There’s a few styles and genres I tend to shy away from. Heavy metal music certainly fits that category, and so do open-world games. Given those facts, I’m not exactly sure why I picked up Brütal Legend on Steam, besides the circumstance of one of their big sales going on at the time and it being, therefore, quite cheap. Perhaps it was the fun-looking setting and aesthetic, or the famously mis-marketed RTS elements, which sounded kind of interesting to me. Whatever it was, I finally got around to actually playing it this month and found it to be a worthwhile game indeed.
The most impressive thing about Brütal Legend is how seriously and thoroughly it treats its theme. For instance, upon starting the game, the player is treated to a live-action intro movie, where actor/musician Jack Black takes them to a record store and shows them a rare album tucked away in the “Forbidden Metal” section. This LP is titled Brütal Legend and has a “Press Start” sticker on the front; doing so opens up the album’s gatefold cover, with “New Game” to the left and “Continue” on the right. This awesome opening menu continues on with the back cover, inner sleeve, and both sides of the record itself.
As for the actual game, the world is one where, to put it succinctly, metal rules. The landscapes seem ripped straight from album covers, the “Fire Tributes” earned by doing various tasks take the forms of silhouetted hands holding up lighters, and most every human sports varying degrees of spikes, leather, black clothing, and/or big hair. The men are shirtless, the women are busty, and the beasts have chrome-plated fangs. It’s the kind of universe which is only possible with a heavy metal theme—other musical genres, such as country and hip-hop, have similarly strong iconography associated with them, but are too grounded in reality to make a truly fantastical world out of.
The main character, the Jack Black-voiced Eddie Riggs, winds up in this place by circumstance. While doing his job as a roadie for a shitty nu-metal band, tragedy strikes, and the next thing he knows, he’s somewhere much darker. Soon, he’s got an axe (as in, an axe), an axe (as in, a guitar), a little coupe called The Deuce, and a sidekick named Ophelia. He winds up in Bladehenge, where the siblings Lars and Lita are planning a rebellion against their oppressive rulers. Although the writing is often witty and the optional backstory bits are inspired, the main plot is one of the weakest parts of the game. It’s corny at times, in a Hollywood blockbuster sort of way, and certainly not as original or interesting as its setting. (There were also some spoilers in the Steam Trading Cards which, even with certain predictable story elements, was kind of annoying.) Considering the expense—and, therefore, risk—that went into the production of this game, this lack of originality in the plot does not come as much of a surprise, but is still disappointing considering the rest of the game’s uniqueness.
Aside from Jack Black, the cast includes a few famous metal musicians; although some are worse voice actors than others, one particularly good performance is Ozzy Osborne as the Guardian of Metal, a robed gent who trades Fire Tributes for upgrades. Ozzy’s character model, like those of at least a couple others, resembles the real thing, and all of them have a rounded, cartoony quality about them which has aged considerably well. Much the same could be said about the various fighting units (which range from headbangers with amazingly huge necks to hot rod war machines), wild animals, and environmental elements. Eschewing the hyper-realism that has long been the fashion in big-budget games has paid off in dividends; for a title which was originally released on consoles in 2009, it still looks really good.
As for how Brütal Legend plays, as I said earlier, this is both an open-world game and an RTS. As the former, it involves a good deal of driving and general action, with escort missions and car racing sidequests, and plenty of opportunities for putting both axes to work. There’s also, naturally, a few types of hidden things scattered throughout the world and the associated rewards for finding and interacting with them in the right way.
The second genre this game fits under, real-time strategy, is what sets it apart. More complex than Pikmin but (thankfully) not as much as something like StarCraft, Brütal Legend‘s system involves a handful of different unit types along with resource collecting (in the form of “fans” siphoned though the use of “merch booths”), base upgrades, and a simple set of commands. This is all on top of having the option to control Eddie “normally”, i.e. as you would when exploring the world, and once you factor in the usefulness of the special guitar solo moves during these battles, things can quickly get hectic. Compared to the rest of the game, these battles can be overwhelming for someone who isn’t used to dense management-style tactics; outside of the heavy metal theme, this is the best case for Brütal Legend being a niche title. For those of us who like—or at the very least don’t mind—this sort of gameplay, these battles are interesting, though sometimes fiddly, challenges.
