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Review: Brütal Legend (Actually Does Rock)
by Greg Mengel

Ever wondered what it would be like if God of War, your local Renaissance festival, Jack Black, ridiculous cleavage shirts, The Legend of Zelda, Ozzy Osbourne, Warcraft III, Heavy Metal, Midgard, and this costume were all thrown into a cauldron, brewed for three to four years, and poured into a video game? You would get Brutal Legend, the latest free-roaming action-adventure game released by video game designer Tim Schafer, a man so popular that he may in fact get more hype from the gaming community when releasing a new product than Jesus Christ gets on Christmas.

Brutal Legend is the story of Eddie Riggs, a leather-donning roadie with biceps that would make a gorilla look ridiculous. His wish: to go back to an era when music was pure - the early 70s. When a set collapses on him, the mythical fire-beast Ormagöden does him one better, transporting him to a fantasy land filled with dangerous creatures and colossal monuments, archaic effigies to the Titans, ancient gods of Rock.

There, Eddie quickly discovers a small group of free humans who lead him to their ragtag home, Bladehenge. There they alert him of their plight - that humanity is being hunted and enslaved by the evil demon emperor, Doviculus. Teaming up with their optimistic king, Lars Halford, his cautious sister Lita, and the foxy warrioress Ophelia, Riggs uses the power of Metal to inspire the human people to break free from their bondage and fight back against the tyranny of Doviculus and his twisted minions..

Brutal Legend's story is, without a doubt in my mind, the strongest aspect of the game. It's very, very, good. And refreshing. In an industry that is prone to place little emphasis on the importance of good writing in the design process, it's nice to see a game in which the gameplay is determined by the story, and not vice versa, while still keeping both parts balanced.

Throughout his journey, Eddie uncovers a plot full of twists, turns, and shocking climaxes that will keep you glued to the edge of your loveseat. The voice acting in Brutal is natural and emotive, the characters are quirky and extremely well developed, the mythology of the world is rich, deep, and strangely believable, and the dialogue is downright hilarious. Brutal's story utilizes one of the few plots in a video game that I seriously call a work of art.

That being said, the story in Brutal is waaaaay too short. The average time of completion for the campaign that I've seen online ranges from six to ten hours. I finished in around eight, and immediately wanted more. Unfortunately, life after the campaign in Brutal is based on playing Lewis and Clark, exploring the world and picking up upgrades or achievements, not on completing interesting side-quests with the characters you have come to know and cherish. There are a few easter egg type interactions and missions to keep you occupied, but most are repetitions of one of four mini-games: race to the target, ambush the troops, guide the cannon, or man the turret. After fifteen 'ambush the troops' missions, I was ready to be done questing, donate my Xbox to charity, and spend the rest of my days in an Italian monastery without electricity. With ten more hours main campaign content to supplement a bland endgame, this game would have been truly legendary.

Though a good part of the game employs a traditional hack-and-slash style, the core of Brutal Legend's gameplay centres around its unique brand of real-time strategy. Early on in the game, Eddie undertakes simple missions that he can complete using only his axe and guitar. Wielding his axe up close gives Eddie a melee attack, while strumming his guitar allows him to shock enemies with electricity or flambé them with fire in forceful bursts. At that point, the gameplay is an entertaining cakewalk. But don't get comfortable. As the game goes on, a more challenging real-time strategy element is added to the picture, as Eddie leads his hard-rocking army of hog-riding, head-banging warriors into battle against enemy hordes. The combination of real-time strategy and hack-and-slash combat is a unique one that requires players to think as both armchair generals and men on the field.

Playing Brutal Legend's 'hack-and-slash-meets-real-time-strategy' combo can be daunting at first, especially to hardcore fans of either genre, but after giving it a few dozen trie - during which you may angrily throw your controller, the coffee table, or the pet cat at the nearest wall - it gets fun. The trick to succeeding is to not treat the game like it fits into one genre or the other, but to adapt your style of play so it incorporates a bit of both. For me, a veteran of many a real time strategy war, this was tough. I wanted to create units and send them in to the front to fight gloriously for my cause while I stayed back at my comfortable stage (base), managing fans (resources), directing workflow, and getting fed grapes on an easy chair by scantily clad groupies. That ended badly.

To do well at Brutal's combat system: Prioritize. Your. Time. For example, during a stage battle, you may want to dedicate fifteen seconds to ordering new troops and sending them into an area, then another fifteen to charge into battle yourself, hacking a few enemies into mincemeat, and buffing your troops/debuffing your opponents/melting your enemies' faces off with an appropriately timed solo. Then you'll need to upgrade your force/stage, and repeat. Unless you're a gaming god, you won't have time to be fed grapes. The point is to spend time playing both like a third person axe-wielding hero, and Napoleon, not one or the other. Do that, and at the very least, you'll throw your controller less. Like I said, it takes some getting used to, but in the end Brutal's style of battle is a lot of fun.

