Brutal Legend Xbox 360, PS3 Review
Heavy metal is funny, isn’t it? All those forty-something year old blokes with their leather pants and their long hair, wailing to the sound of twenty minute guitar solos followed by another twenty minutes of break-neck drums. To the average Joe, the very nature of the culture of metal is something to be mocked, a reliable source for parody. The likes of Spinal Tap and Metalocalypse base their entire premise on this notion. They exist solely to poke fun at the genre, and its surrounding ideologies, highlighting stereotypes and pointing and laughing. On the surface Brutal Legend looks to profit from similar exploits, and in a way it does, but for the most part it delivers a far more satirical look at the music industry in general, whilst all along preaching a certain respect for the heavy metal sub-culture.
In fact it becomes quite apparent from the offset that Tim Schafer – the man behind Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango, Psychonauts and practically anything worth playing – is more than passionate about the music of the early seventies. The opening sequence in which roadie Eddie Riggs – played by the perfectly cast Jack Black – dies during a freak stage accident, features the utterance ‘heavy metal is dead’, a line which to many will echo with alarming resonance considering the current musical climate. With this in mind Double Fine have set out to bring heavy metal back to life, and with the help of some familiar faces they have indeed succeeded.
That is, they’ve succeeded in creating a living breathing world built on the firm foundations of everything heavy metal. In the demon world that Eddie Riggs is transported to post-mortem, everything is made from some sort of heavy rock related item. Trees grow exhaust pipes from their branches, the crumbling freeway down which Eddie enters the world is built on stacked Stone Henge-esque monuments, and even the creatures of the world are ripped straight from the covers of classic metal LPs. The world lives and breathes heavy metal, and boasts a sort of unlikely beauty that stems from iron and stone, druid symbols and chrome-plated hot-rods.
To those in the know, much of this will deliver constant chuckles. There are obvious references to the likes of KISS and Black Sabbath, but around every corner lies another homage to the visual styles of the era; razor-pigs resembling the bike from Judas Priest’s ‘Painkiller’, the beasts that roam the mountains appearing to be straight out of Motorhead’s ‘inferno’. The universe is one enormous pastiche to the world of heavy metal, and is an absolute joy to drive around, taking in landmarks of epic proportions and enjoying the gorgeously rendered scenery.
Within this universe Eddie must help lead an army to overthrow the demonic Lord Doviculus – played by Tim Curry no-less – by rallying troops from various factions and commanding them in battle. To do this Double Fine have utilised a real-time strategy approach that allows for real-time combat mid-battle. For example, the first faction Eddie liberates are the head-bangers; young men with enormous necks, thick from constantly banging their heads back and forth to mine rock. Once recruited they’re added to the units Eddie can use in fights, these taking place in much more traditional RTS arenas, except what would usually be a home base is now a stage, and raw materials are replaced by fan geysers. Harnessing fans from the depths of the earth (it’s explained in-game, I promise) allows for the creation of more units, and more units means more damage on enemies.
The interesting thing about these battles is the ability to join in with the fighting, using a typical melee/magic mechanic. Eddie can run (and later fly) about the battlefield issuing commands to his units and getting the job done, but at any time he can drop in to the battle and start pummelling away with his trusty axe, or setting off exciting ranged attacks by soloing on his magical guitar. In a way it’s most comparable to something like Fable II, except different combinations of axe and guitar strikes lead to different combinations, providing they’ve been unlocked. Eddie also has the capability to double-team enemies, with each unit/character having a unique attack usually resulting in more powerful blows.
This offers a wealth of variety, and the different types of units both good and bad are vast, but the game falters in that neither the RTS elements or the on foot combat are particularly well executed. Although by no means bad, neither one nor the other reaches the point at which you feel in complete control of what’s going on. The combo system offers a great deal of moves to perform, and double-teaming enemies can be a visual marvel, but the blocking and dodge mechanisms fail to provide any sort of feedback by which you can judge follow up attacks, eventually resulting in their neglect, with far more reliance on simply wading in with powerful moves.
The strategy side is fundamentally sound, different units work well against different enemy units, and once the various commands and orders have been committed to memory, ordering allies around the battlefield becomes increasingly more satisfying. The main issue here however, is that many of the special commands that Eddie can deal out through soloing in a sort of horizontal guitar hero fashion with the face buttons, are unlocked through seeking out ‘tab-slabs’ in the open world portion of the game. This becomes problematic as the game does little to make players aware of this, which can result in finishing the game with the bare minimum of special commands, and little-to-no health/flight upgrades.
This is more to do with the structure of the game than anything else. Despite the enormous world in which Brutal Legend takes place, it’s very easy to gloss over the side-quests and collectibles as the next plot mission is always highlighted by a giant spotlight, and is often close to where the last mission ended. The result is story-completion in just under eight hours, with few upgrades and little discovered. This is not for rushing through it all, but merely for not having any real incentive (or at least, not being aware of an incentive) to progress through the non-story missions.
Despite this, Brutal Legend is still incredible. It’s thanks to the writing and voice acting, and the amount of detail that’s gone into the lore, and regardless of some of its issues the game still holds up, especially for those with a taste for heavy metal. The cast of Lita Ford, Rob Halford, Lemmy Kilmister and of course the Prince of Darkness himself – Ozzy Osbourne – make it all the more enjoyable, while the frankly mind-blowing soundtrack, including tracks from Manowar, Mastodon, Black Sabbath, and many, many more will make a metal fan out of anybody.
It goes without saying that Brutal Legend’s character is what ultimately makes it. In theory it’s an average RTS/hack and slash with a few good ideas and a sandbox-style hub with some decent driving physics. It has a worthy online multiplayer based on the RTS battles, and is packed full neat little extras. In reality it’s the biggest thank you to the bands (and of course – roadies) that made heavy metal what it is. It’s a celebration of a genre, and one done with such style, such detail and such incredible imagination that it’s difficult not to love it. Brutal Legend won’t appeal to everyone, but to those it does, it’s sure to hold a very special place in their blackened hearts.