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Brutal Legend Day#1: Back in Black

Day 1 with the long awaited Brutal Legend. I am a big fan of Tim Schafer, so this is one I was looking forward to. Does it live up to the hype? Thus far, basically. The writing is sharp and the voice-acting is solid. If you were ever a metalhead, there’s a ton for you. The story moves about a thousand miles an hour though, so be ready for a LONG post from an I-swear hour of play. The mechanics are interesting and varied, but Schafer shows his adventure game roots with less-than-stellar combat and some obscure puzzle-like scenes. But it’s pretty and there are some great jokes and this session ends with a mechanic with a lot of promise, so I’ll be back. Spoilers within.

Game starts with a surprising live-action scene with Jack Black taking you into a record store to show you a rare album that turns out to be the Brutal Legend Start Screen. It’s a neat technique that I haven’t personally seen in video games before, but the scene kind of goes nowhere and ends up a bit disappointing. It’s a great idea though. Here’s hoping they do more with it. I pick normal difficulty of three (the top being Brutal, of course) and get started.

You begin with a cut-scene intro of Riggs backstage at a concert. He’s a roadie for some tween band. They describe him as the best roadie alive, but kind of poke fun at him and criticize his choice of this huge demon-shaped stone mountain he’s built as their stage setting. The band gets on stage and asks the audience if they’re ready for some metal. And to the audience’s shrieks of adulation, they jump into pure simplistic, whiny, turntabled Linkin Park crap. Riggs sighs, and wishes to another roadie to that he could back in time to when metal was real, like the early ’70s.

And I laugh my head off. I guess this is the time to confess that I was a metalhead in high school. I never had the hair really (although mine wasn’t, and still isn’t, short) and I never dressed in the style, but that was what I listened to. Best bands: Iron Maiden, Anthrax (they are from Yonkers — I have to love them) and Megadeth. You were not allowed to like both Metallica and Megadeth, and Mustaine still kicks their sellout asses to this day. I know he was a dick, but it was your loss, Metallica. (Sorry, inside metalhead stuff.) Anyway, every old metalhead thinks exactly what Riggs thinks, that dumb 2000 metal where you whine about your parents is a pale shadow of the old stuff, although I’ll give points to Slipknot and Isis and Children (and ironically, Dethklok) for keeping it real.

Anyway, one of the idiot band members climbs out on to the statue and starts falling to his death, so Riggs (the good roadie) runs out to save him, first catching the loser’s dropped guitar and then the loser himself.  Riggs pontificates through this about how the roadie’s job is to stay behind the scenes and make others look good. And when he finishes, the statue collapses, crushing Riggs and spilling his blood on to the weird belt buckle he wears which, despite being completely uncommented on to this point,  is a talisman that summons a giant demon dog. Okay, explanation here would be nice, but I’ll roll with it.

Oh, cool point here. When Riggs notices the guy go up on the statue, he starts to curse, and there’s the neat pop-up asking me if I want to hear the naughty words or bleeps instead. I love that. It’s a clever little bit of writing that gives me a chance to tailor my game for myself, and it reminds me lovingly of Leather Goddesses of Phobos. I of course choose the curses, because I myself have the mouth of a truck-driving sailor. There’s a second one when the dog appears asking me if I want the gore as well, to which I reply Yes, Please.

The dog kills the lame band by decapitating them, which is nowhere near as gory as I was led to expect, and then we transition to another realm. There are a bunch of cultist robed things worshiping around an axe, waiting for their master. When Riggs says he isn’t the master, they say they know that, and attack him. You have no weapon, but the axe is still there. So running to it makes sense. You pick it up (with a nicely illustrated reward screen explaining what it is and an Ozzy track FTW) and then get to the cultist cleaving.

And how is said cleaving? Eh. You strike with A in a now-familiar, God-of-War style three strikes in a row for a final power attack pattern. It’s not bad. However, the enemies surround you in ways that are often hidden from the camera, and so you can easily be sideswiped by something you didn’t see. You have a B button to block with, but you have to be facing what you block, so it is totally useless for this backstabbing crap. You also get a guitar that casts some ranged attacks. There is no health interface on the screen at all, and I’m seriously wondering if there is ANY way I can die here. Ultimately, combat here is mediocre at best, with tons of cheap shots, but maybe I’m biased from having my last hardcore game be Batman. Of course, this is a Tim Schafer game, so I wasn’t expecting expert combat play.

I fight cultists for a while until a cutscene starts that shows me I’m on a bone mountain and introduces a giant nun demon, who Riggs wittily jokes about, and then I kill. Shockingly, I get to pilot the vehicle that the nun came; I’ve never gotten into a vehicle so fast in a non-racing game. It’s an okay sequence — the controls are fine, but I basically get to walk down a hill before I have to ditch it. More fighting and at the end of that, I meet The Girl in a cutscene.

The Girl is Ophelia, badass love interest who fights alongside me and knows the universe. She’s a good voiceactor and while she’s a bit too flawless and perfect as a character, she has some good dialogue.  We continue to fight together, and apparently have some kind of team-up attack where I throw her.  That seems useless to me, but who knows what the future brings. More fighting until we get to a gate, behind which is a coming army of demon cultists. We need a way out.

I investigate a weird statue thing which gives me a solo,  or a spell in game terms. This spell is a relic raiser, which lets me unearth things from the ground. I run back to the gate to cast it there, since Ophelia has been shouting at me to return this whole time, but it does nothing. I start running back to the statue area when a tip comes up telling me to go there to cast the spell. Thank you for the help, Brutal Legend, but I generally like to take more than two stabs at something before you give me the secret. The spell itself is a mini-rhythm action game where I have to hit a set of buttons in time with a score. It’s not bad, but using the Xbox buttons for timing games is always a bit strange. Not a set of buttons that I’ve had to memorize for that purpose.

