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Brütal Legend Second Opinion

Sparky Clarkson's picture

It had the Chrome but Not the Polish

Brütal Legend Screenshot

HIGH Crashing a flaming zeppelin into the enemy stage at the end of a long battle.

LOW The aforementioned long battle.

WTF Pardon me, but I think about a third of the story has gone missing.

In his review of Brütal Legend, David Stone accuses Tim Schafer of creating a game that's more style than substance. Seeing the style is easy: the game's world is suffused with heavy metal imagery, populated by heavy metal musicians, and filled with the sound of heavy metal music. Even the trees are metal, growing exhaust pipes in place of branches. The game also cultivates an epic feel that fits the bombast of the music. But heavy metal is about more than album art. Does the substance of the game, rather than just the style, reflect the heavy metal ethos in some way? In light of the story's flaccid melodrama and the weak tactical strategy gameplay, one can make a compelling case that it does not. The game's core design, however, didn't bind it to this fate. Brütal Legend had the elements to make great heavy metal gameplay, but failed because the execution of those ideas was botched.

The defining aesthetic of heavy metal music is power. This is an emphasis of the music itself, with its characteristic heavy beats and loudness, and also of the album art that inspires Brütal Legend's world. The divergent aesthetic combining medieval fantasy and modern road machines is unified by the desire for power and recognition. Yet, like any form of fandom, metalheads also constitute a community united by their love of the music. A fan expresses his individuality through a particular way of dressing and reacting to music, but the general parameters of dress and behavior are dictated by a larger social group. He can headbang alone, sure, but it's not really metal until a lot of people are headbanging together. Whether a game conveys the core aesthetic of metal or not depends on its ability to deliver the contradictory experiences of empowerment as an individual and membership in a community.

The game's much-maligned hybridization of third-person action and real-time strategy actually serves this dichotomy quite well. The player controls a single hero, roadie Eddie Riggs, but the game's most intense fights require him to bring along an army of headbangers, roadies, bouncers and more. Stone found it off-putting that these "stage battles" only allow Eddie to command troops that are near him, but this is actually the most fitting approach, given the heavy-metal aesthetic. Conventional RTS gameplay relies on a modern idea of generalship, in which leaders command their armies from a great distance. Brütal Legend, like heavy metal music itself, embraces a more medieval power fantasy, in which the general is the greatest warrior and leads his armies from the field. Eddie is not an all-seeing eye gazing over his troops from a distance, but a personal force moving among the soldiers of metal. When this works it can generate a tremendously empowering feeling of being a heavy metal warrior charging into battle at the head of your very own rock 'n roll army. That feeling is very metal, but it comes too rarely, if at all, because the implementation betrays the concept.

Rather than giving the player a feeling of empowerment, the stage battles often result in confusion and dismay. The awkward input system Stone describes certainly contributes to the trouble, but another major contributor is inappropriate level design. The personalized third-person perspective of the stage battles is basically incompatible with the idea of splitting up the army. The developers know this—in his open letter explaining how to play the stage battles, Tim Schafer emphasized keeping the army together. However, most of the stage battles take place in large arenas that penalize force concentration because of their open nature. In spaces like this, figuring out where you're being attacked, or where your troops even are, is often too difficult. Had the game featured more linear battlefields that were better suited to loosely-organized large-scale attacks, like the Dry Ice Mines, Brütal Legend would have been more fun to play, and the proper way to play it would have been self-evident, rather than requiring a long open letter to justifiably mystified players.

Brütal Legend Screenshot

Even with improvements to the battlefield design, however, charging into battle with your forces would still pose a tough timing trick: allies never quite seem to keep the player's pace, always running a bit behind or a bit ahead. Moreover, it's difficult to feel like the powerful general of a rock army when the armaments are so wimpy. Stone notes that Eddie can be knocked out by some enemies in just a couple of hits, and the unmentioned flipside of that problem is that Eddie himself can't even kill the game's weakest enemies that easily. Although Eddie's guitar solos are satisfyingly powerful, his conventional attacks are pathetic—even on the lowest difficulty setting, Eddie can hack at mid-level enemies for a straight minute before they fall. Given this degree of weakness, it's hard to escape the overall impression that Eddie is just a ludicrous man-child driving around a wasteland in a toy car, whacking legendary creatures with a cardboard axe. Eddie's never really as powerful as he seems he should be, and his community can't quite keep up with him.

