Before its release yesterday, one of the best kept secrets about Brutal Legend was the multiplayer. It's almost as if Electronic Arts didn't want you to know this rock odyssey contained a real time strategy game built to be played on a console system. Who can blame them? Electronic Arts is probably still hoping you'll buy their clunky Command & Conquers for all your console RTS needs. Or maybe they're just worried the heavy metal-listening, Jack Black-loving, hot rod-appreciating demographic will be scared away.
But the beauty of Brutal Legend's multiplayer is that it's one of those rare RTSs that works perfectly on a console system. Heavy metal listeners, Jack Black lovers, and hot rod appreciators need not fear. This is as good as the genre gets on a console system. Here's your chance to not be afraid of real time strategy games.
More details after the jump.
A quick history lesson. (Don't worry. None of this will be on the test.) The model for Brutal Legend is a game from 2000 called Sacrifice. You probably didn't play it. It was a critical success, which means too few people bought it for a sequel to get made. If you're interested, Sacrifice holds up beautifully and it's available here from Good Old Games.
Sacrifice goes back to the original RTS, a console game called Herzog Zwei. That game didn't have the usual practice of using a mouse to drag select units, because at that time the mouse was just some new-fangled gee-gaw that didn't work with a Sega Genesis. So in Herzog Zwei, you controlled one unit with special powers. That's also the premise for Sacrifice and Brutal Legend. In these more recent games, armies other than your single unit fight on the map, but they work best when your unit, a leader, is nearby to give them orders. Other games have tried this approach. Relic's The Outfit and more famously, Pikmin. But Brutal Legend recalls the wild variety of gameplay, units, and powers that made Sacrifice so good.
Brutal Legend has three distinct factions (one faction, the demonic Tainted Coil, even has a unique way of recruiting units that would make the tentacle rape loving creators of Muramasa blush). You earn resources by capturing geysers. You then spend the resources to train your faction's units. You can upgrade your base to unlock advanced units and a few of the early units can be upgraded. But the actual resource stuff is dead simple.
You can only command your units if you're near them. The maps are small, you're never too far from your army. Furthermore, your leader can sprout wings to get a bird's eye view of the map and quickly move around. There are only four commands, given to all nearby units by using the d-pad. You tell units to attack in a certain direction, follow you, hold their ground, or move to a location that you can designate anywhere on the map with your beacon. You can also hold down a button to single out one unit at a time and give it a command. This makes it relatively easy to dispatch a scout, leave behind a guard, or even split your forces into multiple groups.
Unlike most RTSs, you're not playing a disembodied camera view. You're an active participant in the battle. It matters where you are at any given time. And where this comes into play most vividly is with your leader's spells. Sacrifice did this as well, using a mana system where you got mana faster - and could therefore cast more spells - if you were closer to your base. You could extend your range by recruiting hapless little floppy-eared midgets called mana hoars. These guys were receivers to channel magical power to your wizard, so they tended to be the first victims in a battle. It was a system of map control and supply lines, and it gave Sacrifice a nice deep strategic element.
But Brutal Legend does something different and simple. Your spells don't use any resources. However, they're on a cooldown timer, so you can only use them a few times in any given match. You have to play a pattern matching game to cast the spell (the internal fiction is that you're playing a guitar solo). Every leader has a spell that can directly cripple enemy leaders in a unique way. There are attack spells, summoning spells, buffs, debuffs, mines, cloaking, illusory units, and more. Each faction gets a generous spread of unique powers and these only come into play through your leader.
However, Brutal Legend further develops the role of your leader by letting him partner with any friendly unit, giving it a special ability that you control. For instance, your garden-variety ranged unit will fire at targets automatically, and it'll do a fine job. But if you team up with it, the unit will fire faster or do more damage as you control it directly. One faction has scorned brides who can bring down lightning when you double team with them. Another faction's catapult-fired flesh balls will explode for extra damage if you manually control them. Another faction's choppers can leave trails of fire if you drive them, and they'll kill anyone closed up in a fire circle (it's like using a snowspeeder to take down an AT-AT in a Hoth level). The gloomy tree whose crows kill infantry units pops a giant out from under its roots, letting you smash targets. The lightning vehicle powered by an executed prisoner can fire chain lighting. Every unit becomes a better and often different unit when you control it directly.
Team games are strange at first, with up to four players on a side. Since each player can command all the units, and since each player can spend from the team's pool of resources, it might seem a bit confusing. You have to be careful not to step on each other's toes. But once you appreciate that additional players mean additional spells and additional units paired with leaders, Brutal Legend gets exponentially crazier and more varied. Unfortunately, this game is particularly vulnerable to lag. It's a huge problem when you're trying to cast a spell by timing your button presses. It's also difficult to single out a unit to connect with it. A bad connection from one player will cripple a team game.
The goal is to destroy the other player's base, which is a lot easier than it might seem. You don't necessarily have to fuss with going out and earning lots of resources before mounting an assault. Brutal Legend is more than happy to be decided by a cheap and well-executed rush. The maps are small enough that the matches tend to last about fifteen minutes tops. This makes for short games packed with concentrated awesome. There are only a few maps, but each one is distinct, and a couple have some memorable gimmicks. The Dry Ice Mines are full of fog that thickens and thins, making it harder for armies to keep track of each other. Feeding Pit has a deadly demon leech guarding the approach to the richest geysers, giving the battle a powerful risk/reward twist. Online matchmaking uses a ranking system to supposedly match you with players of a similar skill level. Seeing as how my victories and losses are dead even, this is working well enough so far. You can also play skirmishes against a competent AI that seems to know how to use all the tricks.
This is the best console RTS since last year's EndWar, which was the best console RTS since, well, Herzog Zwei. But whereas EndWar is limited by its relatively staid modern-day military theme - you can't summon a mastodon, throw exploding babies, or ride a fire-breathing cat - Brutal Legend is a no-holds barred inspired festival of crazy powers and even crazier units, all wrangled into a smartly built RTS that knows its limitations. With its remarkable synergy between your various units and your leader, no game since Sacrifice has given you so many different ways to directly affect the battlefield.
Historically, real time strategy games are about directing your forces from on high. You're a god and not a warrior. But Brutal Legend is all about coming down from the sky and joining the battle. And what wild weird wonderful battles they are. It wasn't enough that Double Fine had to create one of the most imaginative and memorable worlds you'll ever visit. They also had to go and re-invent real time strategy games.