more of a Mass Effect 1-ish pain in the ass than it already is sometimes. They've apparently also done a lot of bugfixing since the initial 2013 release, but as of late 2014-early 2015 the game still has a problem with the button prompts and instructional/reminder messages sometimes randomly failing to display, making certain sequences really confusing sometimes.

Designer Tim Schafer has said in an interview that the game was unfinished -- an entire enemy faction (and their territory) that was to come between the final two major enemies had to be cut due to time and budget. There's definitely a feeling of the game ending abruptly and just as the RTS battles were seemingly finding their footing. It's still good for a pretty solid amount of playtime, however, assuming you enjoy exploring the world (and listening to the music) for its own sake. Steam wasn't logging me as I was playing it offline the vast majority of the time but I'd estimate at least 15-20 hours or so.

Brutal Legend very much ends up being a "whole is more than the sum of its parts" sort of thing. The single-player mode is clearly incomplete, the side quests mostly feel like repetitive padding, and driving can be annoyingly janky sometimes (but can also be exhiliratingly awesome). The "RTS bait and switch" seems to be what offended some people more than anything, and there was probably a lot more room in the marketing to make it clear that that was the centerpiece of the game. But if you can get over your buttrage at its abrupt introduction and the fact that it doesn't play like a Blizzard game and get to know it on its own terms, it actually turns out to be kinda awesome ... there's just not enough of it for an even progression in the single-player campaign.

A sequel seems unlikely due to the expense and the overall tepid reviews, but if tweaked according to the feedback and learning experience of this game it could wind up being one of the best things ever. I apologize to whoever I'm ripping this off from because I saw this idea on a forum somehwere and can't remember where now, but I like the idea of giving the player an early choice of 2 paths a la the old LucasArts Indiana Jones games. One path keeps the RTS battles as they are, with the player handling unit creation and micromanagement. The other path plays more akin to Dynasty Warriors, where the computer handles troop creation and direction with maybe just very general player pre-set instructions, and you're free to spend all your time running around intervening in the existing skirmishes rather than trying to manage and direct them.

Links :

* Tim Schaffer interview
Endgame battle tactics -- help in getting through the stretch of final 3 stage battles
* Complete track list

Videos :

* Gameplay Video