This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Brutal Legend.
It's difficult to put down in words my opinion of Tim Schafer, but basically if I had access to a Doomsday machine I'd reduce the entire population of the world to me, Tim Schafer, and maybe a woman if she promised to wear a Tim Schafer mask. In the past I have literally executed corporal punishment against people who never bought his last game, Psychonauts, and his entire resumé is a laundry list of stand-outs that have cemented my admiration. So when he descends from Mount Olympus to bring his first game since 2005, not really liking it puts me in a difficult position: do I make excuses for old time's sake and compromise my integrity; or jeopardize my chances of being invited to his birthday party? I feel a little betrayed. This must be how a lioness feels when the alpha male eats one of her cubs; I just don't know where we stand right now, and he's not having any of my zebra tonight, that's for fucking certain.
Brooetal Legend is about Jack Black starring as Jack Black playing Jack Black who is a heavy metal roadie mysteriously transported to a sort of cross between Narnia and the Ozzfest, and so takes the Flash Gordon/Army of Darkness approach to the fish-out-of-water genre; that is, "take the motherfucker over." On the way, there'll be a very expensive soundtrack of Guitar Hero classics and voice cameos from virtually everyone who ever curled two fingers into their palm while extending the other two, with the exception of Spider-Man. It's a wide open sandbox game, so it can be added to the ever growing landslide of sandbox games; I mean honestly, pretty soon there's going to be enough sand and boxes around to replicate Bondi Beach after a nearby warehouse explosion.
Now, if all you want to do is play DragonForce at full volume while ramping a high speed armoured rocket car off terrain that resembles various Megadeth album covers, then Brooetal Legend provides, and frankly I can think of a few more productive ways to spend an idle summer afternoon. But I'm less enthused by the whole game aspect. The reason Brooetal Legend feels like a betrayal is that it's a stealth RTS; not an RTS with stealth elements, where one might knock out an unaware guard from behind with a convoy of tanks, but an RTS that cloaks itself in the garments of other genres, which is particularly annoying for someone who likes other genres but doesn't really like RTS. If you just played the demo, you'd think it was a quirky God of War hack-and-slasher with open world driving and a slightly dodgy targeting system, but as the story continues and the game starts teaching you how to order troops around and where to buy 500 identical spiked helmets you start to smell a big hairy Zerg rushing rat.
All the hacky-slashy-drive-aroundy the game appears to be is a mere crust upon a surface of big RTS battles that dominate the second half of a painfully underweight story campaign. It's like buying a car on the strength of its four magnificent wheels, but it starts to peel away in layers as you drive it along the highway until only a unicycle remains. It might be a perfectly good unicycle, but I don't know how to ride a fucking unicycle!
Still, if I must be forced to play an RTS, it is quite gratifying to be able to personally wade in when things are going up the piddle pipe. And I bet I'd have had more fun with the Total War series if they'd let me jump into a fire-breathing monster truck and plough through the Roman infantry. That sentence alone should spell out that I'm not a great judge of RTSes, but I have a friend who likes them, and once I dredged him up from his abyss and reanimated him from a deathlike torpor he assured me that Brütal Legend's RTS aspect is quite lacking, its controls unsuited for any strategy more complex than "gather up all your mates and go stomp all over everything that's a different colour to you."
He added that it had never occurred to him to use his car in battle. Perhaps the veteran strategy player's mind can't think outside the box, or he was weakened from not having fed on the blood of a high-born virgin, or Brooetal Legend has the terrible habit of not telling you shit. "Climb to the top of the Hornthrower to customize Mount Rockmore," says the game. Exactly what the Hornthrower is and why I should give a toss are conspicuously unmentioned. You have to raise Motor Forges to upgrade your car, but where a Motor Forge might be found or what they look like is left unsaid. This is what I'm starting to hate about sandbox games; whatever other gameplay it employs, above all else you have to be proficient at scavenger hunts. There are a lot of upgrades, army commands and important story elements that have to be searched for throughout the game world. Would it not make sense to give me these things as a reward for my playing skills rather than my willingness to waste hours of my free time blindly wandering around the overworld hoping to trip over a present?
I ask you now, how many more genres have to be sacrificed to the sandbox monster before we remember the importance of specialization? We've already lost the RPGs, the racers, the shooters, the brawlers, the bakers, the candlestick makers, all stewed together into games of all trades, masters of none. And now we're losing real-time strategy, where does it end? Will I one day be refused the straight line block in Tetris until I've journeyed to the Zarlgoth plains and recovered the fifty Sacred Horse Bollocks?
Tim Schafer's characteristic style and sense of humour is here, but the format puts it through the wringer a wee bit. Psychonauts benefitted from a very tight level design and story structure, but Brooetal Legend is a sandbox, and sandboxes are by definition looser than your mum on a jet engine. You remember when you played Mouse Trap, you'd set up the machine and watch every component fire off in turn all the way to its clattering conclusion in a perfect crescendo of brightly coloured plastic? Well if that was Psychonauts, then Brooetal Legend is throwing all the pieces into a bucket and hurling them at a dog's face; it's still entertaining in its own way, but it's not architecturally sound, and the dog probably wouldn't appreciate it either.
It feels more like Jack Black's thing than Tim Schafer's, although the two men do look rather similar, and come to think of it I've never seen them in the same room together. I'm not suggesting they might have some kind of fucked up Tyler Durden relationship but... oh wait, sorry, yes, that's pretty much exactly what I'm suggesting.
Somewhat easy-going legend: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
I studied German, alright? I refuse to let an umlaut go unpronounced
Funnily enough I mount rockmore on an almost nightly basis