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Brutal Legend succeeds in its attempt to create a mixed-genre title, but evened its varied characters and roles can't compensate for the lack of polish throughout.
Brutal Legend masquerades as a quirky open-world title, self-referentially based on the extremes of Heavy Metal album artwork and with a hard soundtrack to match. As an open world title it's pretty entertaining. The missions are quite varied, there is an excessive bounty of collectables to locate and the scenery is beautifully designed.
The script is a highlight - I found myself laughing out loud at several points and the humour is perfectly suited to Jack Black's style of comedy as well as the quirky Tim Schafer animation style.
It's a rarity for a game to feature such an extensive and - arguably - niche soundtrack. Honestly if you really don't like Heavy Metal there is little you'll enjoy about Brutal Legend's sounds. Thankfully it is possible to edit the play list (I even found myself deselecting a few tracks that were just too hard for my taste), but I really enjoyed being exposed to such a range of music and I've discovered some songs that I'd never previously heard.
There were times where I found that the open-world itself didn't entirely convince me of its authenticity. Encounters with the world's inhabitants felt sparse and disjointed. Additionally, some of the quests seemed lacking in the confidence to define their own space - on a few occasions I encountered on-screen messages telling me I was about to leave the playable area. Given the excellence of many open-world titles this felt like an inelegant way to keep missions on track and really broke the suspension of disbelief I'd held for the world.
I met and recruited all sorts of weird and wonderful characters who signed up to my quest.
However, these faults are evidence of a lack of polish, rather than a deep flaw with the game's premise.
What I found particularly remarkable was the way in which Brutal Legend wove a second genre into the main action-adventure mould. Throughout the game I met and recruited all sorts of weird and wonderful characters who signed up to my quest - very soon I found myself with an army at my command, rather than simply riding around the landscape alone with my own weapons.
I was put off Brutal Legend for a long time by its promise of real time strategy elements. Real time strategy is not a genre I've ever been able to get on with, as I usually find that the interface doesn't get on with me and I spend most of my time fighting with menus or trying to select particular units, rather than focusing on any kind of satisfying strategy.
A notable exception, for me, is Darwinia. I really enjoyed the way that game dispensed with micro-management; it allowed me to apply broad strategic strokes by limiting me to targeting general areas of the battlefield and fighting with numbers rather than a detailed knowledge of unit strengths/weaknesses.
With a quick glance at Brutal Legend's real time strategy component, it seemed to me that a similar philosophy was in place, with army size limited to 40 units and control restricted to a single rally point at a time. However, I soon found myself with a familiar feeling of being overwhelmed. There are a large number of different types of units, each of which has specific strengths against different units. In addition, there are three factions each with their own units. To the game's credit, the three faction's units are all very different, rather than just the same troops in different skins; unfortunately, this meant that I personally found it very difficult to identify the appropriate strategy to use.
Controlling a character on the battlefield was a complication too far for me.
In many respects I found the confusion of selecting units worse than a regular real time strategy. You have to be within a range (how finite that range is I never worked out) of your units to be able to issue orders. In spite of the initial simplicity offered by a single rally point, advanced battles do require you to select specific units and give them bespoke orders. Trying to achieve this while controlling a character on the battlefield was a complication too far for me, especially since the enemy can actually kill your player avatar, meaning that I often got killed in the middle of trying to distribute orders.
For fans of real time strategy games I can imagine that this is a really interesting spin on the genre - there are few strategy titles which allow you to get stuck in with your own weapons. However, as a player who struggles to develop any skill with the whole Command and Conquer stable, I found this element of Brutal Legend to be an even more complex beast.
As a saving grace, though, I found that the battling elements within the single player campaign were kept fairly simple and did not obstruct my completion of the game, even with my own lack of skills in the real time strategy arena. In the main the battles in the story are a primer for the more complex battles in multiplayer.
For that reason I can highly recommend Brutal Legend. Had it attempted to force me to win complicated engagements in order to fulfil my role in the story I would have been very frustrated. But, since good discretion has been exercised in the placing of these battles I can definitely recommend this game to fans of both real time strategy and open-world adventures.
[Chris Jarvis writes the Novel Gamer column where you can read his Brutal Legend fiction.]
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