The day has finally come for PC gamers to attain a status that has eluded them for years - the day when every console game developed by Tim Schaefer's company, Double Fine Games, could be enjoyed on their platform of choice, with the arrival of Brütal Legend on PC via Steam. When publisher Electronic Arts determind that they would not bother with a PC release of the game when it came out in 2009, PC players rightly despaired and howeled. However, with Double Fine's recent surge of profits and visibility from events like the Doube Fine Adventure Kickstarter and the Amnesia Fortnight Bundle, they came up with an alternate solution — getting the rights to the game back from EA, they have finished the port and have released it themselves — and the results are glorious.
Brütal Legend is a mix of genre conventions, combining Warcraft III-like real-time strategy gameplay, Zelda-like exploration, and lots of heavy metal iconography and style, all sewn together with Double Fine Games' sense of humor in its finest form and salted with enough celebrity voice actors to justify the presence of both Activision and Electronic Arts in the games' long production cycle.
The story is told through the character of Eddie Riggs, a master roadie stuck working for a terrible "Heavy Metal" band. Trying to save the idiot guitarist's life, Eddie gets his own blood on his demon-head-shaped belt buckle, which promptly animates the set, asks you if you want to censor the gore, then either kills or knocks out the band before sending Eddie to a world built on the concept of Heavy Metal, distilled and turned up to 12. (Not 11. 12.)
Forced to fight off a bevy of bondage-themed demons with an ax he's never touched and a guitar that can now summon lightning, Eddie soon finds out that the humans of this world have been subjugated and enslaved by the fabulous but evil General Lionwhyte, on behalf of his master, the terrifying demon known as Emperor Doviculus. While Eddie doesn't like the idea of being the hero himself, he's certainly willing to help the resistance organize an army and lead it into a rock and roll battle against the forces of hair metal, death metal, and emo metal.
The actual gameplay follows every theme of the story very tightly. Most of the time, at least in single player, Eddie runs around from mission to mission, finding a positively Legend of Zelda sized bevy of secrets and side missions. Whenever you tire of running through the ludicrously oversized environments, Eddie can summon a hot rod to get around — complete with a radio loaded with over a hundred heavy metal hits.
In battle, Eddie handles like Link or a highly simplified Batman — one button controls his battle-ax, another his rocking-ax, one blocks, and the last is context-sensitive. There are a fair array of combos that can provide useful effects for dealing with swarms of enemies, but more importantly, Eddie also has trained his allies to follow a series of D-pad-controlled hand signals, and can do unique "Double Team" moves with each of them. The controls for this are surprisingly detailed, allowing Eddie to pinpoint where he wants specific units to go; however, since they're introduced piece by piece over half the campaign, it's never particularly daunting to figure out.
This combat system hits its climax in the Stage Battles — where the same core gameplay grows in scale to become a full-bore Real-Time Strategy, with resource mining, a base to protect, and full unit-building mayhem. The twist here, is that at all times, you are playing as Eddie, who can personally enhance units, Double Team with them, or simply beat the crap out of stuff himself.
Notably, the Stage Battles are where the game's nature as a PC port really comes into its own - playing with a Keyboard and Mouse feels odd but workable when controlling just Eddie or a small force, but proves decently precise when dealing with an entire army on top. The result makes it easier to play the game using a wider variety of tactics than before — a fact that could pay off in increasing the game's competitive viability.
While the gameplay of Brütal Legend is solid, Double Fine's capacity for presentation really brings the game into its own. The artstyle is very heavy-metal and stylized, but also exceptionaly detailed - with new physics elements that bring a sense of impact to every crumbling artifact and beautiful location. The sound is comparably metal, oozing style through and through - from the soundtrack, to the impactful sound effects, to a voice array filled to the brim with rock luminaires who give persistently strong performances, the soundtrack is at worst appropriate and at best headbang-inspiringly awesome - a serious contender for the best soundtrack of 2013. Yes, even though the game came out in 2009.
All of this fails to really emphasize Double Fine's signature touches — the storytelling carries a surprising amount of pathos, even as it cheerfully figures out a way to make absolutely every norm of the Real-Time Strategy genre metal, cracks a truly vast pile of jokes, and allows Ozzy Osbourne to bring truly comical amounts of British classiness to a game that goes out of its way to ask if you want to see the gratuitous amounts of gore or swearing.
The PC version doesn't add much, but what it does add is very nice — both multiplayer-enhancing downloadable content extensions from the console versions, a couple of new statues you can add to your base, a fairly beefy graphics upgrade, and the keyboard-mouse controls pretty much sum the bonus material. Fortunately, the game's strong core carries it nicely, and things work excellently and with exceptional stability.
All of this said, there are a few issues. As the single-player campaign approaches its end, the pacing of the game speeds up from solid and stable to utterly manic, with reveal after reveal clanging down amidst beautiful but underpopulated environments, until the player reaches a weariness-inducingly nonstop, multiple-hour nonstop series of final fights. Worse, that includes the only fight against one entire faction - with easily-found implications that they were going to have a much larger involvement in the campaign.The multiplayer, intended to be the core and centerpiece of the Brütal Legend experience, has benefitted nicely from the PC update — offering a smoother experience than the original XBox Live, the 4v4 multiplayer can be utterly frenetic, requiring a surprisingly challenging mix of manning your general of choice and managing your army. While it's not exactly on the level of Starcraft, it holds up surprisingly well and deserves significantly more attention than it got when the game first game out.
Brütal Legend should be classified as a must-play for those who have not yet given it a go — even with its flaws, its combination of genres is likely to be influential for a long time, and the amount of work put into the design produces a game that still plays very strongly even four years later. At $20 with all the DLC included, it's one of the best new-release values on PC this year, and is worth every penny.
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