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[personal profile] chronovore
Pre-completion review of Brütal Legend: It's very good, despite a couple of serious missteps. (Full disclosure: I have several friends at Double Fine, some of them very dear to me, and I am very clearly biased.)

The first misstep is the demo version of the game; it doesn't really show the game off for what it is. It touches only on two aspects of the core experience: epic, gorgeous, heavy-metal inspired environments, and third-person mêlée combat. There's a driving sequence that might as well be on rails, and a boss fight in an arena.

In actuality game is an open-world/driving action game (a la Grand Theft Auto), featuring story progression missions which usually focus on real-time strategy gameplay (think Warcraft). There are side-missions which consist of skirmish-level RTS with fixed unit resources (no resource management, but RTS controls apply), races, hunting, and a very occasional mission which focuses on using Team-Up powers in a new context. The depth of the gameplay is primarily invested in the RTS sequences, but the bulk of the time in singleplayer is in driving/exploring the world, and non-Stage-Battle missions.

This is really the second misstep: The game stops teaching the player about the complexity of the RTS portion of the game right about the point where it's needed the most. The game is fastidious about teaching the player how to attack, defend, drive a car, all stuff that could have been pretty well handled through trial-and-error. It doesn't teach the player about managing overall unit "Load" or improving their Stage (increasing their tech level). It gives very brief instruction on sending only a portion of massed forces out with individual orders. There's a really smart, complex game, an RTS reconsidered particularly for the controller-driven console market, but it isn't successfully conveyed to the player.

In fact, I'd been cruising through the singleplayer with nary a hiccup until "Dry Ice, Wet Graves" at which point I became seriously frustrated. The learning curve took an immediate turn for the vertical, leaving me running directly into a wall. I played it several times before looking up some strategy guides online, at which point it became fun. More fun that it had previously been, in fact -- a sudden insight into its depth of gameplay is all it took.

Part of me wonders if the expectation or hope was for BL to become a primarily multiplayer hit. Similarly to the way Halo smoothly brought multiplayer FPS genre to consoles, perhaps the desire was to bring RTS to the same audience. So far the attempts to do that have been overly complex; despite some clever button-chording, Universe at War and C&C Red Alert still focus on a tremendous complexity and depth, slavishly following the model of PC-based RTS games, allowing for homogeneous or heterogeneous unit grouping and orders. BL takes all of that and says "b'bye" and allows the AI to determine most unit behavior. This relegates the player to telling bulk groups where to go, thus freeing the player from unit-level micromanagement and replacing that activity with directly assaulting the enemy with their highly mobile, reasonably powerful avatar.

Imagine you're playing Warcraft or Starcraft, and your unit selection pointer, that gloved fist can travel over to the opponent's side of the map, dispelling fog-of-war as it moves, and then can begin flicking, snapping at the enemy units directly. Your "pointer" can diminish or destroy your opponent's forces. All I can say is "YAY!" Harrassing enemy troops is great, though if you linger too long your character can be destroyed, basically just resetting it to your own stage and awarding 50 Fans to your opponent.

Also, there should be a KLOS 95.5 sticker for The Druid Plow. Or whatever Schafer was listening to when he was in high school. But it was KLOS for Los Angeles, though I embraced my metalhood much later in life.

Along with having a fresh take on the RTS, the game tells an epic story through gorgeous cutscenes, fantastic voice acting and animation, and some spot dialog from interacting with the entourage at various points on the tour... er, "quest." On that animation thing, the facial animation is just spot on, start to finish. I recall some great stuff in Psychonauts as well, but much of this feels like a Pixar movie made for metalheads. Nothing's melodramatic and overblown, just believable, moving scenes with surprisingly endearing characters.

But artistically the thing that really gets me going is the world itself. I don't want to distract from what DF has accomplished with the RTS and story, but as an ex-world designer ("once and future world designer"?) I am very impressed with the world itself. Interviews prior to launch have mentioned they want the world to feel like it could be a heavy metal album cover, no matter where you look. I didn't know how they'd pull that off, but it's there. In spades.

More hours have been spent just tooling around and looking at the world than playing the game. I've looked for the "completion" items like Dragons and Legends and metal ViewMaster things, but I actually sit there in awe when the vista view is happening, and panning around the landmark for a larger view. These landmarks are all composed to make the world look like those old album covers which were so evocative of the feelings that the music brings. These need to be given away as wallpaper on the official site. They're gorgeous. They're so pretty in fact that I don't want to play the story missions, because I just want to drive around and absorb the feeling of being in the world. I was driving in my hot rod around the cliffs when the weather changed to a stormy night. Blue lightning flashed and lit the whole world in a stark, cerulean blue hue. Rain poured down as I tried to drive as close to the cliffs as possible, all the while the storm raged. It was just insanely beautiful.
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