Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Brutal Legend: The Demo

So, I loved Psychonauts. Except, of course, for the final boss battle sequence. Frustrating way to end a great game.

I can’t tell whether I’m going to love (or even like) Brutal Legend based on the demo.

I love the idea of the game and believe that Schafer can pull it off. I love having Jack Black as the voice of the main character (I really liked his character in King Kong, too).

But the basic controls left me scratching my head, wondering whether the game would prove too frustrating to play.

  • I find it really hard to get used to having a basic attack mapped to the A button of the controller. A is mostly mapped to jump or interact in these kinds of games.
  • Moreover, I really want an easy to use jump/roll when playing this kind of beat ‘em up combat. Instead, I have to “modify” the block command to get a roll (LT + B).
  • The main reason for having an attack on both the A and X buttons is so that the Y button can be freed up for co-op attacks with my partner. I’ll discuss these a bit below, but I’m left to wonder whether this special attack could have been moved to a trigger/shoulder button and left me with a more traditional A = jump, X = attack 1, Y = attack 2 scheme.
  • Vehicle controls also seemed suboptimal. Accelerate and brake are fine (RT, LT). But why do I need to click the Left Thumbstick to activate nitro? A face button would certainly be easier – as would a shoulder button. Moreover, it was hard to tell when nitro was available and how long it actually lasted.

Combat is sometimes difficult because the camera doesn’t self-adjust in ways that make sense, meaning that I need to manually turn and fix the camera during combat sequences. This is annoying and detracts from the fun.

That said, the game does a decent job of autoaiming my attacks so that just mashing the A button carries my swing into the next available target if the current one dies. And it’s nice to have a ranged attack on the X button to help clear out harder to reach targets.

Visually, the basic ranged attacks are very satisfying (strum guitar, see baddies get zapped or thrown in the air). However, it could use some rumble sweetening for critical hits. Also, I’m not sure what sound/visual/rumble feedback I’ll get for enemies who are resistant or impervious to this kind of attack.

The melee attacks feel OK when it comes to basic chains – and sound/rumble/visuals make it clear when my attacks are being blocked/resisted. I’d have liked to have a sweeter sound, rumble, and hit stop/screen shake when I finish off an enemy with a chain. Occasionally the game will pause and show a decapitation in cinematic mode, but it’s unclear what triggers this (it’s not the last kill in a sequence and it doesn’t seem related to anything I do).

The charged up attacks (strum and axe) are visually OK, but lack visceral feedback in terms of sound, rumble, and hit stop/screen shake.

The ground pound attack has a decent look, sound, and feel upon release, but the wind up is too sterile.

The “throw ally attack” (Y button) is somewhat unsatisfying. The “ready” indicator is a flashing UI element in the bottom left of the screen. This feature would be more compelling if there were in-game sound or visual cues as to when this became available. I also wonder whether it might be more fun to “summon” your partner automatically when she was available as opposed to having to stumble upon her and time the Y button press when she is selectable. I’m thinking more like Kingdom Hearts or Beyond Good & Evil where you power up the co-op meter and then release a co-op flurry when it’s available.

So, the question becomes: If moment-to-moment combat and controls are quirky in some ways and decent in others, will I end up enjoying the game? Note that I didn’t see any evidence of either platforming or puzzle solving, so I have no idea whether these systems exist or it’s just hack and slash.

In the end, I guess, it comes down to world and story. I have forgiven many games for their moment-to-moment game play deficiencies if the world was fun to explore and the story was engaging. Will Brutal Legend deliver in these areas? I couldn’t tell from the demo, but I’m curious to learn more.

A few less important things:

Brief aside: I have been commenting on cinematics controls for games lately. Brutal Legend pauses the opening cinematic when you press the start button, but does NOT advertise that you can either press start again to resume or B to skip. The core functionality is still there, but is essentially buried and hard to discover. Once the game, proper, starts there is no way to skip the cinematic (start just takes you to the pause menu). Annoying? Yep.

Brief aside #2: I love how the game lets you choose level of profanity and level of gore from within game prompts. I wonder if these prompts respect global parental settings?

Brief aside #3: Although the UI was a little quirky and hard to use, the game does allow players to set horizontal and vertical camera controls independently (both inversion and sensitivity).

And a final question: Who was the hand model for the game shell UI? Really cool idea (a fan manipulating an album cover, liner notes, and the vinyl disc itself).

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