In the game's multiplayer mode, which lets you square off against human players online or an artificially intelligent foe, you can choose one of three factions to wage stage war with: the Gothic and depressing Drowning Doom; Eddie Riggs' Heavy Metal themed human army, Ironheade; or Doviculus's legion of sadomasochistic demon followers, the psychologically disturbing Tainted Coil. Unfortunately, you cannot play as the beautifully shampooed and conditioned Glam Rock warriors of Lionwhyte that appear in the campaign. Their entire faction is like an ad for Head and Shoulders.

An extremely useful function implemented by the folks at Double Fine is the ability to "Double Team" with every unit in the game. As long as they're friendly, you can choose to perform a special move with any unit you create for an extra effect, be it high damage, a surprise attack, a special buff, or an option for manual targeting. For example, the Drowning Doom infantry units - depressed, long-haired teenagers wearing their little sister's jeans and eyeliner, wielding shovels - will bury your hero character in the ground, so that it can burst out from under enemy troops unannounced. These Double Team attacks will turn the tide in a close battle, especially online, where human players will often forget about them.

In terms of audio, well - it's a game about heavy metal, so as you can guess, it's loud. Loud enough to make your house plants die, have your girlfriend hand you a written warning to play it on mute after eleven or face the prospect of a life of chastity, and have you evicted from your apartment complex. So, basically, it's awesome. I thought so, and I don't even really like metal.

Songs are unlocked in two ways: through the campaign, or by unearthing ancient relics left by the godlike Titans in days of yore. They range from serious ballads by Megadeath, Dragonforce, and the Scorpions to comedic songs by groups like Jack Black's Tenacious D, or Dethklok, the fictional band from the TV show Metalocalypse, a cult favorite on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. Once unlocked, every song can be played via tape deck in Eddie's high-powered car/tank, the Druid Plow.

After hours of driving around doing side quests to a soundtrack of Death Metal, I often found myself turning off the Druid's Plow's tape deck and cruising to silence, if just to give my migraine a quick 15 minute break. During those peaceful moments I heard the beautifully crafted ambiance of the world. And I do mean beautifully. Every realm in Brutal has a specific set of sounds that sets them apart as unique and mystical places. Here, Double Fine did a terrific job. It's worth turning off the music now and then just to listen to the incredibly emotive, well crafted environments that the world offers. It's like a mini, virtual holiday through an album cover.

As good as the sounds in Brutal are at setting a scene, they don't hold a candle to the intricate, breathtaking art that draws up the game's world. There is so much creativity and detail that went into each realm that no two areas feel the same. All of the places Eddie traverses into invoke a specific feeling that seems to tap into a seemingly endless mythic history and culture. It's easy to bridge doubt and achieve a suspension of disbelief in true Coleridgeian fashion. And you don't even have to take opium to do it.

Being able to explore such a vast, awesome world kept me from turning off the system a couple of times. This was especially true after I'd beaten the campaign, when I was forced to complete a bazillion repeat quests to capture over half of the game's possible achievements. Quests like drag racing Fletus, the bitter and yet strangely sassy demon mechanic with an Irish accent, across every nook and cranny of the island, seventeen thousand times, just because. God, how I came to hate Fletus.

The addition of landmarks (points on the map where Eddie takes a quick second off from his war against evil to enjoy the scenery) also allows players to check out their surroundings from a cinematic bird's eye view.

If you can think of a recent game with visuals even half as creative as those in Brutal Legend, and you convince me of that sentiment, then I will send you... erm... one American dollar. Mainly because I think it would be funny to send a single dollar across the Atlantic Ocean while paying over three dollars on international postage.

Brutal Legend is getting a lot of flack in the gaming journalism community for its short campaign, repetitive side-quests, and strange hybrid of a real-time strategy system (see Gabe and Tycho's mocking response). As I write this, its cumulative review score on sits only slightly above 83%. 83%? Come on. With all the journalists who gave this game less than an 8.5 out of 10, and with Penny Arcade, I disagree. I never thought I'd say the latter. I can see where reviewers are coming from when they criticize Brutal's repetitive quests and short campaign. Those are serious annoyances that can make or break whether a game is just good, or whether it's legendary. And Brutal Legend is definitely not legendary, a fact which I find wholly ironic.

But Brutal Legend does deserve better than a meager 83%, a score so low for a game this good that it's almost insulting. What Brutal lacks in longevity and quest variability, it more than makes up for in story, aesthetics, and most notably, creativity. There is more originality in the first two hours of Brutal than in 90% of the major games released in the last year.

For that, it should be applauded - even its much debated real-time strategy system - not just because the idea of artistic and design innovation is a rare thing worth applauding in the current game industry, but because the ridiculous non-sequitur imagination of Brutal Legend makes it fun. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that's all I really want in a game. That, and scantily-clad Samus after 100% completion.

Brutal Legend was an exceptionally fun game, and I can't wait for the sequel.*


*Dear Tim Schafer, EA, and Double Fine. Make a sequel, and hire me as a writer, with a salary of one million dollars. Or any other currency, it doesn't matter. Rupees work. Or Schafer Bucks. I've got this great idea where Eddie teams up with the ghost of the Carthaginian general Hannibal to fight off Cyborg Hitler's evil Robotoid Legion, and therefore saves Christmas. I'll call your people. Love, Greg.

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- Greg Mengel

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