Thursday, November 12, 2009

Review: Brutal Legend

I just finished playing Brutal Legend, and I wanted to hold forth on it. (The 'u' in Brutal is supposed to have an umlaut, but I'm too lazy to figure out how to type that. Sue me.) I was pretty much destined to play the game once I found out that Tim Schafer designed it. He did Psychonauts, which is one of the best video games ever. So he's earned some trust.

I really, really enjoyed the game. It's one of the very few games I've ever played where, at the end, I wished it had gone on longer. (Though, admittedly, this might mean it's too short). The main storyline is a mix of mindless battle, driving, and strategy game, and they all totally worked for me. It was also balanced to be, on Normal difficulty, pretty easy, which I appreciated. The storyline is pleasant, the writing is truly funny, and the voice acting is top notch.

And yet, the game has been lambasted by some sources I really thought would appreciate it, like Penny Arcade and Zero Punctuation. For exactly the reasons I liked it. Which bothers me in several ways.

(Well, Yahtzee, the guy who does Zero Punctuation, should be expected to hate it. That's just what he does. I have actually seen people consider Zero Punctuation to provide a serious and worthwhile critical judgment. Do Not Do This. Yahtzee makes his living saying bad things about games. That's his right. That also means he has a strong financial motive to not like games. Yahtzee is either a person who pretends to hate games to provide material for his videos or a guy who really does hate all games but still feels compelled to play them. Let us all hope, for his sake, that it is the former.)

The main source of contention is the strategy missions of the game. In these, you are still a warrior on the ground, doing battle and kicking ass. But the game then sucks in elements of real-time strategy games so that you can summon units to fight alongside you. What's more, you can combine with the units you make to use special badass attacks. For example, you can make tanks to fight beside you, but you can also jump in those tanks, drive them around, and shoot stuff. Or summon your armored car and screech around the battlefield and run people over. Or dive into the middle of attacking hordes and lay waste. Or just fly high up in the sky and pretend you're playing Starcraft. It's very open-ended.

I love this, because it means that the boss fights aren't all just tedious hackfests where you have to find out the enemy's oh-so-clever weak point. They are epic battles, and they should be. And it feels unique to me and (well, here comes the word) innovative.

But that's the problem.

People say they want innovation. But actually give them something different that they have to adjust to and they get all angry and full of nerdrage.

And, since he made something that plays in a new and different way and this threw some people off, Tim Schafer wrote a public letter giving some strategy advice. He received some mockery for this, but he is in the right. If unfamiliar gameplay makes some people freak out, some gentle tips for how to get back on the right track are all to the good. And he isn't at fault here, because the game has excellent tutorials and tips for how to play. And the thing really is balanced to be easy. And there is a huge amount of freedom in how you play the boss battles. You can try a lot of different things and win. You just have to, you know, try.

Now, the game isn't perfect. I think that the main quest is still a bit underfed to justify a full $60 price tag. I rented it. Though I've heard the online multiplayer is pretty good, which would goose the value a bit. But, in terms of fun, Brutal Legend is aces with me.

Now back to Dragon Age and Torchlight. My world is full of stat-building, horrifying brutality, and trying to unlock the lesbian sex scene.


  1. About Yahtzee ... I always assumed he loved games, but saw the flaws and used them as hyperbole-fodder. His stuff is really funny and nice brit-themed humor, and occasionally pointed criticism of game flaws ... but never balanced opinions.

    Nice review, BTW.

    Back to, well, the same stuff you are, but also Farewell to Dragons and a little game on the Mac ;)

  2. Type the umlaut? Who types umlauts? You just google for "Brutal Legend", find a page that has the umlaut (Wikipedia's usually pretty good), and cut and paste.

  3. Option-u+u on a Mac will give you the umlaut (ü), although there is no guarantee it shows up properly.

    I did some work on Dragon Age, so I hope you and everyone else is loving it.

  4. Regarding Yahtzee, I think it's not so much that he hates games, as that he's genuinely a very critical person, and makes a point of telling you about every area of a game that bugged him. He'll often, as in this week's Uncharted 2 review, mention that the core gameplay is good and polished and so forth.

    I actually do find his reviews very helpful -- I've bought a number of games after hearing him rip them a new one, more or less because of what he said about them. It's nice to know up-front what the potential annoyances of a game are.

  5. Yahtzee seems to appreciate Psychonauts about as much as you do, and of course he had nothing bad to say about Portal. He doesn't hate games, he just points out the flaws that other people let slide.

    And yeah, his reviews are pretty horrid for deciding if you want to get the game. Even when they're accurate he makes mistakes, like getting The Force Unleashed for the Wii instead of a platform he doesn't hate as much.

    On the other hand, if he likes a game, it's generally because it's a good game.

  6. I use Yahtzee and metacritic to find the worst possible reviews of a game. If nothing they mention sounds very bad to me, or if the reviewers are just complaining about things that I actually appreciate (e.g. pausing combat in Dragon Age) I might go ahead and buy it. Likewise, if the reviewers point out a flaw that I found annoying in the past (bad controls, bugginess) I'll hold off from buying. In general, these are much more useful than a reviwer that loved the game - they usually include a sentence to the effect of "There are some minor faults but not really worth complaining about". Tell me what they are, you arrogant twat, I'll decide if they're worth complainig about!

  7. I watched Yahtzee's review after having played through and finished Brutal Legend a couple times, and I can say I found it to be spot-on accurate and hilarious. The thing with a review like that is, you actually have to listen to it and peel back the layer of sarcastic hyperbole that's put there for humorous effect. So you actually have to, you know, *think* about it a little bit before you get to the substance behind it, but what there is is solid, and more useful than 99% of mainstream game reviews.

    But again, the catch in that usefulness is you actually need to be able to see past all the jokes and look at the game with an objective eye, rather than going all feelings-hurt-mode and trying to dismiss the entire thing in a weak passive-aggressive ad-hominem attack.

    I also find your characterization of Yahtzee to be just completely off-base. See there's a bit of a difference between using crabbiness, negativity and bad feelings as an obvious gimmick to make your stuff be funny and enjoyable (as Yahtzee does), and *actually* being crabby and negative and full of bad feelings about everything without any hint of humor anywhere. Maybe that's why you don't really "get" his style.

  8. For what it's worth, I think the gameplay of Portal did a great job 'explaining' the mechanics of the game (in what's really a fairly hand-holdy way) without resorting to a manual of play style.

  9. Uhhmmmmm yeah. I am also trying to figure out how to unlock that lesbian sex scene in Dragon Age. I finally got bored and dumped Leliana. Not surprisingly, it seems girls take more work to win over than boys. Girls are tricky, apparently.

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