Brutal Legend: Multiplayer Gameplay

So okay, the campaign's gameplay is disappointing. Is multiplayer more compelling?

Well, I can't speak to such topics as 'is this balanced' -the automatic matchmaking functionality didn't give me a match when I gave it a try, and if there are ardent fans of the multiplayer, I'm not going to hunt them down and try to get them to play with me or anything like that.

Still, I can make some notable observations.


One of the things right out the gate: I strongly suspect that on some level the game's three factions were constructed 'in order'. The Ironheade faction -the one you play in the campaign- runs most aggressively into not only the problems I laid out in talking about the single player (ie stuff like that this is a beat 'em up engine trying to pretend it's an RTS, the waiting for your troops to catch up being painful, etc), but also has a core mechanic I didn't talk about largely handled awkwardly -that of team-up attacks.

See, in Brutal Legend almost every unit of each faction can be approached and by pushing the 'interact' button you'll team up with them. What this actually means varies significantly by unit type, and in the Ironheade forces' case, it largely feels like a gimmick with zero concept of how it fits into the game. The basic Ironheade melee unit, the Headbanger, is an excellent example: their team-up attack is to surround Eddie and basically passively do damage to everything nearby. Why? So the game can have 'headbangers' doing a 'mosh pit'. (They explicitly call it that) Why, gameplay-wise? I dunno. I don't think the devs know either.

The 'second' faction -both in terms of properly fighting them in the campaign and also just in terms of various aspects of presentation, such as how the multiplayer faction select screen places them under Ironheade- is the Drowning Doom, and they revel in the team-up attack mechanic. Many of their units really seem to be balanced around their team-up attacks, with their default functionality as an afterthought; their basic ranged attacking unit, the Frightwig, is an underwhelming ranged attacker but their team-up attack lets you have them permanently possess a single enemy unit. Similarly, they have a couple of ultimate units that both seem to be designed entirely around their team-up attack; one of them is a hot air balloon, and as far as I can tell it doesn't do anything unless you team up with it... but when teamed up with it, it becomes the game's only combat-capable air unit, something the enemy can only respond to with ranged units. (And possibly some Solos, but I haven't tested and anyway I haven't talked about that yet) The other is, at first glance, a roving tree that passively attacks nearby enemies in the form of crows in its branches launching themselves at enemies -and then you team up with it and it turns out it's actually a giant zombie with a tree growing out of its back, which for whatever reason lurks underground if Ophelia isn't teaming up with it.

The Drowning Doom still doesn't seem to have a coherent idea of how team-up attacks fit into the game, but where Ironheade team-up attacks often feel like afterthoughts slapped in because the game feels obligated to give (almost) everything a team-up attack or gameplay-pointless joke-things, the Drowning Doom's forces are almost all designed around their team-up attack. They still suffer from a lot of the 'why is this engine trying to be an RTS' problems and whatnot, but it's less intrusive in part because with Ironheade forces it's often not clear what Eddie should be doing with himself at any given moment, leaving him feeling like an awkward, annoying interface with the RTS gameplay, rather than a crucial gameplay piece. For Ophelia, if you're not regularly doing team-up attacks, you're probably severely underutilizing your army's potential.

Doviculous' army, the Tainted Coil, goes back to team-up attacks mostly feeling like a bit of an afterthought, and in fact their ultimate combat unit is why I keep saying almost every unit has a team-up attack; the Bloody Death doesn't have one. However, their strange faction design substantially reduces many of the frustrating elements of the engine's core design.

Where Ironheade and the Drowning Doom build units from their stage and have to do something awkward to get them to catch up -which means either constantly doing things to get your regular stream of troops to catch up or means waiting until you have 3-4 and rounding them up, which is really sub-optimal- the Tainted Coil has field production. Only three -technically four, but I'll get to that- of their units are actually built directly from the Stage, with the rest of your forces being built from those units in the field. (With field production being their 'team-up attack'; that means the Tainted Coil has like 2/3rds as many team-up attacks of meaning compared to either other faction) So the Tainted Coil doesn't have to constantly wrestle with the engine just to get their troops on the field...

