Brütal Legend may be the subject of a bitter custody battle right now, but even a lawsuit can't keep a good game down. With prominently displays on the show floor in both the Sony and EA booths, Double Fine debuted its game loud and proud for all E3 attendees. It's easy to see why Activision is still feeling remorse over the break-up all these months later - the Brütal Legend demo kiosks were packed from open to close. We managed to squeeze in a run on the very generous demo that gave attendees more than a half hour of gameplay.
...a playable Manowar album cover, if it were done by Pixar.
E3 was packed full of games trying desperately to be cool, with heroes rigorously tested by focus groups and approved by marketing suits, but somehow it's the unashamed and completely sincere nerdiness of Tim Schafer's latest game that makes it seem like the coolest game at the show. Sure, Brütal Legend is packed full of blood, guts, hot rods, and demons, but it's more of a nostalgic tribute to all those silly things we used to think were cool - things that just might still be cool if we let go of our inhibitions. It's a tongue-in-cheek game, but it never resorts to irony or parody. Schafer loves this stuff, and his genuinely personal vision is a big part of what gives this game its charm.
This is basically a cartoon version of everything that is old-school heavy metal - a playable Manowar album cover, if it were done by Pixar. The demo starts strong when Eddie Riggs (roadie turned Metal Messiah) finds The Separator, a double-side battle axe, perfect for slicing up the minions of Hell. Not long after, Riggs gets his first guitar, complete with strings that shoot lighting bolts. The combat is pretty basic by action game standards to start, with guitar and axe combinations forming simple combos, and a handful of special moves to handle larger groups. It wasn't too impressive, but even during the course of the demo, there was a lot to learn and the combat expanded plenty.
After dismembering a few dozen cultists and commandeering a giant demon mount, Eddie plays a tune on the guitar (Ocarina of Time-style) to raise ancient relics of the Metal Gods, used to construct The Deuce, a chopped-top hot rod with flames painted on the side and real fire shooting from its tailpipes. We raced across a crumbling bridge and battled a giant worm for the first of several breakneck vehicular action scenes.
The cut scenes between each chunk of game really help to give the game a bit of that old Schafer charm. I always have my reservations about paying celebrities to do game voice-over instead of more experienced voice actors, but every performance in the demo was excellent. It should be a testament to the writing and directing that Double Fine has gotten some truly passionate performances out of a bunch of people who could be doing bigger things for more money. Even the usually incomprehensible Ozzy Osbourne does a bang-up job.
The pacing of the demo is absolutely fantastic. Every few minutes, the game shifts gears, before players can even think of getting bored. It doesn't just alternate between on-foot and vehicular sequences either. Each segment of the game seems to have a fresh design concept, ranging from shooting to puzzle solving. Near the end of the demo I got a glimpse of the massive overworld and saw how these elements might pull together organically. Eddie can exit The Deuce whenever he wants, and summon it with his guitar when needed. The sprawling map and more open structure of the latter part of the game seems to hint at more of an action-adventure design that a simple God of War wannabe.
In terms of raw action, Brütal Legend can't compete with Bayonetta or Dante's Inferno, but then Psychonauts was never really known for its gameplay merits either. A funny script, a great premise, and a lot of imagination can go a long way, and I'm pretty sure this will be a game to remember. What I'm not so sure about is whether or not the full game will be able to keep up the rapid-fire pace of the demo, or if its bag of tricks will be deep enough to fend off monotony in what is being billed as a fifteen- to twenty-hour game. Those questions stand between Brütal Legend and true greatness, and I can't wait to find my answer.