A different sort of challenge lies in keeping track of Eddie’s health. Though there is a user interface for things like battle commands and guitar solos, there is no health bar for our hero. Instead, whenever he is near death, the sound of a beating heart is heard and the screen tints slightly redder. While I appreciate this less-is-more approach, there were a few times when I wish I’d had further information about the state Eddie is in.
Finally, I absolutely must mention the music. In addition to a handful of atmospheric instrumental tunes (and the nu-metal band’s song from the opening), Brütal Legend is jam-packed with metal tunes from a wide variety of subgenres. Among others, there’s legends like Black Sabbath, 80s hair bands such as Mötley Crüe, and more modern groups, including Mastodon and (of course) Tenacious D. New songs can be unlocked throughout the course of the game and played via the Deuce’s “radio”, the Mouth of Metal. Switching between songs can be done on the fly with the d-pad, a nostalgically chunky click of a tape deck separating each track.
Like heavy metal music itself, Brütal Legend is not for everyone, but it proved to be very much for me. I have a soft spot for games that are polished yet sufficiently quirky: the types of “b-game” projects that have, more and more, become the province of indie studios as the bigger ones either go out of business or focus more heavily on titles that warrant three A’s, minimum. Sure, offbeat games like Brütal Legend sometimes have questionable design decisions, but the best ones also have a way of shining through with good ideas and execution, and tons of character. That this game had as big of a budget as it did helps give it an especially rare sheen. Sometimes, I wish more people loved these sorts of games, so that more of them could be made.
I know it’s been a long time since I last posted here, and I’m afraid I don’t have any truly valid excuses for that other than general procrastination (though the issues I’ve been having with WordPress lately are annoying). However, there has been a lot of gaming going on in our household, as usual. I will write about some of the games I’ve been playing later, but for today, here’s a couple that my husband beat over the last couple of months.
First up was Batman: Arkham Asylum, specifically the “Game of the Year” edition for Xbox 360. Having been a PC gamer for several years, the mere existence of a console GOTY edition once struck me as a bit odd, but it’s also a sign of the times. After all, console games have steadily become PC games this generation, with bugs, the requisite patches for those bugs, and expansion packs, now termed “downloadable content”.
Arkham Asylum itself, however, is a console game through and through. Genre-wise, it’s a brawler set in a somewhat open-world environment, complete with combo moves and collectables. It stars everyone’s favorite DC Comics hero, the Goddamn Batman, in a game world that is as dark, gritty, and poker-faced as he is. This world is the microcosmic Arkham Asylum, which is located on an island this time around, and is grimy and run-down, almost in that Weird NJ abandoned mental hospital sort of way. The fist-fodder consists of a handful of standard enemies with a few weapon variations thrown in, plus the odd grotesque supervillain. The plot is comic book/video game boilerplate, and there are several references to the larger Bat-canon littered throughout, including a database of series villains that (although being wildly inaccurate in regards to Harley Quinn’s first appearance) makes for interesting reading.
Gaminess runs as rampant as the inmates. One of the first things one notices about the game is the odd placement of Batman when the player is controlling him; instead of being centered on-screen, our hero is off to the left when walking around, an arrangement that my husband found took some getting used to. Clearly, the goal in this bit of design is to give the player a clear field of vision without resorting to a first-person perspective. It’s not what I’d call immersion-breaking, but it does call attention to itself. Then there’s the gadgets, which are optimized for extreme gaminess. One favorite was the Cryptographic Sequencer, a hacking tool that uses two dials (or analog sticks, if you prefer) to short-circuit electronic locks.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Arkham Asylum is how violent it is—despite Batman being a character who avoids guns and killings out of principle, and despite this being a T-rated game. When Batman punches or kicks a villain, the hit is hard and brutal, emphasized by the animation and sound effects. This is a Batman for the New 52 era, even before that reboot existed; a Batman as concerned with grittiness and realness as your average gangsta rapper. In a way, this subtle pandering to the demographic that this game is going for (while still maintaining a T-rating), is yet another sign of gaminess, and not a particularly encouraging one at that.