... and in fact it's even less painful than I'm making it sound, due to a weird sub-mechanic/gimmick to this whole thing. On the other two factions, you can upgrade your basic, tier one units, permanently bolstering their HP and damage, with this being bought directly from the Stage unit production menu. The Tainted Coil instead has each new tier unlock a new field production unit (A 'Hierarchy' unit), which can then produce a superior version of the previous field production unit, which will in turn produce superior versions of the units it builds. This includes that your tier 3 unit -the Overblesser- can build a superior version of the tier 2 unit -the Warfather- which can then produce an even more superior version of the tier 1 unit. (The Battle Nun)

This has the side effect that a Tainted Coil player potentially only needs to pull troops from their Stage twice in the entire match: once for their initial Warfather, and once for an Overblesser. If they can keep their Overblesser alive, they'll never need to go back to the Stage ever again; just build Superior Warfathers in the field as needed, and have those produce Divine Battle Nuns in the field, also as needed. Also notable is that you're hard-capped at one Overblesser; you're only going to go back to scoop up a second Overblesser if the first one dies, as it's not possible for you to decide you'd like to have two on the field for whatever reason. And since field production of Hierarchy units makes better units than normal, there's no incentive to ever put yourself in the position of needing to scoop up Stage-produced troops more than strictly necessary.

As a bonus, suffering a squad wipe forcing you to go all the way back and build stuff from your stage feels less like the core gameplay being a slog and more like a justified punishment/critical part of the faction functioning in a sane way.

This then has knock-off effects on making things much more playable. One of the key ways that playing Ironheade or the Drowning Doom emphasizes the feel of 'this is the wrong engine for this kind of game' is that opening your unit production menu disables your character. If you spend ten seconds on ordering new units and buying upgrades, that's ten seconds your character was standing around, doing nothing. Which is just baffling given they have no personal involvement in the process and the game has set up the character you're playing to be a fairly significant combat piece in their own right -the game asking the player to pick between Doing Stuff with their Avatar and Doing RTS Stuff that's, you know, essential... that's just a broken dynamic from the word go.

The Tainted Coil still technically suffers from this issue, but it's not nearly as intrusive. You'll never want to open the Stage menu more than very briefly, since you'll never want to do more than a couple clicks' worth of things on it, and even though teaming up with a Hierarchy unit to access their production menu also disables your Avatar's functionality, this ends up functioning as a sane balancing factor; no, you shouldn't be trying to build units right in the middle of combat, and if you're going to do it anyway, you should accept the consequences. Or, from another angle, there's the point that the game does demand you're nearby a Hierarchy unit to issue production orders; it makes perfect sense the game wouldn't want you able to wander away from the relevant unit while keeping the build menu open. After all, then they have to code up some mechanism for the game to close the menu if you wander too far away from the unit, or else you're just going to circumvent this supposed-to-exist limitation by opening a build menu and then flying away while leaving it open.

Furthermore, Hierarchy units are immobile and unable to fight when producing units. There's incentives to hunker down and protect them while they're making new units; with Ironheade and Drowning Doom, immobilizing your Avatar while you're messing with the build menu is basically guaranteed to be putting you behind in the sense that, for example, your army ends up ceasing its advance because it's still following you and you stopped moving, even though you really want them to keep going to your next target.

The overall result is that there's a progression, where Ironheade feels fundamentally incompatible with the game it finds itself in, Drowning Doom is coming to grips with the engine/concept but still suffers fairly seriously, and the Tainted Coil is pretty close to perfectly-suited to the environment they're in.

A closing note on this topic: the one other Tainted Coil unit that's technically produced from the Stage is something I was discounting because while you purchase it through the Stage build menu... it doesn't appear in front of the Stage. Instead, you play a Solo and it spawns at your current location. So it's also a form of field production, just different mechanics for arriving there.

So speaking of Solos... here's where we start getting into some of the more cringily awful decisions in multiplayer that I'm very skeptical would've been wiped away by more development time.

What's a Solo? Well, it's basically a spell your character can cast. Most of them have a cooldown before you can use them again, they more or less all implicitly share a different cooldown in that they 'heat up' your guitar and if the guitar heats up enough you can't do anything that uses it until it cools down, and then they do various special effects. Some of these are relatively mundane, like claiming a Fan Geyser (ie the game's notion of a resource node) or telling all your troops across the map to come to your current destination. Others are area-of-effect attacks, local healing for your units, temporary boosts to their combat power, and sundry other effects you'd expect to find under a 'magic' concept in a video game.

Oh, and every Solo involves doing a miniature Guitar Hero minigame, and if you make two mistakes on it your guitar fully heats up and the Solo fails.

Hold up, what?

I can almost understand the impulse here. Guitar Hero is an established way of modeling Playing Music In A Video Game, and Solos are, in fact, playing a guitar. It's almost logical, and when I was going through the campaign I didn't question it. I didn't like it, but I didn't question it.

But I took it as a given that in multiplayer no such mechanic would exist, or that if it did the point would be to provide a form of input shortcut, much like how classic fighting games have all kinds of weird inputs for special moves first and foremost because there's just not enough buttons on historical controllers/arcade machines to fit more than X moves without such shenanigans.