So, the experience does not empower the player, but does it empower Eddie? The game sets him up as an underappreciated roadie working for a band he detests as a corruption of metal's ideals, and the plot seems to offer an an opportunity for him to take on the forces that displaced true heavy metal. The early enemy, Lionwhyte, is clearly meant to represent the hair bands that sold out and glammed metal up for the masses. Unfortunately, after that the allegory falls apart. The Drowned Doom are lightly developed as avatars of the dramatic excesses of the goth metal scene, but the demonic forces of the Tainted Coil don't fit into the metaphor at all—n part, that's because the game's extremely odd pacing thrusts the player directly from defeating the Drowned Doom into the final battle against emperor Doviculus, leaving no time to develop the Tainted Coil as an enemy. Given that much of heavy metal embraces demonic imagery (Eddie himself says the demons "really have style"), it's not obvious what, if any, corrupting influence this foe represents. Absent that motivation, there's no sense that Eddie is emphatically putting down a force that really represses metal, and little sense of empowerment to be gained.

That lack of empowerment is emphasized by the curious conclusion of Brütal Legend's uneven narrative. Having begun with a monologue about the role of a roadie, the game attempts to bring that motif back for the finale. Eddie has found a community of true metalheads to stay with, but Lars and Lita, "leaders" of the rebellion, get all the credit for the hard work Eddie actually accomplished. That might work as the epilogue to a rock 'n roll tour, but the problem with this is that in the game's "concerts," nobody was on the stage. The internal fiction of Eddie as an unappreciated roadie in both worlds falls apart because everyone, including the supposed leaders, takes orders directly from him. This epilogue feels implausible and unearned, especially given that Eddie's head prominently adorns a nearby mountain. Brütal Legend has the roadie, but it's missing the band, and you need both if you're going to have a real rock concert.

For a fan, a musical style is an important part of an individual personality, but it is also a key way of identifying with a group. You can't really capture the essence of the allure of heavy metal without incorporating both those aspects, and Brütal Legend's curious mix of play styles may well be the best way to deal with this dichotomy in a game. Unfortunately, art that addresses contradictory ideas often turns out to be contradictory in its own right, and this is the fate that befalls Brütal Legend. Its battle system had the potential to capture the vibrant feeling of the mosh pit, but is stymied by its limited interface and inappropriate level design. Its story could have been a sharp power fantasy about a roadie who becomes a hero by taking on the forces corrupting real heavy metal, but its metaphors never really seem to connect. Brütal Legend deserves praise for the fantastic art design of its heavy metal world, and for taking a chance on bold gameplay choices. It was in execution, not conception, that Brütal Legend's substance became less impressive than its style. Rating: 7.0 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail purchase on the strength of an unrepresentative demo and played on the XBox 360. Approximately 14 hours of play were devoted to completing the single-player campaign on Normal and Gentle difficulties due to the reviewer's general incompetence at RTS gameplay. The reviewer did not try the multiplayer.

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3  
Developer(s): Double Fine  
Key Creator(s): Tim Schafer  
Publisher: Electronic Arts  
Series: Brutal Legend  
Genre(s): Open World  
ESRB Rating: Mature (17+)  
Articles: Game Reviews  

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Man, you are seriously onto

Man, you are seriously onto something here when you say:

"Had the game featured more linear battlefields that were better suited to loosely-organized large-scale attacks, like the Dry Ice Mines, Brütal Legend would have been more fun to play, and the proper way to play it would have been self-evident, rather than requiring a long open letter to justifiably mystified players."

That's very close to home. The Dry Ice Mines were clearly the standout battle of the game, a thrilling, see-sawing battle that made the most of the stage mechanic. First time I played them, I overextended my forces, smashing through with unexpected power to get to the stage... and then got my ass handed to me because I'd not made the efforts to consolidate my position. The enemy roared back into life and destroyed me. That was the battle which convinced me most of the critics just hadn't gotten how good the game could be. But it's not repeated.