More video games!
Assassin’s Creed II‘s Ezio Auditore di Firenze is a more suave, stylish, and handsome hero than the Dark Knight, and we welcomed him back into our lives with the next game on my husband’s agenda, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Compared to its predecessor, it was largely more of the same, albeit in a (mostly) new place, the city of Rome. The story picks up right from the ending of AC2‘s, continuing on with a new main goal, more assassin missions, an altered approach to management simulation, a smattering of interesting new features, and yet another crazy ending.
The entire Assassin’s Creed series is gamey by design. You are playing Desmond who is “playing” his ancestors through abstracted means: the Animus device and its software. When Batman picks up an audio tape that just happens to be shining, there’s no excuse for that shine other than the game’s developers wanted to call attention to it. When Ezio spots a collectible Borgia flag marked by a certain white glow, that artifacting is intended to be a feature (or side-effect?) of the Animus. The same goes for the game’s menu, health meter, “Truth” puzzles, and just about everything else. Even the part of the menu that details historical facts is said to have been written by someone in the real world; in the Ezio arc, it’s the snarky Brit Shaun.
True gaminess outside of the veneer provided by the Animus is smartly rare. When Desmond steps out of the device, there’s no health meter or map, and the menu is irrelevant. One unintentionally hilarious bit of gaminess manages to sneak through, however: Desmond wears a sling-style backpack, which he keeps on when sitting in the clinical, ergonomic Animus.
That said, the meta-narrative involving Desmond presents an interesting problem for future installments in the Assassin’s Creed series. Many have speculated that Desmond himself will be playable for the majority—if not all—of a future title. Yet, how would this be pulled off while providing the player with the information they need (via the HUD and menu system) while explaining these tools existence in the real-life world? There have been hints throughout all of the games about the changes in Desmond’s perception, but tacking on a HUD to his real-life adventures would be a bit too much.
Gamers still don’t know if a Desmond-centric Assassin’s Creed is in the works. Series developer/publisher Ubisoft seems to want to milk the series for all its worth, and after the recently-released Revelations, said to be the last game to star Ezio, they could very well dip back into history with something set during the American Revolution, or the Victorian Era, or World War II. The possibilities really add up with a series like this, and it could be a long time before Desmond sees the last of that ol’ Animus.
Beat Devil May Cry 4 last week. Not the best game in the series, but certainly had its high points. All the hallmarks were there: bishies, hot chicks, gothic interiors, death metal songs that play during battles, and occasional violations of the 180° rule when moving from place to place. Unlike the others, Dante is not playable for much of the game. Instead, the player takes the role of Nero, a young man with similar fashion sense and slightly less campiness than Mr. Sparda. He also has a glowing arm, which can be used to grab far-off enemies and unleash brutal attacks on them. These attacks vary depending on the enemy, reminding me of Quick Time Events, though not in the traditional sense. As such, Nero is a fun character to play. Dante controls much the same as always, and is also tougher to control compared to Nero, due to the lack of Glowing Hand.
Although Rune Factory Frontier is mad addictive, this is what I'll be playing today!
As for Rune Factory Frontier, I’m still plugging away at it, and passed the 100-hour mark this weekend. All that has been ever said about JRPGs and linearity doesn’t quite apply to the Rune Factory series. Yes, there is a single storyline and a set progression in terms of unlockable areas, and no, you can’t fully customize your hero character, but everything else is wide open. There’s tons of things to do—farming, fishing, crafting, cooking, and much more—and like any good Harvest Moon, there’s also a wide range of girls to hit on, and eventually, marry. It’s rich and immersive in a way that JRPGs traditionally aren’t, and despite the glaring flaws, I’m as hooked on Frontier as I was with its DS brethren. Can’t wait for Rune Factory 3‘s localization (please let this happen!).