Anyway, I cast the spell and it summons up a bunch of car parts. In CS, Riggs uses the parts to make a car, the Deuce. It runs in typical car format (RT to accelerate, LT to brake and reverse). Ophelia has never seen a car before which both establishes this as a past time period and wins Riggs some points with the girl.  We drive through the gate, and then there’s a long sequence where I race along the track, mowing down cultists as I see fit. It’s very Half-Life speedboat-y, but strangely less satisfying — this would be helped a lot if I was getting some kind of score for my pedestrian crushing. There are a few giant things that try to stomp me as I go. I get hit once, killing me, thus proving that death is possible in Brutal Legend and that the game may be at least a little Brutal. We drive for a while and then race to get past a closing game, but in a CS Riggs fails to do it.

Along the way, Ophelia explains that humanity has been overrun by these demons and there’s a limited number of people left to fight back. She’s part of the small army, but it’s small and needs help, and I may be a hero summoned to save them. This is a good time to mention that I have maybe played this game for all of a half-an-hour at this point. This is already the longest post I have made. The game is moving FAST. There’s a lot of good writing, and the lines meant to be witty are witty, but dear god they are not taking a lot of time on establishing the universe or slowly building the mechanic. It’s making it a little hard for me to get attached to the story when it flies by at a million miles an hour.

Back to the game. Ophelia tries to open the gate while I take care of some enemies.  This turns into a straightforward boss fight with a tentacle-like thing, and you handle that in the typical way. Drive the car around the enemy, wait until it swings, dodge, and sever one of its three tongues when it’s stuck from the over-zealous attack. I see this so often in games that I want an acronym for it. Here’s one: DnD for Dodge ‘n’ Deck. I DnD it until it’s dead. The only troubling part of this is that I get a new Nitro power-up for the car that works in the first round of the boss, but it stops working after that and then I have to use another new move (a sudden turn) to do the next 2 DnDs. This is very confusing. Did I run out of Nitro? Does it have a charge-up time? Or did the game just shut it off so I would use the other move for the rest of the boss fight? There’s no Nitro interface, so this will remain a mystery.

Boss seems beat,  and Ophelia has the gate open, but while we’re CS talking it rears back up and pins her to a wall past the gate. She screams for me to do something, but I have literally no idea what to do. The tentacle is too high for me to strike, and I can’t even see Ophelia. In desperation, I use a slam attack (A+X to create a shockwave) just to see if that will do something to the wyrm. The attack cuts a cord holding a counterweight (an engine, actually) which causes the gate to drop, crushing the tentacle underneath it. Of course! How was that not obvious?  Oh, adventure games, how you frustrate me with your random solutions.

More driving now, over a collapsing bridge, having to dodging holes as we go. Ophelia shouts out the spots as they appear. This is fun — nice use of the navigator.  I get through it the first time, and it ends with a cutscene where Ophelia mentions how much she likes the car, and how much Lars will love it. Lars?!? Guess this is a stymied love interest for now.  We drive off, and cut to the demons talking to a more senior demon about how the presence of Ophelia means that war is soon to start, and the demons seem very keen on having that war happen.

I get control back in the car, where I’m supposed to drive to Blade-whatever, the city where Lars and the “army” are. There are supposed to be signs that show me the way, but I do not seem them. I intend to go back and forth from the map, but the metal gods seem to get me to the city without me even knowing, and I do not question the gifts of the metal gods. There, I get a cutscene with Lars and Lars’ sister (whose name I didn’t catch) in which they tell Riggs that they think his belt buckle summoned him here and that he’s fulfilling the prophesy of the ancient fire demon as a warrior who was brought either to destroy them or deliver them (the translation is bad).  In a quite nice exchange, Lars sees Riggs as the new leader, but Riggs tells Lars that Riggs is a roadie, and his job is to work behind the scenes to make Lars’s army work and let Lars look good as the leader. Nice character touch there. Anyway, Lars doesn’t have much of an army, because Lionwhite (ha, ha) has enslaved all of the men as slave miners and the women as pleasure-slaves in his palace. We decide attacking Lionwhite is too dangerous right now, so we’ll rescue some of the men and use them to save the women. And with that, to the mines.

I get a new solo that allows me to summon the Deuce, and I use it to drive to the mine. Lars CS explains to Riggs that the warriors are forced to mine the rock with no tools using only their heads, which is maybe the most elegant use of a headbanger I have ever heard.  At the end of the cutscene, I get a choice to start the Revolution (and go into the mine) or wait.  I guess this is the standard interface for a mission start, but it seems weird now, since I have nothing else to do.  I say yes and dive in.

First, I learn a new solo, Battle Cry, which gives my soldiers morale. I head into the mine where I see three headbangers. I use Battle Cry, which triggers a cut scene where they want to join me. A couple of white-haired, hair-metal headbangers refuse to go along and rat us to a hammer-fisted slave driver, but this cutscene intro is pretty overwrought since we beat the slavedriver in five seconds flat.  I then get what I think is the best tutorial I have ever played. Riggs in a cutscreen explains to the headbangers a set of hand signals that will tell them what to do: follow him, protect something, attack what he points at. Each of these corresponds to a direction on the d-pad. I then have to make sure they learned the lesson by giving them the command and having them do it. Very nice here, Double Fine. I learn the lesson and have fun doing it. Still, this is the deepest tutorial I’ve had in this game to date. That is making me think that maybe I’m not playing an action game. Maybe I’m playing the Metal version of Pikmin. The next step is to take my army further into the mine, but my head is spinning by how much has already happened, and I decide to call it a night.

Whew. Wow, that’s a lot for an hour. Let’s see if my prediction that I’m playing Pikmin is right next time.

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