Earlier this year, we took a look at the single-player portion of Brütal Legend, but since the game ostensibly started as a multiplayer concept, we were curious to see how the multiplayer portion of the game evolved alongside the single-player. Instead of being a traditional deathmatch style affair, Brütal Legend's multiplayer feels a lot like a constrained real-time strategy game. Or, as described by designer Tim Schafer, "It's all about leading an army of rockers head to head with the goal being the ultimate destruction of your opponent's rock stage."
Heading up one of three factions — Ironheade, the Drowning Doom or the Tainted Coil — your goal in multiplayer is as Schafer states: destroy you're opponent's base, which just happens to be a big-ass rock stage. You'll take direct control of your faction's hero, collect fans as a resource, build your army and then lead it into battle. Each of the three factions has a different tech tree, which causes them to focus on different strengths, but there are a few core similarities across the board.
The biggest commonality is the simple fact that your hero character has the ability to both fight and fly. Flying is a necessity, as it is how you'll scout out the map and quickly move back and forth between different unit groupings. You see, unlike a traditional RTS, your troops cannot be commanded from anywhere on the battlefield. If you want to issue a command, you need to be within earshot. If your hero is too far away, the commands fall on deaf ears.
Flying is also useful while fighting, as your hero isn't designed to be a tank. Rather, the game is set up with the intention that you use your hero to harass your opponent while letting your army do most of the heavy lifting. A successful player will swoop in, attack a unit or two and then fly back out. Anything more than that requires a double-team attack.
Double-team attacks occur when you pair your hero with any standard unit. Doing so gives you a more powerful attack at the cost of some maneuverability. Each double-team attack is unit-specific, so you'll want to ensure that you're pairing up with the correct unit. For example, one support unit looks like an S&M slave with spikes embedded in his back. When you double team, you ride on the unit's back and have the ability to yank out the spikes and throw them javelin-style at an enemy. Another support unit looks like a large steel cage with legs. Double team this one, and you have a massive stomp attack that is good for crushing small infantry underfoot.
Aside from the double-team attacks, one nifty trick up your hero's sleeve is the ability to bust out a shredding solo. These solos can be support-oriented, such as claiming control of a fan geyser (resource point), or combat-oriented. Combat-oriented solos are the equivalent of spells in a traditional RTS game. Pull one off without being interrupted, and you can hinder your enemies or buff your army. You first choose your solo via a "pie chart" style menu on the screen. Then the game switches to a mini-game mode, where you have to press buttons that match the on-screen display. It's a basic interface, but one that should be familiar to any long-time rhythm game fan.
In case an assault doesn't go as planned, never fear. Death for your hero is a temporary affair. That's not to say it is without penalty, though. Every time you die in combat, 50 fans transfer from you to your opponent. In a tight game, those resources could be enough to determine a winner.
Assuming you have the necessary resources, building your units is much like performing a solo. Bring up the corresponding pie chart menu, rotate the analog stick to your selection and press a button to confirm. It's a system that is rough going at first, mostly due to the inherent unfamiliarity of each selection, but once you know where everything is located, it should allow for fairly quick selections. One downside here is that the pie chart fills up the majority of your screen; we didn't see any way to make it smaller or partially transparent.
Another issue, and one that has the potential to be annoying if not tweaked, is the game's general lack of a UI in multiplayer. Yes, it allows you to see more of the screen, but at the same time, it makes it quite difficult to tell when your hero or units are near death. More than once, we thought our units were at or near full health only to see them felled by a simple blow. It's a given that developers want to show off their in-game assets, but the removal of the UI should be given a second thought when it results in the lack of key information being easily accessible. Here's hoping that Double Fine makes health levels a bit more obvious before launch.
The last rough spot in the multiplayer portion has to do with your inability to quick-select specific units. As any RTS veteran can tell you, being able to create specific squad groupings or ordering individual units to attack and retreat, allows for a fine degree of strategy to play out. Whether as a limitation of the controller (RTS games on consoles have always been somewhat clunky compared to their PC counterparts) or as a limitation of the design (Brütal Legend has a focus on combat), the game doesn't allow you to quick-select individual squads or units and issue specific orders. Instead, you have to run up to a specific unit, highlight it and then give it a command. In the heat of battle, this can be slow and imprecise. As a result, most of our matches were the equivalent of a Starcraft Protoss carrier rush: quickly tech up and then pray while both sides throw everything they've got at one another.
Being big fans of Schafer's previous work, we're cautiously optimistic about Brütal Legend, though first impressions appear to indicate that the game's strength lies more on the single-player side of things. After spending about two hours playing the multiplayer component (and watching other people play), we're not quite sure what it's striving to be. It's not set up for traditional, head-on deathmatch-style combat, and the RTS-style interface feels somewhat limiting for veterans of the genre. Instead, Brütal Legend appears to be reaching for a sort of middle ground. It's a gamble that could end up appealing to a large number of casual users or putting off throngs of gamers who like Jack Black but aren't exactly fans of Jack-of-all-trades gameplay.
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