Thursday, October 15, 2009

Brutal Legend, on why hot games have to be easy

I'm three hours into Brutal Legend. We played the demo three times at work; the humor and pacing and unimpeded progress made it a big hit. It only went downhill from there in my three hours of gameplay. Which isn't a bad thing at all; the cutscenes are well-acted and written, the story is pretty decent, I love it when I can catch a reference (I'm not very metal), driving is way fun, and the art and sound are absolutely top notch. I'm left a little wanting with the gameplay, though.

I don't know if I just wasn't paying attention or was too busy only paying attention to what I wanted to see, but I didn't realize the combat was so squad-oriented, and I had no idea that it'd be so heavily RTS-y (you can pronounce that "ritsy", I just made it up). The squad aspect became apparent on the trip up to the Kill Master. This is set up as a classic escort mission with a squad. I kept losing the mission because Lars kept dying. The team-combo with the headbangers was key here, as you seem to do a lot more damage when teamed up with a group, and the formation was especially helpful with the mission at hand; I got the feeling that this was how the mission was designed to be played. But then I tried just sending my dudes to the back, and found I could just snipe enemies with Clementine without endangering Lars. Was this a genuine alternate solution, or was the encounter not flexible enough to balance other approaches?

There is a lot of modern gameplay elements here: button mashing combos, unit combos, squad orders, and ultimately, RTS battles. The side missions include a lot of racing elements. There's a steady stream of tactical ability upgrades. But it seems that you can eventually bumble through a lot of the challenges without necessarily being good at any of these things; I think the difficulty level decreases with successive failure until you can almost let the game play itself. That's the right solution for a game like this, but it begs the question; if you're going to let the player off the hook in order to progress the story, why bother in the first place?

Nevertheless, I'm enjoying it a lot. The world is just so cool. I read that the designers wanted you to be able to make a heavy metal album cover out of any view in the world, and it really shows. Look, there's a giant stone dude holding a sword in the distance. If I turn to the right, there's a plain of rusty metal crosses. Behind me is a statue of a snake in bondage gear. To the left is a gloomy, barren field of sinister shrubs and trees. It's a pleasure simply to travel from mission to mission.

The gameplay is there if you want it, but it's not challenging enough to really have to get good at it to progress. I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing here; the draw for me is the story and art, so frustrating gameplay would just get in the way of enjoying that, but at the same time, if it's the right kind of challenging gameplay it can really support the theme, like Shadow of the Colossus, and bind the whole experience together. I think a year from now I'll remember cutscenes and landscapes from Brutal Legend, but the RTS gameplay will be forgotten. The gameplay doesn't get in the way, but I'm not sure I need it or even want it to enjoy the rest of the experience.

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