Sunday, 13 April 2014

Excess of Metal

[Major spoilers for Brutal Legend.]
You'd think a video game world inspired by heavy metal album covers would look just like any other video game. The industry isn't exactly short on derivative, kitschy fantasy genre fare, after all. And initially, this is exactly how it seems: your first action as Eddie Riggs in Brutal Legend (2009), after being sucked into Brutal Land during the Age of Metal, is fighting monk-like enemies around a medieval altar heaped with candles and human bones.

But beyond the walls of this temple, the world that opens up feels less like a place than a dreamscape, a surreal junkyard of cliches. Metal's own gigantism is reflected with cartoon chunkiness in oversized relics of metal iconography and culture, jutting from the ground like wonky colossi: Celtic crosses, swords and axe heads; giant radiator grilles and exhaust pipes embedded into cliff faces; long stone serpents forming loose ribcages around broken highways. Rock henges, metal cacti and chrome trees dot the land. There's a vast wall constructed entirely of amps and speakers, the air thrumming and crackling around it; and nearby, a giant anvil tops a mountain, held there by chains descending from the heavens.

Eddie Riggs stands in front of a wall made of amps and speakers

It's not subtle, and behind this imagery there's not much of a world, reflected by the strangely contextless trio of characters you first meet and the sketchy story surrounding them—but that's sort of the point. This is a world of tropes made landscape, an affectionate parody of metal in the form of a melodramatic fever dream, and it homes in deliberately on the derivative excess.

Brutal Legend's style of humour and vaguely Pixar-esque bug-eyed cartooniness is not particularly my thing, so I didn't expect it to win me over as much as it did. Cruising around in a fuck-ugly flame-art hot rod, doing cookie-cut missions for nameless, cookie-cut characters, the rolling, scrubby wasteland feels sparse, and it seems like maybe this is the level of cartoon superficiality the game is going to rest at—light, moderately fun, but what you're going to get out of it is whatever you get out of the jokes. The story entails the gradual acquisition of different types of units that you'll later be able to use for your army, each one a parody of some aspect of heavy metal culture—starting with headbangers, deformed humans with overdeveloped neck muscles used for the hard labour of breaking rocks with their skulls, who, freed from their toil, become your infantry units. It's a fun idea, but stretched over the bones of gameplay, the joke has a tendency to lapse into repetitive dialogue and samey encounters.

By successive waves, though, what at first seems slap-dash in the name of obvious parody conspires to be genuinely impressive. The more dynamic elements of the world start to have their effect, like the weather patterns and day and night cycles, which take on the awesome overkill of the album cover source material. You'll notice the chaos in the sky: lightning, volcanos erupting, supercell thunderstorms vomiting tornados. When night falls a couple of story missions in, the world is drenched in the ghastly, beautiful teal of aurora borealis, metallic landmarks and pale faces gleaming in the strangely aqueous light. The sky is an excess of shooting stars and meteors; an impossibly fast-spinning planet flickers with electric filament like a plasma globe.

Eddie looks out onto a world glowing with aurora borealis

Elsewhere, the setting gets tighter conceptual focus, and the world shakes off some of that feel of being an upturned box of objects. A turning point for me was the reveal of Lionwhyte's Pleasure Tower, the first new setting beyond the extensive valley I'd been exploring since the start of the game. Lampooning glam and hair metal, the luxury-resort-like Tower is a picture of decadence, complete with golden staircases and statues, fountains and swimming pools, palm trees, bear rugs and zebra stripe adornments—funny, accurate, and visually spectacular. Following an impressive action sequence at the Tower, access is granted to new, more interestingly themed areas of the map: snowy mountains roamed by huge steel-tusked mammoths; lush, swampy forest decked with purple candelabra and home to the slinky whisper of laser-shooting panthers; graveyards with the fog turned on like an '80s or '90s music video, moodily lit by huge, oversized dribbly candles.

Playing Brutal Legend, shuttling around with the licensed soundtrack blaring, sort of reminded me of heavy metal nights out to rock pubs and clubs—so much essentially terrible music, but after enough of it, acquiring a taste for it in the moment even if I probably wouldn't listen to most of it by choice. The game gets you to embrace the spirit of metal to the point that you can enjoy it and appreciate it even if Ozzy is screaming something inane about Satan and darkness in the background; and in the same way, blasting through some of these settings in an overpowered hot rod is both ridiculous and genuinely cool. The game's greatest achievement is bringing those two feelings together, so that it totally conveys the appeal alongside the piss-taking absurdity. And it probably says something about metal that these feel like two sides of the same coin.

Panthers stalk a gloomy swamp ahead of Eddie

Hot rod aside, at the core of all of this is the battling. Initially this is with an axe in one hand and a guitar in the other, hacking, slashing and performing guitar solos that do everything from melt faces to summon burning zeppelins that crash into the battlefield. Several missions in, though, the curtain drops to reveal the real deal—stage battles.

The stage battles concept is a really interesting one, harnessing the aggressive connotations of a heavy metal performance to pitch metal subcultures against each other like armies. You acquire the power of fans by building merch booths, then upgrade your stage, swell your ranks, and show that you have the bigger and more powerful collective dick by overwhelming enemy forces and eventually destroying the rival stage. As a lot of reviewers and complainers pointed out, sticking to on-the-ground hack-and-slash would have been a more obvious choice for capturing the spirit of metal, for straightforward aggression that you could mix up with sophisticated solos for style. But I don't think you can fault the ambition to aim for something more, something bigger, going for metal by upping the scale. To the point that it feels like it's about putting on a spectacular show, I think stage battles are a really cool idea and make a lot of sense.