Another thing I think you've neglected to mention is that it's the only non-gimmicked battle. The first battle with Lionwhite has no enemy stage. The second one (outside the gates) has, again, no real stage (it has a gate which stands in, but it's not quite the same thing.) The third (Lionwhite's Palace) again has a gate standing in. The fourth battle (in the snow, besieged by the Drowning Doom) has no enemy stage and is a survival battle.

It's not until the fifth battle, the Dry Ice Mines, that finally it pins all the elements in place and just lets them go. And it's fantastic. It's the best battle of the game.

Which is why it's so infuriating that the battle after that, the Sea of Black Tears, is AGAIN gimmicked with the bridge. And the battle after that (against the Tainted Coil) is gimicked with the monster.

You almost feel that the developers didn't have confidence in their own system.

I think you're really onto something here. The game had a lot of potential, and very rarely showed how good it could have been. But the story needed work, the mechanics needed work and, yes, I'm convinced you're right: The level design DESPERATELY needed work.

That's a good point about

That's a good point about the gimmicky battles -- every RTS game has a few battles where developers try to "shake things up" by adding or removing elements, but in Brütal Legend that's almost all the battles. The game never really settles down to give the player a few fights that can acclimatize him to the way a stage battle will "normally" play out. Because of that, the real identity of the RTS doesn't really shine through.

The Tainted Coil as Tipper Gore?

Hey, here's a weird thought. I don't pretend that Brutal Legend picked this up and ran with it, but as a suggestion of what might have been: Could the Tainted Coil represent Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center?

Here's the logic.

Lionwhyte and the Drowning Doom may be 'impure' metal, but they're still metal. That's why they're more or less human foes. They're still part of the same side. The true enemies of metal are the outsiders, just as Doviculus and the Tainted Coil are outsiders.

Also note that their activities mostly involve gagging the statues and mythic sites of the world, they dress up in parodies of the clergy, and their S&M theme is a riff on the idea that censors are, secretly, titillated by the material they attempt to censor. Huh? Huh? :)

I know I'm very late to the

I know I'm very late to the party, but I'm going to add my thoughts anyway. Very interesting comments, people, and as to the review I can more or less agree with all of it but I'd just like to point out a couple things.

Firstly, there's a reason that Eddie's basic attacks seem weak: because they're supposed to be. The hard-hitting moves are all in the Double Teams - headbanger mosh pits that turn them from steady hitters to a marching wall of death; having a Razor Girl jump on your shoulders and sparking up her bow with your lighter to make her shots much more powerful and rapid; hopping on the back of a Fire Baron to draw a circle of fire around enemies that closes in and does huge amounts of damage when it passes over them.

All of these attacks are not only much more powerful than your axe moves, they protect you from harm while you use them (all the damage goes to the unit you're controlling) and they're honestly a hell of a lot more fun. And if you think about it, this is really the only way the game could be balanced - if you were powerful enough on your own to take out the strongest enemies in a couple of hits, what would be the point in making troops at all, considering they have to walk to where you want them to go whereas you can fly there in a matter of seconds?

Also, the fact that you didn't try the multiplayer kind of explains why you didn't find the battles to have been that well executed, because really that's the only place where they are. In the single player, like you and a commenter above have said, the gameplay seems to be competing with unnecessary gimmicks that are added into each battle - a bridge you have to make passable, a giant cathedral hydra, a set of turrets you have to take down specifically with Roadies.

And the maps really aren't that well designed in single player, either, as you said - they're all basically just pits with all the geysers right next to each other, apart from the aforementioned Dry Ice Mines which even then is a simplified version of the map as it is in multiplayer. Not to mention the fact that for whatever reason, Double Fine saw fit to make it so that enemy avatars can't die in battle in the single player, blurring the entire concept of 'leader and army VS leader and army' that the battles are built on, and to have all the solos available from the start of battle instead of having them restricted by stage upgrade level, as again is done in the multiplayer.

Essentially, it really seems as though they developed the core gameplay of the game as multiplayer initially, then flaked out and made it easier and simpler in the single player for fear that people wouldn't understand all its intricacies. But quite honestly I don't think this helped at all - when a game is clearly complex at least you can tell, but making it seem superficially simpler than it is only really serves to lower peoples' expectations of how much thought they should be putting into it.

But I am at least glad to see that you did fight alongside your army on the ground rather than try to play the game like Starcraft, as so many others seem to have done.

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