Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Brutal Legend, on expectations and let downs

One of the best parts of Brutal Legend, apart from the cut-scenes, is driving around. The open world environment has just the right mix of detail and size; you don't drive around forever trying to find a point of interest, but nothing feels too cluttered together. Considering all the things in the world you need to discover for completion, you'll find yourself getting out of your car and doing something every minute or so, at the most; no five minute long treks where you rubber-band down the trigger and go make a drink. However, as rewarding as exploration is, when you die, you respawn at last your last checkpoint, which, because you had so much fun exploring, could be halfway across the world. The environment doesn't do a very good job of warning you environment hazards; jumping off a cliff may lead to a totally sweet jump or sudden death. A minimap might help with this, since they often demark the active gameplay zone, but there's no minimap. So be careful there.

The RTS aspect of the game becomes a lot more central in the second half, where you basically go from stage battle to stage battle, doing side quests in between to upgrade your abilites (which, while usable and useful in stage battles, are probably not that important if you're actually good at commanding your troops). The game does a good job of introducing you to the practical details of RTS gameplay in an incremental manner; one battle you're just directing troops, the next you learn about upgrades, the next you learn about the important of structures, etc. However, there's a lot of details there, and around my fourth stage battle, I forgot how to upgrade the tech level of your troops.

Stage battles are pretty cool to watch. The units have a ton of style; too much, really, as it's hard to tell what kind of units an enemy is using against you. The seven foot tall dude who barfs rats? Short-range infantry killer. The pram that launches babies at you? Long range infantry. If you complete the mission or die and have to restart, you'll get info about the units added to your tour book, but they definitely chose form over function on this one. The visuals are great, mostly because the units and battlefields are just so metal, but there's not enough useful info for you.

It's incredibly hard to split your units into squads and send them in different directions, since a command affects 'everybody in the range of your voice', whatever that is, and one misstep would ruin everything by giving the same command to all squads. I had to change my tactics for the limitation of not being able to efficiently split and direct my troops, like, send my main force out to the front lines so I can make some dudes and send them to guard a merch booth, which was dangerous because I wasn't ready to go to the front line, but I wouldn't be able to split my squads unless there was sufficient distance between them. There is a method for selecting a subgroup, but it just doesn't quite work in the heat of battle.

The pacing is unfortunate. You spend the first quarter of the game doing solo stuff, advancing the plot. Then the next quarter is stage battles against the first evil faction. Then the next quarter is stage battles against the second evil faction. By this time you've seen elements of the third faction around the world, so you expect there to be a fourth quarter of stage battles against them, but after the last battle against the second faction, there's a single mini-battle against the third faction, and then a boss fight and game over. Furthermore, the penultimate stage battle is much more grueling than the final one, so the last battle is just not rewarding at all. A co-worker last week wrote in his gmail status line that he "accidentally beat Brutal Lenged", so I was prepared for an abrupt ending, but even so, it was kind of surprising. After beating the final boss, I spent another hour exploring the world and doing some completion stuff, but then I was just done with it.

It's too bad. The game is just full of fantastic art and style, top notch writing and voice acting, and the balls to do something really different, but in the end, the disappointment I feel due to failed expectations will last longer than the joy of the game's triumphs. Like a relationship gone bad, I want to cling to the great parts and forget that it was ultimately a let down. I want to rave about the game more than complain about it, but I feel jilted, and in video games, like in love, it's worse to have high expectations dashed than have low expectations surpassed.

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