Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Lay Waste to the Wasteland

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been playing a lot of Borderlands and Brütal Legend. I’ve been having a blast with both, though they represent entirely different schools of game design. The difference lies in the ambitions of each product. Brütal Legend tries to do a lot with mixed results, while Borderlands is more focused and, as a result, better executed.

Borderlands only sets out to do a few things: it wants to be a good first-person shooter, it wants to provide a fun co-operative experience, and it wants to inspire a Diablo-esque fixation with collecting better loot and leveling up. It does all that, and looks great besides, with a visual style torn straight out of a comic book. My expectations were met almost perfectly. Even the story, what little there is of it, seems to fit the mood of the game: your character is a vault hunter, seeking lost riches and artifacts on an alien world, and you spend most of your time in the game gathering riches, weapons, and other treasures. You’re looking for treasure so you can find more treasure. That’s the game in a nutshell. The game becomes repetitive, but no more so than Diablo and its sequel. It’s a winning formula.

Brütal Legend has no such focus; it wants to do everything. Set in the ancient, mythical land of heavy metal, it starts as an action game, with an axe for melee attacks and a guitar calling down lightning and pyrotechnics on enemies. Combos are learned, weapon upgrades are purchased. Only then it’s a driving and shooting game, complete with speed boosts, ramps and on-board machine guns. This transitions into an open world exploration game, with plenty of collectibles to find. Sometimes it’s a rhythm game, where a quick Guitar Hero-style solo can be used to raise an ancient relic from the ground or literally melt the faces of your enemies. Then come the strategy elements, which range from ordering a few minions around on a mission to full-blown real-time strategy mayhem, complete with troop upgrades and resource management. These are called stage battles, and your resources are your fans, which rise up from the ground when they hear the presence of heavy metal.

It’s a very creative game, and it overflows with incredible moments. I discovered a guitar solo, for example, which summons a flaming zeppelin from the sky to crash and explode wherever you’re standing. That’s just as awesome as it sounds. The environments are as face-melting as the solos, from walls of amps set into craggy cliff faces to mountains of bone and ice, with trees made of hot rod tailpipes. And the writing is fantastic in its variety as well: the game is inspiring, sad, dramatic and hilarious, all in turn or occasionally at once.

In playing both Brütal Legend and Borderlands, I found myself wondering which school of thought resulted in a better game. Borderlands is a much more polished experience, to be sure, and some of the different gameplay modes in Brütal Legend fell a little flat, though I enjoyed the real-time strategy elements more than I expected to. Borderlands, however, offers very little in the way of variety. The game is played the same way throughout, there are only a few types of enemies, and the majority of the game takes place in cracked desert wastelands. Borderlands is a very satisfying game, but in many ways Brütal Legend is a more exciting one. The game is laced with madness, humor, and drama, and there are new and exciting ideas around every (flaming, metallic) corner. It may not succeed at everything it tries, but it does so many different things that it hardly matters. I’ve really been enjoying Borderlands, but I think that Brütal Legend has a lot more to offer. Borderlands will feel familiar, while Brütal Legend will surprise you. And looking back on the games I’ve loved, it’s those memorable, surprising moments that withstand the test of time.

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