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January 07, 2014

I Should Have Finished... Brütal Legend

It's embarrassing to me that I never finished Brütal Legend, the second title from one of my favorite studios, Double Fine. I buy all DF titles on or about the first day they come out, and if I have time I'll dive in playing those games right then -- in fact, I held off buying the original Xbox until Psychonauts came out, and then went and bought the game and console together, and I also bought Brütal Legend on the day it was released, though I had bought an Xbox 360 when a good bundle came along a few months earlier.

And, in fact, I played a ton of it when it came out -- playing through it again last week, I realized that I had made it to the penultimate RTS-style battle; I probably had about an hour to go in the main quest before I set it aside due to being busy. I also remember that battle to cross the bridge over the Sea of Black Tears was really difficult for me, so it's possible I set it aside out of a little frustration.

Brütal Legend is an open world game set in the grand old ancient times, when Metal shaped the very earth -- it's the world of heavy metal album covers, mostly from the seventies, bold and kitschily amazing. And the world building, really, is the most fantastic part of the game; everything that you encounter has been viewed through that lens and the variety of environments channels all the various aspects of that culture. It's fantastic. It's another one of those games where I can just pop it in and enjoy just moving around in the world¹, loving the care with which it was all constructed. As someone who develops games, I can just feel the early preproduction meetings on this one, where people were spitballing all the various ways in which they could represent heavy metal's themes in the game, and then knowing that they executed on just about every darn one of those ideas. The world just astounds with its attention to detail.

You gradually uncover the map of this fantastic land by playing through the story, which tells of humanity reclaiming the world with the help of your roadie-from-the-future Eddie Riggs. As you do, you uncover more side missions you can do, which have a fair degree of fun variability, and you also discover various old statues that increase your powers and more critically, your music list. Songs play from the speakers of your Druid Plow hot rod as you drive around the world, gathering up fan tributes for various excellent feats and customizing the powers of your weapons -- an axe which is used for melee, an electric guitar² used for ranged spell-casting and bigger "solo" effects -- and the car and its own weapons, plus some features in the world. This stuff is grand fun, and I spent hours and hours on end just driving around trying to find and free all sorts of Bound Serpents and discovering Relics and the mythology behind the land. I haven't found everything, though I have freed all 120 of the Bound Serpents, and I kind of find myself itching to go back and get an online map to find the rest.

Playing through the major story beats engages the player in RTS-style battles, where you can command your growing-in-variety army to defeat enemy stages. The conceit is that you're throwing a concert and gaining fans to power your performance and defeat the other guys in a Battle of the Bands. And early on, these are really great because the open area of the map is still small and your memory of the controls is constantly fresh and you're gathering a little bit of skill at a time.

As time goes on, however, when you have a lot of the map uncovered and you want to drive around and have fun with the side missions and the open world stuff, you end up spacing these battles quite a bit... and the controls start to feel unfamiliar and clunky, even as the difficulty and complexity of these battles starts to grow. By the end of the game, when I had spent easily a dozen hours driving around doing side missions between battles, trying to use the controls to direct my forces in battle felt a lot like trying to speak in a foreign language that I knew really well in high school. The vocabulary was there, but my command of it was stilted, halting, and fraught with lots of stupid little errors. In a way, the generosity of the world-building and how much fun all of that is works directly against the main story and its separate gameplay³. To a degree, there's also some unit management issues that come from being on a controller -- having a mouse to select all of a single unit type and give it orders with a bunch of buttons is a superior solution for an RTS with much complexity.

Most open world games don't give you this much controller complexity; keep the various control schemes constantly fresh in your mind; or abstract infrequent interactions to a much higher degree. In Skyrim, you're never far from a fight and the puzzles are extremely simple from a controller perspective4; in a GTA game you're going back and forth from on foot to driving very frequently, and much of the additional control schemes are brief and optional mini-games.

That said, although I originally played this game on the middle difficulty mode, for this return to it I played on the lowest difficulty setting and found that really best for me. It made the big battles mostly fairly trivial, let me feel like the bad-ass I wanted to be, and kept the story moving along without a lot of needless replay. I'd fumble through those big battles, constantly issuing a mistaken command, but it was very forgiving. I'd recommend this approach to anyone, and especially those who like to spend a lot of time on the side stuff in games like these.

On a personal note, I totally understand why Double Fine backed away from AAA and drove into their own smaller games more frequently5, and indeed, I love the approach and still buy every single one of their games the day it comes out. But I miss what this team does when it has masses of time and money. Brütal Legend is enormous and encompasses so much craft that it's hard not to wish they had projects this size in the works alongside the smaller projects that make up their bread-and-butter these days. I miss the diversity of voice, vision, and pure personality they brought to AAA scale.

Back in a few days to talk about another game I thoroughly enjoyed over break, Deadly Premonition.

¹Like Spider-Man 2, which I love just because of the flow of the navigation of the environment. Looking forward to Jamie Fristrom's Energy Hook follow-up.

²So, yeah, also an axe.

³Probably a fixable problem. Without going into too much detail, I think it's safe to say that the really big battles make the most sense from a story/narrative perspective where they are, but I think using Eddie's command-and-control set would have been possible in side missions if only on a lesser scale, perhaps with Eddie helping other, smaller bands battle in the same spaces where the major story took place.

4E.g. press 'x' to do a puzzle-contextual move, but you always press the same buttons to execute the logical moves in a puzzle.

5And funded in all sorts of ways, especially crowdfunding of late, but also the Indie Fund and traditional publisher routes.

Posted by Brett Douville at January 7, 2014 09:40 AM