Brutal Legend (2013) PC Review

 

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Brutal Legend with its heavy metal theme and aesthetics feels like a game made just for me. The licensed soundtrack, which has over 70 songs, features tracks from a wide range of metal genres. But apart from its unique theme and cast of Jack Black, Ozzy Osbourne, Jennifer Hale and Lemmy, is it a good game, or is it style over substance?

Before I touch on the mechanics, I cannot heap enough praise upon the overall presentation of the game. With a cartoonish style, the visuals have not held up incredibly well over the past 8 years and playing at 1440p, it looks and performs far better than I remember the PS3 version being.  The world of Brutal Legend is an epic fantasy setting and one of the most unique in video games, owing to its heavy metal theme. All the landmarks are striking and could have been ripped straight from the covers of power and thrash metal albums. One of the first areas of the game, Blade Henge, looks like an extended version of the real stone sword monuments in Norway. Trees in this world are actually scaffolding, there are panthers that shoot lasers out of their eyes at you, weird BDSM monsters, spiders whose web doubles as bass strings and all sorts of creative creatures and allied unit types that range from thick headed headbangers, to roadies and big bouncer looking dudes with small heads and large fists, as well as featuring swamps with amazonian warriors that look like they started in the KISS Army.

In terms of the writing, this game is from the time when Tim Schafer still had it and wasn’t so involved with political game dev cliques. The writing, in combination with with excellent vocal performances is sharp and witty and the narrative is a simple good versus evil epic with a heart of romance. It isn’t perfectly paced and there are a few plotholes, but it is engaging nevertheless. And it made me laugh and smile much like the headbanging tunes that played in battles or as I zipped around the map. The background lore is also quite cool and is pretty much The Gods Made Heavy Metal by Manowar. The writing also takes a few shots at nu metal and glam metal, although I would have liked to see some more black metal parody.

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Now to how the game actually plays. There are three pillars here: hack n slash combat, open world exploration and RTS battles.

In regards to the hack n slash elements, it is quite basic and is closer to 3D Legend of Zelda games as opposed to something like Devil May Cry 3 but it is functional and violently stylish. Left mouse is to melee attack, right mouse is to do a ranged attack with the guitar. You can block and also individually target, as well as roll away but I felt these slightly clunky on the mouse and keyboard. I wanted to play this game with a controller but I had a strange technical issue where the left trigger and right analogue sticks would not function and I used two separate controllers that work on everything else. Targeting is kind of dodgy.
There are special attacks, like the face melter for instance, that never get old and work like a basic rhythm mini game. The omission of a jump button is quite strange but the world was designed in a way where it isn’t really needed so it isn’t too much of an issue. The combat system is fun enough but it still feels a bit shallow button mashy and underdeveloped.

In regards to the open world, it feels very small since you can drive around it very fast. If you’re on foot it might feel large but then you’d be missing out on listening to half the soundtrack whilst going fast in a vehicle that becomes more  aesthetically ridiculous (in the best way possible) as you progress through the game. Outside of story missions, there are collectibles that all feel tangibly linked to the progression or theme of the game, so it is not useless bullshit like the flags in the first Assassin’s Creed. There are a few side missions, but there were only two that had any kind of side story content. Maybe I’ve just been spoiler by The Witcher 3. In any case, the open world, despite being visually impressive has little in the way of content besides the same three side missions over and over again. These days we complain about open worlds that are too big, but considering the vehicle in this game as the main means of transportation and the allure of the game’s licensed soundtrack, the world could stand to be a bit larger to bolster the sound track and epic scale.

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The RTS battles caught many people by surprise when the game first came out. But really, they aren’t so bad. There are a good variety of distinct units with specific purposes, but considering this RTS battle system was designed around a console controller , it can feel a bit awkward and to any RTS veterans, it is definitely lacking in depth, at least in the campaign on normal difficulty.  There are a few battles which are fun enough, but only one where I had to use a specific strategy and the strategy is more about build orders than anything else. One nice feature is being able to wade into battle yourself to help out your troops with a quick face melter to a group of enemies or crash the Hindenberg on your enemies.

Brutal Legend is strikingly confident in its tone, theme and aesthetics and feels like the work of people who truly love metal. On the other hand, mechanics wise, it is pulled in so many directions and all of them are underdeveloped. Thankfully, the relatively short campaign length of 4-8 hours is in this game’s favour, for if the campaign was 20 hours, the mechanics would not be able to hold up the campaign. What is important, however, is that the game, despite my gripes, made me laugh, smile and bang my head a few times. If you’ve ever enjoyed metal in your life and you can get this game for a good price, it is definitely worth a run. If you’ve never enjoyed metal or call all metal ‘screamo’, then this sure as shit is not for you.

