Hands-on: Brutal Legend multiplayer

click to übersize
Chatting with Tim Schafer before sitting down for our very first match of Brütal Legend's multiplayer versus mode, the grinning designer reminded us that we were about to play what the game began life as, so he seriously hoped we liked it. Schafer introduced the mode, calling on two members of his team at Double Fine to play a match so we could see how it worked. What we saw was impressive, but also intimidating.

This isn't a Dynasty Warriors style hack 'n' slash with Brütal Legend characters swapped in; it's a large-scale, real-time strategy game with a definite learning curve, but also gameplay deep enough that we can see it becoming a standout multiplayer title on XBL and PSN. It's also big, loud, funny and very metal -- just like the main game.
With some coaching from one of the multiplayer designers (who happened to have worked on Shiny's sleeper RTS, Sacrifice), we began our first match, playing as one of the three available factions, Ironheade (Eddie Riggs' camp). We could have chosen to play as The Tainted Coil -- main antagonist Doviculus' team -- or The Drowning Doom, a band of gloomy, gothic warriors who draw on the power of ... sadness.

The Drowning Doom are a band of gloomy, gothic warriors who draw on the power of ... sadness.

We picked Ironheade, but the other two were definitely appealing, with Tainted Coil seeming like an ideal choice for when we got more experienced. That's because, unlike the other two, it relies on a hierarchy of units that produce other units, strengthening the entire army when employed properly.

The battle took place on the mode's most basic map, essentially a horseshoe layout with each faction's base stage on either end and a soul geyser (the source of fans' souls, the mode's sole resource) right smack dab in-between the two.

Our opponent bravely choose Tainted Coil as his faction, so we had Eddie going up against the Big Bad, Doviculus. We were in direct control of Eddie, who could either run around the battlefield or sprout wings and fly -- perfect for getting a view of (almost) the entire battlefield. (That, and sneaking a peek at what your opponent is building at their stage.)

The first order of business was to claim those uncontested fan souls for our own, so we "built" a few basic units -- melee-attack Headbangers and gun-toting Razorgirls -- using a quick pop-up selection wheel and stormed it. Of course, our opponent was doing the same. It was time to use one of Eddie's guitar solos to our advantage. We played one (a series of timed button presses that started when we hit the first "note") to set a rally point where we were, ensuring every unit we built would head there upon completion. We played another to rally those milling around our stage to back us up.

Through copious use of attack solos and buffs (the Face Melter dealt fire damage to all enemies surrounding Eddie, while playing a battle cry increased the effectiveness of all our units for a short time) we were able to take down the slug-like creature suckling at the geyser and play another solo to claim it -- thus erecting a march stand on the spot which funneled the souls to our stage.

We didn't hold the geyser for long.

We clambered to the top of a lighting truss and used a spotlight like a laser turret.

As the battle raged on and our stock of souls increased, we were able to purchase stage upgrades, which in turn allowed us to create more powerful units. Soon we were making use of the same double team moves available in the main game to ride fire-breathing Metal Beasts and take over the turrets on Headsplitters for precision ranged attacks. One of the trickier but very effective double teams involved the motorcycle-riding Fire Barons. We hopped on one of their choppers and laid down a ring of fire encircling enemy units (easier said than done, but the result is a flaming circle that slowly constricts, dealing heavy damage to any unit caught inside it as it does).

Once we'd nailed the basics and more or less knew the proper use of Ironheade's units, the action was fast, furious and surprisingly fluid. Decisions are made on the fly -- sometimes literally while flying -- so the mode keeps up a quick pace. (It's worth noting that the factions' avatars can't be attacked while performing solos, otherwise, as our coach told us, the game would devolve into constant griefing.)

Despite having a great army, our opponent had managed to out-strategize us, which lead to his eventual victory. But we didn't go out easy; we made use of our stage's last lines of defense to hold them off as long as possible. This meant taking to the stage as Eddie (where we could even change what music was playing) to use fog machines and speaker blasts to slow the enemy's advance. We eventually clambered to the top of a lighting truss and used a spotlight like a laser turret, but, by then, it was too late.

Although we lost, it wasn't any fault of the game's; it was ours, and we vowed to one day get revenge. We can only imagine how challenging -- yet very satisfying -- skirmishes will be on the game's larger maps, especially when playing team games where multiple avatars are involved.

The verdict: From what we played, Brütal Legend's multiplayer is really good. It's not exactly noob-friendly (thankfully there will be tutorial videos when you first select the mode, and the main game is about 1/3 battles of this sort, which should make for a solid primer) but the payoff is worth hanging in there for.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.