Apart from games themselves, I’m getting a little weary of CAG’s forums again and am ready to take another hiatus from them, largely due to the fact that there’s hardly any humor in them. This seems to be a problem with many gaming forums, where games are Serious Business and there’s little to no room for levity. Perhaps this also explains why Shimrra won Best CAG Blog in this year’s Cheapy Awards, even though his regular Daily HaHa posts are mainly just images ganked from the likes of 4chan. Humor is in very short supply amongst gamers, it seems.
Anyway, looking forward to PAX East at the end of this week, and have been going over my options for what to see and do. Meanwhile, I will be playing Cave Story. On my Wii.
I don’t like to play open-world/sandbox games; I tried Grand Theft Auto: Vice City some years ago, got stuck, and was uninterested enough by the game as a whole that I never bothered picking it up again. However, my husband loves them, and I’ve found these games much more interesting as a spectator. I’ve never watched one all the way through, but have seen a fair amount of the GTA series, The Warriors, The Godfather: Blackhand Edition, and Assassin’s Creed.
In addition to playing open-world games, I didn’t much like Altaïr, the main character of that last game on the list. He’s the Crusades-era ancestor of one Desmond Miles, who lives in the modern age and is cooped up in some sort of lab, where he has to lie down on a device called an Animus, which plugs into his subconscious collective memory or some such. The short of it is that this machine puts him into Altaïr’s shoes, allowing for a believable “gaminess” when it comes to said ancestor’s adventures.
Anyway, Altaïr struck me as something of an asshole, and not very likable at all. However, the same can’t be said for one of Desmond’s other ancestors, a debonair young man named Ezio who lives in the late 15th Century. Ezio is the protagonist of Assassin’s Creed II, which came out this Tuesday for the PS3 and 360 (a PC version is due next year). My husband had preordered it from Amazon, and it arrived yesterday; he had originally planned to start it after Thanksgiving, but the lure of more historical assassin action was too great to resist. Me, I had been planning to put some more time into Ys: The Ark of Napishtim last night, but ended up watching him galavant across Florentine rooftops until around midnight.
Assassin’s Creed II picks up pretty much right where the last one left off. After certain modern-day details present themselves, Desmond is once again jacked into an ancestor’s world, this time finding himself in Renaissance Italy. Here we first meet Ezio, a banker’s son and ladies’ man who just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. As the plot moves along, the game’s various moves and features are slowly dripped out to the player, and once Ezio dons the clothes of an assassin, there are even more things to learn. Thus, the first few hours of the game feel like an extended tutorial, but one that the story is elegantly wrapped around.
Many of the distractions from the first game are back, including collectable sidequests, Leaps of Faith, and so forth, but these are put to work, rather that just being things to do for Achievements or Trophies. Some serve a story purpose, while others, like the high vantage points scattered throughout the world, lead to practical benefits. There are also new things to do, ranging from additional ways to earn money, to scattered clues that tie in to the overarching plot.
Aesthetically, the game shines. The script is engaging and sometimes even funny. I won’t spoil it, but there’s one line in particular spoken by one of Ezio’s associates that has us both groaning and smiling. There are a few weird character models, but for the most part, the visuals and animation are stunning. The sound design is fantastic, but if Ezio is ever facing away from a character, even if they are still nearby, the dialogue audio softens considerably. I understand that this approach is to make things more realistic, but it seems a little overdone. And speaking of the dialogue, Tycho is absolutely right in his suggestion to have the subtitles turned on. There is a lot of Italian woven into the dialogue, and unless you know the language, you will want to take advantage of the translations that the subs provide.
So yes, the game is very good, but there are a couple of nitpicks I would be remiss not to point out. First off are some of the early Achievements, which are for doing things that are required to get further into the game anyway; they’re small ones, sure, but still silly. My husband also found the controls a little finicky at times, especially the ones mapped to the ABXY buttons, which can frequently change depending on the situation. At any rate, I know he’ll have a good time with Assassin’s Creed II, and I also know that I’ll continue to watch him play every so often to see where the story goes.