7.7/10

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Political Games: Wolfenstein Controversy

 

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In this first entry to a new editorial column on this site, I will be looking at the recent controversy surrounding the upcoming Wolfenstein: The New Colossus.

So what has gotten people so riled up about this latest entry in the long running series? Since the game is set in an alternate history of 1960s America that seems very much like a more violent, pulpy version of Man in the High Castle, naturally this is going to raise some eyebrows considering the current political climate. Even more so since the official marketing material uses phrases such as “Make America Nazi Free Again” that makes the game seem like it will be some overtly political, hamfisted commentary on current events. The developers of the game, Machine Games, have stated that they don’t intend for the game to be a commentary on current events and, considering the nature of modern game development for large titles, I believe them. However, that won’t stop audience reception, particularly from the left or just mainstream American politics in general from interpreting it through the lens of Trump’s presidency, Charlotesville, Pepe the Frog and brown shirt hysteria. It is definitely a controversial marketing slogan, but it has successfully generated enormous amounts of extra buzz for the game.

But what wasn’t expected was blowback. A significant amount of people on the net, on internet forums, anonymous message boards, twitter and so on have reacted negatively to this campaign. A line from the coverage of this at A.V Club  simultaneously explains the situation and irritates me:

“It’s a weird day-and-age we’re living in right now, where “Nazis are bad” has become an actual political stance, as opposed to a bit of basic, obvious wisdom.”

The reason this irritates me is because of it’s almost Francis Fukuyama level of misinformed arrogance. The belief that being opposed to a particular political ideology is somehow not a kind of political position is absurd. The belief that it’s just obvious that nazis are supposed to bad is pure ideology and stems from years of atrocity propaganda, school systems, soviet and hollywood films and so on. Those who share the opinion of William Hughes of AV Club need to re evaluate, as arguing that nazis being bad is self evident is the opinion of the brainwashed.  The opinion of the lead voice actors of the game in response to the same controversy mimic the same arrogance. Additionally,  Hughes claim that the anti-nazi marketing is “shockingly brazen” or brave somehow is laughable, considering being anti nazi is among one of the safest political statements to make publicly in the current year, next to support of homosexual marriage.

Fun activity for my readers: approach any person you know, or a stranger, and criticise the party line on national socialism and the Nuremberg myths and watch as they recoil and call you brain washed. But I digress.

The ride doesn’t stop here, however. Pete Hines, who is the guy in charge of PR at Bethesda, responded to the controversy. He said:

“Wolfenstein has been a decidedly anti-Nazi series since the first release more than 20 years ago. We aren’t going to shy away from what the game is about. We don’t feel it’s a reach for us to say Nazis are bad and un-American, and we’re not worried about being on the right side of history here. It’s disturbing that Wolfenstein can be considered a controversial political statement at all.”

There are a few things going on here. The notion that the Wolfenstein series has always been explicitly anti Nazi in any expressly political fashion is shaky at best. Sure, it has always involved shooting nazis since Wolfenstein 3D, but the context of that game was so simplistic that is was simply about being trapped in a castle and shooting your way out. And if the series was ever expressly political, I must have missed it in between the skeleton warriors, robo dogs, mecha hitlers and dual wielding sniper rifles. However, the political aspects of these games have, up until relatively recently, tended to be in how audiences have engaged with the games. Look at your typical coverage for games in this series, outside the recent controversy, or WW2 games in general and you will often see statements to the effect of how awesome it is to kill nazis, sometimes on the basis of the enemies simply being nazis, to body counts and how the games provide a fully guilt free killing experience. Commenting on the “nazis being bad” and necessarily un-American part would be  mostly repeating myself or straying too far from the topic, but I would add that Pete Hines should brush up on his history, particularly the German-American Bund, George Lincoln Rockwell and also how the eugenics movement was first pioneered by early 20th century progressives in the United States.