Nope, the Guitar Hero minigame is fully intact in multiplayer, and you pick a Solo from a menu and then perform the minigame, so it's not any kind of 'we don't have enough buttons let's fix that' clever hack.

So... the actual functional point of this is an arbitrary skill barrier unrelated to the core gameplay. You love RTSes but couldn't play Guitar Hero competently for two seconds if your life depended on it? Sorry, Brutal Legend hates your guts and refuses to let you get to its real gameplay.

It's bad enough that cool magical powers are locked behind this Guitar Hero minigame, but you might remember that just a minute back I included in this list that expanding your resource base is locked behind Solos. That's like not being able to buy workers in Starcraft without having to do, I dunno, a quick reflex minigame of some kind.

But it gets worse!

Thing is, every Solo on every faction is unique. Claiming a Fan Geyser isn't a fixed, specific song identical across each faction. This means that even if you can successfully engage with the minigame consistently, there's still an additional filter where you may find that you like the playstyle of one faction but struggle to pull off key Solos of that particular faction -while being better at the Solos of the other factions you don't enjoy actually playing as much.

But it somehow gets even worse, because there isn't any attempt to hold Solos to some kind of consistent difficulty curve. As a concrete example: Eddie's Solo for claiming a Fan Geyser takes 8 button inputs and your scrolling widget goes by unusually fast during it. Are Doviculous' and Ophelia's equivalent Solos comparably hard? Nah, they both have fewer inputs and a slower, easier to keep up with speed.

So Ironheade is, completely unrelated to their effectiveness as an RTS faction, realistically the hardest to consistently play competently simply because you're much more likely to screw up claiming a Fan Geyser, slowing down your economy or even letting the enemy prevent you from claiming one!

The basic impulse behind Solos having a Guitar Hero minigame attached almost makes sense, but in actuality it's a disaster of an idea and I cringe at the idea that real people ever thought this was a good idea.

Then there's the minimap. By which I mean the complete lack of a minimap.

Once again, this is something I didn't like, but didn't question when I was playing through the campaign. The campaign comes across primarily as an action-adventure game with an awkward RTS minigame you periodically visit, and in that context being able to pause the game and pop into a map is adequate enough. With the clear drive to maintain a high level of immersion -there's zero interface elements in the campaign if you're not in an RTS sequence or picking out a Solo- a minimap could be taken as glaringly out of place.

But for multiplayer? What kind of game decides it wants to be a competitive RTS and has no minimap? The classic Westwood RTSes are the closest I've previously seen to a competitive RTS thinking it's acceptable to have no minimap, and they just locked it behind access to a low/midtech building -and notably Red Alert started doing things like hiding Radar Domes and their attendant power needs where the player couldn't see them when it came to unit missions, while Tiberian Sun and Red Alert 2 would straight-up cheat and turn on your minimap for no in-map reason in such cases, making it clear Westwood quickly understood that a minimap is crucial for basic RTS functionality.

And these are games where you're already operating on a birds-eye view and can scroll about quite rapidly! Brutal Legend restricting you to a combat piece that has actual mobility limitations and failing to have no minimap is mindboggling.

When it gets down to it, I could imagine a sequel or spiritual successor to Brutal Legend managing to make its multiplayer concept into something functional and still unique, but I strongly suspect that if Brutal Legend had had more development time its multiplayer would have remained burdened by these bad decisions.

There's potential behind the idea, but I don't think Brutal Legend would ever have realized it.


As an aside, I'd originally intended to talk about Brutal Legend's story, but the game was rushed and it shows. I could talk a bit about the first half-ish of the game, but so much of it is anchored in Stuff That Was Clearly Intended To Happen Later that there would be little point. There's flaws I doubt would have been fixed if the game hadn't been rushed, but the majority of the narrative is so clearly 'quick make something vaguely functional out of what we've already assembled and then push it out the door' that it's impossible to say whether, for example, the ending being unsatisfying and bordering into Actively Lying territory is representative of the story the team was trying to create or a butchery caused by the game being rushed and so the grounding that would've made the ending good is just not there.

It's too bad, because the campaign is pretty reliably good about entertaining dialogue, and the very beginning of the game is, narratively speaking, quite strong. I suspect if the game hadn't been rushed, it would probably have been more good than bad, or at least enjoyable even through the bad parts.

But it did get rushed, so... yeah. It's bad. And not even interesting-to-talk-about-bad.

So instead of talking about the narrative, next time I wrap this up by talking about the thing that is the strongest element of Brutal Legend: its aesthetic.


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