It had the Chrome but Not the Polish
HIGH Crashing a flaming zeppelin into the enemy stage at the end of a long battle.
LOW The aforementioned long battle.
WTF Pardon me, but I think about a third of the story has gone missing.
In his review of Brütal Legend, David Stone accuses Tim Schafer of creating a game that's more style than substance. Seeing the style is easy: the game's world is suffused with heavy metal imagery, populated by heavy metal musicians, and filled with the sound of heavy metal music. Even the trees are metal, growing exhaust pipes in place of branches. The game also cultivates an epic feel that fits the bombast of the music. But heavy metal is about more than album art. Does the substance of the game, rather than just the style, reflect the heavy metal ethos in some way? In light of the story's flaccid melodrama and the weak tactical strategy gameplay, one can make a compelling case that it does not. The game's core design, however, didn't bind it to this fate. Brütal Legend had the elements to make great heavy metal gameplay, but failed because the execution of those ideas was botched.
The defining aesthetic of heavy metal music is power. This is an emphasis of the music itself, with its characteristic heavy beats and loudness, and also of the album art that inspires Brütal Legend's world. The divergent aesthetic combining medieval fantasy and modern road machines is unified by the desire for power and recognition. Yet, like any form of fandom, metalheads also constitute a community united by their love of the music. A fan expresses his individuality through a particular way of dressing and reacting to music, but the general parameters of dress and behavior are dictated by a larger social group. He can headbang alone, sure, but it's not really metal until a lot of people are headbanging together. Whether a game conveys the core aesthetic of metal or not depends on its ability to deliver the contradictory experiences of empowerment as an individual and membership in a community.
The game's much-maligned hybridization of third-person action and real-time strategy actually serves this dichotomy quite well. The player controls a single hero, roadie Eddie Riggs, but the game's most intense fights require him to bring along an army of headbangers, roadies, bouncers and more. Stone found it off-putting that these "stage battles" only allow Eddie to command troops that are near him, but this is actually the most fitting approach, given the heavy-metal aesthetic. Conventional RTS gameplay relies on a modern idea of generalship, in which leaders command their armies from a great distance. Brütal Legend, like heavy metal music itself, embraces a more medieval power fantasy, in which the general is the greatest warrior and leads his armies from the field. Eddie is not an all-seeing eye gazing over his troops from a distance, but a personal force moving among the soldiers of metal. When this works it can generate a tremendously empowering feeling of being a heavy metal warrior charging into battle at the head of your very own rock 'n roll army. That feeling is very metal, but it comes too rarely, if at all, because the implementation betrays the concept.
Rather than giving the player a feeling of empowerment, the stage battles often result in confusion and dismay. The awkward input system Stone describes certainly contributes to the trouble, but another major contributor is inappropriate level design. The personalized third-person perspective of the stage battles is basically incompatible with the idea of splitting up the army. The developers know this—in his open letter explaining how to play the stage battles, Tim Schafer emphasized keeping the army together. However, most of the stage battles take place in large arenas that penalize force concentration because of their open nature. In spaces like this, figuring out where you're being attacked, or where your troops even are, is often too difficult. Had the game featured more linear battlefields that were better suited to loosely-organized large-scale attacks, like the Dry Ice Mines, Brütal Legend would have been more fun to play, and the proper way to play it would have been self-evident, rather than requiring a long open letter to justifiably mystified players.
Even with improvements to the battlefield design, however, charging into battle with your forces would still pose a tough timing trick: allies never quite seem to keep the player's pace, always running a bit behind or a bit ahead. Moreover, it's difficult to feel like the powerful general of a rock army when the armaments are so wimpy. Stone notes that Eddie can be knocked out by some enemies in just a couple of hits, and the unmentioned flipside of that problem is that Eddie himself can't even kill the game's weakest enemies that easily. Although Eddie's guitar solos are satisfyingly powerful, his conventional attacks are pathetic—even on the lowest difficulty setting, Eddie can hack at mid-level enemies for a straight minute before they fall. Given this degree of weakness, it's hard to escape the overall impression that Eddie is just a ludicrous man-child driving around a wasteland in a toy car, whacking legendary creatures with a cardboard axe. Eddie's never really as powerful as he seems he should be, and his community can't quite keep up with him.
So, the experience does not empower the player, but does it empower Eddie? The game sets him up as an underappreciated roadie working for a band he detests as a corruption of metal's ideals, and the plot seems to offer an an opportunity for him to take on the forces that displaced true heavy metal. The early enemy, Lionwhyte, is clearly meant to represent the hair bands that sold out and glammed metal up for the masses. Unfortunately, after that the allegory falls apart. The Drowned Doom are lightly developed as avatars of the dramatic excesses of the goth metal scene, but the demonic forces of the Tainted Coil don't fit into the metaphor at all—n part, that's because the game's extremely odd pacing thrusts the player directly from defeating the Drowned Doom into the final battle against emperor Doviculus, leaving no time to develop the Tainted Coil as an enemy. Given that much of heavy metal embraces demonic imagery (Eddie himself says the demons "really have style"), it's not obvious what, if any, corrupting influence this foe represents. Absent that motivation, there's no sense that Eddie is emphatically putting down a force that really represses metal, and little sense of empowerment to be gained.
That lack of empowerment is emphasized by the curious conclusion of Brütal Legend's uneven narrative. Having begun with a monologue about the role of a roadie, the game attempts to bring that motif back for the finale. Eddie has found a community of true metalheads to stay with, but Lars and Lita, "leaders" of the rebellion, get all the credit for the hard work Eddie actually accomplished. That might work as the epilogue to a rock 'n roll tour, but the problem with this is that in the game's "concerts," nobody was on the stage. The internal fiction of Eddie as an unappreciated roadie in both worlds falls apart because everyone, including the supposed leaders, takes orders directly from him. This epilogue feels implausible and unearned, especially given that Eddie's head prominently adorns a nearby mountain. Brütal Legend has the roadie, but it's missing the band, and you need both if you're going to have a real rock concert.
For a fan, a musical style is an important part of an individual personality, but it is also a key way of identifying with a group. You can't really capture the essence of the allure of heavy metal without incorporating both those aspects, and Brütal Legend's curious mix of play styles may well be the best way to deal with this dichotomy in a game. Unfortunately, art that addresses contradictory ideas often turns out to be contradictory in its own right, and this is the fate that befalls Brütal Legend. Its battle system had the potential to capture the vibrant feeling of the mosh pit, but is stymied by its limited interface and inappropriate level design. Its story could have been a sharp power fantasy about a roadie who becomes a hero by taking on the forces corrupting real heavy metal, but its metaphors never really seem to connect. Brütal Legend deserves praise for the fantastic art design of its heavy metal world, and for taking a chance on bold gameplay choices. It was in execution, not conception, that Brütal Legend's substance became less impressive than its style.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail purchase on the strength of an unrepresentative demo and played on the XBox 360. Approximately 14 hours of play were devoted to completing the single-player campaign on Normal and Gentle difficulties due to the reviewer's general incompetence at RTS gameplay. The reviewer did not try the multiplayer.
Currently Sparky works as a scientist in Rhode Island, and works gaming in between experiments and literature reviews. As a writer, he hopes to develop a critical voice that contributes to a more sophisticated and interesting culture of discourse about games. He is still waiting for a console port of Betrayal at Krondor.