Brute Force is the next Halo like Jerry Seinfeld is the next James Bond. In other words, not hardly. Find out why in our review.
By Tony Scinta
The games bear a certain family resemblance, but it's only a passing similarity. If Halo is the charming, Nobel Prize winner of the Xbox family, Brute Force is the underachieving junior college student who sleeps until noon and smells like the front row of a Grateful Dead concert.
Brute Force is not a bad game, but unfortunately it is a glaring example of missed opportunity. Anyone who plunks down 50 beans expecting a Halo-esque experience is liable to be disappointed. Let's start with the bad news. Brute Force is billed as a squad-based shooter, but proper squad management is rarely necessary to reach objectives. To add insult to injury, the special abilities of each team member are routinely less useful than an underwater blowdryer.
This is unfortunate, because what we're left with is 3rd person shooter with all the personality of cheese sandwich. On the bright side, the control is finely-honed and borrows liberally from Bungie's masterpiece, and the visuals tend to be rather impressive.
The central storyline finds a team of elite soldiers completing a series of missions that gradually lead them to an unknown force that is wreaking havoc throughout the planetary system. If there is more meat to this story, let us know, because we've seen hair removal infomercials that were more coherent and engaging.
The squad consists of four soldiers: Tex, the hard as nails heavy assault trooper; Brutus, the lizard-like shock trooper; Hawk, the stealth-oriented scout; and Flint, the synthetic sniper with a bad 'tude and hair to match. Only Tex is available at the outset, but by the fourth or fifth mission you have control over the entire team.
Each team member boasts unique characteristics. For example, Flint can shoot the gonads off a fruit fly from 200 yards and Tex can wield more heavy artillery than a naval destroyer.
Everyone also boasts a trademark special ability, but these skills tend to be underwhelming. Brutus can invoke the spirit of Vengar, which gives him something akin to thermal vision. When the spirit is activated, living enemies stand out but the surrounding terrain becomes an incoherent blur. Tex can wield two weapons at once, but only until he needs to reload, and Flint can enable a special targeting system that automatically zooms in on enemies. This is useful in a jam, but it saps the challenge and enjoyment out of sniping.
The lone exception to the lackluster special abilities is Hawk's stealth mode, which allows her to turn invisible (a la the Predator) and eviscerate clueless enemies with a silent powerblade.
Part of the problem with the skills is that they are largely ineffectual and rarely fun to use (Hawk notwithstanding). The remainder of the problem is that poor level design and enemy placement and/or behavior make it unclear when you should use them, or whether it would make much of a difference (hint: it doesn't).
Unlike in countless other games, there are a few opportunities to snipe unwitting enemies from a great distance, and even though Hawk's stealth mode is engaging, it is rarely needed to bail you out of a tight situation. Sure, you can silently regulate patrolling enemies before entering an area, but you also can walk right in and vaporize them with Tex or Brutus.
Thus, the squad-based elements of Brute Force are fairly impotent. At least teammate control and instruction is implemented well. By holding the directional pad to choose a teammate and then pressing one of four face buttons to deliver orders, you can tell a squad member to stay put, guard your back, move to a specific location, or fire at will. By lightly tapping the directional pad you can switch which character is being controlled.
The character under your control handles beautifully. Targeting and movement are a cinch, and, outside of real life, you will rarely have more fun lobbing grenades. Holding the L trigger causes a throw meter to gradually fill, and you can let go of the trigger when you have the right power and trajectory.
Like Halo, only two weapons can be carried at any one time, and you can swap weapons with those left by fallen comrades or deposed enemies. There are a wide variety of weapons, and many of them are quite fun to use. The thermal sweeper is a favorite - it launches a fireball that tracks enemies and detonates with a concussive blast.
Overall, the combat is enjoyable. The biggest drawback is the relatively lackluster enemy AI, but the game offers enough challenge and satisfying military mayhem to stay entertaining for the whole ride.
Brute Force also delivers a welcome diversion in split-screen and system link multiplayer modes, but sadly is devoid of Xbox Live functionality. The game runs and plays reasonably well as a deathmatch title, and the ability to simply pick up a controller and enter the fray with a buddy on mission mode is a definite bonus.
Brute Force was expected to be the Next Big Thing, and it certainly looks the part. The main characters are wonderfully rendered with high poly counts and gritty bump-mapped textures, and they feature smooth, polished animations, especially for an action game.
The environments fare just as well. The amount of texture detail in most of the environments is virtually unmatched, and many levels convey an awesome sense of scope with sprawling landscapes and an unlimited draw distance. Some of the planets, while technically impressive, are rather aesthetically drab, but overall the presentation is superb.
All of the bells and whistles one would expect from a first-party Xbox title are in working order. We haven't seen this much volumetric grass since our ill-fated stint as a lawnmower jockey, and convincing real-time shadowing abounds. In the desert world, windstorms kick up a haze of dust particles, and shafts of sunlight stab through the forest canopy on the jungle levels. In short, Brute Force brims with graphical goodies and leaves little room for complaint.
The sound effects also get the job done. Grenades detonate with a tooth-rattling rumble, and bullets rip into your enemies with a meaty panache. When the audio pyrotechnics are presented in Dolby 5.1, you can expect more aural pleasure than Bill Gates at a summer camp for presidential interns.
The only blemish is the uninspired voice acting. This isn't the unintentionally hilarious voice-acting of Shenmue II, but it's not Legacy of Kain, either. Tex sounds like my 12 year-old cousin talking tough, and Brutus comes off as the unholy offspring of Grimlock (of the Transformers) and Orson Welles. Each of the characters has very little unique dialogue, and most players will probably drive a hot soldering iron into their ears the 37th time they hear Flint say, "They never learn" (or simply turn the sound down - take your pick).
In the end, Brute Force is an above average game that is doomed to wallow in the shadow of its own hype. If you can approach this title with a level head and forget that several media outlets once called it the "next Halo," you probably won't be disappointed. Brute Force features well-tuned gameplay mechanics and a generally engaging combat experience. However, if you want the full package, the game that Brute Force could have been, with proper squad implementation, a solid storyline, and believable enemy AI, brace yourself for a serious letdown.