Units of rival factions can be found roaming the open world in small groups, but it's in the fixed arena of stage battles that their structures and characteristics become most relevant (and by extension, in the game's multiplayer mode, where you get to play as the alternative factions for yourself). The various designs for the evil Tainted Coil units, for instance, representing the kinkier and more perverse sides of metal culture, combine images of sadomasochism and bondage with pointed religious overtones (as Eddie says upon first seeing a Battle Nun, 'Kinda sexy, though, in a weird way') to form a faction whose power focuses on domination and control, befitting their role as the current oppressors of the Brutal Land. Their strict hierarchy manifests in battle where more lowly units can't spawn directly from the stage, but they can be spawned from higher ranking units anywhere on the map. This gives Tainted Coil an organisational advantage, but also a potential disadvantage if these higher units are killed, allowing opponents to turn their rigid hierarchy against them.

A grave-digger enemy has his face melted as Eddie is resurrected by fans

The depressive Drowning Doom, on the other hand, representing gothic and death metal, emphasises a strategy of cumulative debuffing to drain and weaken their enemies—to gloom them to death, more or less. Ironheade, Eddie's faction, are fast, fiery and furious, best for direct aggression—and the Hair Metal Militia is only cosmetically different from Ironheade, sharing all the same units, only each of them is absurdly glammed up in appearance. As an aside, Ironheade's stance as the most heroic, 'vanilla' form of metal probably says something about the culture's tendency towards conservatism, where all the other subcultures are viewed as corruptions—the Hair Metal Militia as exploitative and capitalistic, the Drowning Doom as poisoned and hollowed out by despair, and the Tainted Coil as downright twisted and evil. It's funny that nu metal isn't even given a place in the Age of Metal, relegated to the joke band that gets pointedly slaughtered in the opening sequence.

If the point is to provide a metal-as experience, though, not everything about the stage battles quite works. Rather than being a power trip, the real-time strategising can feel urgent and panicky, like trying to run around with a clipboard to make sure everyone's in their right place. With your troops standing around and waiting until you give them orders, it feels like badgering, a constant backtracking effort to get them into action. Victory is satisfying, especially when you feel the tide of the battle turn in your favour and you reach the enemy stage with a kind of crashing momentum, but so often that feels lucky and haphazard. You're too aware of time, guitar solos wedged in, not living in the moment and relishing the experience so much, because it feels like you're always racing to get ahead.

Stage battles reflect the all-important 'size matters' ethos in that you upgrade the stage and get bigger and more powerful units, and it's essentially a game of whoever upgrades first wins. But much of the focus is also given to fighting over the resource of fans. As soon as one side has an army or a unit strong enough to demolish merch booths with ease, the enemy is quickly choked because they lose the ability to acquire fans and thus to produce more units to defend themselves. You reach this fatal chicken-and-egg stage: without merch booths, you can't produce units; without units, you can't defend merch booths. You'll actually be defeated (or win) by capitalism, which doesn't feel very metal at all.

A razor girl sits on Eddie's shoulders in General Lionwhyte's Pleasure Tower

Tim Schafer, creative director, has said that the game was borne of two separate premises—the celebration of heavy metal and the story of the roadie—and I wonder if this tension in stage battles, between the organisational and attitudinal aspects, reflects the tension between these two premises. The idea behind the roadie character of Eddie Riggs is that he's responsible for putting on these huge productions and keeping everything running smoothly, but staying out of sight in the process. He then travels back in time and essentially uses his roadie skills to organise a metal army. But playing as Eddie, are you really so behind-the-scenes, or are you the dick-swinger taking centre stage?

The fluid, multilayered support mechanics would suggest both. During stage battles, you're both overhead and frontline, transitioning freely between the two at any given moment. You can also 'double team' with any single unit to perform more powerful attacks, like letting ranged artillery stand on your shoulders for a better shot. In addition, you have a support role during most side missions, which have you lending a hand where needed across the map. Even raising relics and freeing bound serpent statues can feel like behind-the-scenes prep work away from the main show, indirectly contributing to a better metal experience by expanding your music playlist and giving you 'fire tributes' that you can spend on various showy upgrades. As a roadie, you're responsible for the wider production, but you're also a part of it.

If stage battles tip too much towards the roadie side of things, though, there are other times when it seems dubious to identify that as your role. Does it really feel like support if you're by far the biggest, scariest and flashiest of the ambush group? When you've personally got the biggest axe and guitar? How often, in other words, do you feel centre stage in relation to the rest of Ironheade? Why isn't Lars Halford, leader of the group, performing the guitar solos? For me, the nominal support role of the side missions really only clicked after I started thinking about it. While I was playing, the aim was as always in such games—to be the biggest badass and play the hero.

A burning zeppelin descends upon Eddie in the night sky

As for the story itself, it pushes for the roadie themes, but they feel like themes you're only reminded of in the cutscenes every now and then. Later on, Eddie turns out to be the son of two of the most powerful—and prominent—creatures in Brutal Land history, which puts him at centre stage once more. And it's Eddie who spectacularly drives his hot rod through the glass eye of a semi-sentient cathedral (yep, pretty much a euphemism in this game) and confronts Emperor Doviculus face to face, with his two large phallic instruments, not with behind-the-scenes stage magic. So in the closing cutscene, when a big point is made of him opting out of the limelight like that's been his style all along, it doesn't quite ring true.

The game as a whole feels like everything is geared to putting on a good show—the particulars of the story aside, letting the player have the most 'brutal' metal experience possible—but while Eddie is always enabling it in one way or another, to count him as the invisible roadie in the equation sometimes feels like a bit of a stretch. It's worth looking at how the same role manifests in the other factions—are General Lionwhyte, Drowned Ophelia and Doviculus supposed to be unseen roadies too?

Because that's the thing about metal. It doesn't lend itself to that kind of subtlety.

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