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To go back to audience engagement. My simple theory is that while these games, at least up until recently, have had little in the way of explicitly political content, the political character comes through via the player. How this works is that a substantive amount of players, when going into playing a game series like Wolfenstein, bring their own beliefs and prejudices to the experience, which allows for the fully guilt free aspect to hold.  What this effectively does is create a feedback loop: player believes nazis are evil, they then play a game where you kill nazis who are positioned as antagonists, which then in typical video game form provides the player with enjoyment that in these cases might feed back into the initial belief held prior to engaging with the game. All this can only functionThis is all a very schematic explanation of course, but I think it is potentially useful.

Since the game isn’t out yet, nor have I played any kind of demo or preview build, there is not too much else to talk about for the moment. However, the last thing I will say, in defence of Wolfenstein: The New Colossus  is that aspects of the backlash are misguided, especially the opinion that the game is necessarily going to be shit because of the politicised marketing campaign. In fact, in all likelihood, the game is likely to be quite good on the whole, considering Wolfenstein: The New Order was a fantastic shooter that also had a great soundtrack and amazing visuals and artistry. Although the story was quite bad when it jumped the shark at magical jewish concrete that was completely baffling and in the precarious position of being between hilarious and cringe worthy. But the rest of it is mostly good. My speculation is that stating the game will be shit because of this marketing is just signalling from people trying to impress their internet friends. In any case, the game is not out yet and I don’t know when I will get around to playing it. Hopefully, the game will be good and all this politicised marketing that suggests reading the game in relation to current events will just be marketing. But Bethesda have opened the box and can’t close it and shouldn’t be offended or surprised when there is such blowback from the alt right.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017) Review

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The sequel to Blade Runner,coming 30 or so years after the original, has tremendous shoes to fill. The original, or rather, the various different edits of the original, have become a classic over the last 30 years, with its marvellous synth heavy soundtrack, deep existentialist themes that is perfectly encapsulated with Roy Batty’s tears in the rain monologue at the end. It still has tremendous visuals, with it’s futuristic rain soaked cityscape and noir lighting that has come to define the cyberpunk subgenre aesthetically speaking.

The sequel, from the very beginning, impresses. The synth heavy soundtrack is large, but also capable of the touching subtlety of the Vangelis compositions from the original. I do not think Vangelis composed the soundtrack for this one, but the score here is very much in line with the style of the original, although with it’s own flavour as it is less jazzy and often more drum heavy. Some of it sounds like it would be at home in a Perturbator track.

The visuals also impress. Like the soundtrack, it manages to maintain the style of the original with it’s rainy cityscape, dense and dirty streets and ubiquitous advertisements and text of Asiatic languages as well as Russian. The newest part of the aesthetic comes in the form of holograms that play a role in the overall story and plenty more pinkish hues than I remember from the original. There is also the irradiated wasteland of what was once Las Vegas that feature colossal statues and a yellow-orange hue to the overall look of this section that does a good job of fitting with the dystopia and the world described in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and as part of Villeneuve’s filmography.  The film is simply a visual feast all around that perfectly captures the original film and novel, while adding it’s own new elements. Officer K’s (Ryan Gosling) apartment is a little more neat than Deckard’s, but also more barren and the Tyrell building is as golden as ever. However, there is a slightly less industrial vibe in the visuals compared to the original and instead something more ecological, which is a good change as there is a genuine move to expand the world building that is highly successful. While there is certainly a nostalgic element to the film’s aesthetics and even in the narrative, it does not rely on it. High tech low life, it is cyberpunk to the core.

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As far as the plot goes, I do not want to say much for fear of spoilers, but what I will say is that it is a compelling mystery that is very well paced, especially considering the run 163 minute run time of the film. It’s twists and turns do an excellent job of expanding on the existential ideas that The general premise is the same as the original, except now we follow a replicant blade runner with a holographic waifu who has investigates the potential birth of a child from a replicant mother. One thing I did not like about the delivery of the narrative is the occasional flash back to scenes in the film that explain the plot, especially towards the end, which I felt were wholly unnecessary and were probably a decision made by the executive producers after test screenings.

In regards to the performances, they are good all round here, although there is nothing quite as good as Rutger Hauer’s performance as Roy Batty, nor does it quite reach the emotional heights that the original did with the Tears in the Rain speech.

Blade Runner 2049 is not just a cynical cashgrab on 80s nostalgia, nor was it made because Ridley Scott needs a new boat: with Dennis Villeneuve at the helm, this sequel to the classic film,and as one of the few films I was actually looking forward to this year, delivers in spades. Not only is it an excellent sequel, it is also excellent as a stand alone piece. Go see it.

9/10