Staring at a heavy metal album cover can muster up many thoughts: why is there a Black Panther shooting laser beams from its eyes? Why do I find that so cool? And what in God’s name does this have to do with the actual music? The answer to the latter is normally ‘nothing’, but the crazy, elaborate heavy metal album covers of old never failed to capture the imagination. They definitely inspired Tim Schafer in his teenage years, and now his team at Double Fine have finally brought it all to life in the epic, heavy metal-opus, Brutal Legend.
Bust out a face melting solo!
While on your brutal journeys you’ll unlock a plethora of guitar solos, each playing a role in Brutal Legend’s many gameplay styles. In the thick of the action? Unleash a solo that literally melts people’s faces; or send in a flaming zeppelin to rain fire down upon your foes. Maybe you need some help in the RTS stakes? There are a number of solos to rally troops to your position, or even give your units an added boost to production. In our world guitars create music, in this world they blow stuff up!
Things start off in the real world with Jack Black’s character, Eddie Riggs. He may be the best, most legendary roadie in the business, but he’s exasperated by the current state of metal, with bands aiming to appeal to a tween demographic rather than the usual “headbanging” crowd. He longs to go back to a time – the early seventies to be precise – to when the metal was ‘real’, and it’s not long before he gets his wish. A freak stage accident summons the fire God Ormagoden, and transports Riggs back in time to an ancient world of metal. Here, Eddie meets plenty of hilarious and engaging characters as he begins to play a key role in an ongoing saga between a few of the universes warring factions.
As you can imagine from that description, Brutal Legend doesn’t take itself too seriously, mixing both the ridiculous and serious sides of the metal genre. The story is full of heavy metal mythology, character conflicts and a surprisingly believable love story, that are all sure to draw you in. But what truly makes the narrative such a fantastic experience are the characters that inhabit it. Alot of time when big celebrities lend their voice work to video games it sounds like they phone it in, looking to make a quick buck; but Jack Black is fully committed to his role here, and it shows in his character. You soon forget the star behind the voice as Eddie Riggs comes to life as a fully realised character with plenty of quirks and different sides to his personality. And his supporting cast are none too shabby either. Double Fine managed to draft in some of the biggest legends in metal history, as Lemmy Kilmister, Ozzy Osbourne and Rob Halford all lend their voices and likenesses to the game in spectacular fashion. The amount of voice work they put in is staggering and they play their roles to perfection, bringing plenty of comedy to the table along with the rest of the cast.
It’s always been difficult to purvey comedy in games, but in Brutal Legend all of the elements come together to create a hilarious experience. Tim Schafer’s writing is exceptional as usual, and the aforementioned voice work from the whole cast combines brilliantly with the sublime facial animations. All too often laughs are generated straight from a simple change in expression; maybe a raised eyebrow or subtle mouth movement. It really is unbelievable at times, managing to capture various emotions without a character ever speaking. This may be a simple act in the world of film, but for video games it’s a difficult technique to pull off so Brutal Legend should be commemorated here.
Of course, if anyone’s ever played Psychonauts they know Double Fine can pull off an engaging and hilarious story with fantastical characters. The key for them now is masterminding equally invigorating gameplay to go along with it. Brutal Legend is certainly a lot more ambitious in scope, combining three distinct gameplay styles together. The first, and most obvious, is the hack and slash combat. Wielding an axe and his trusty guitar, Eddie can unleash a hefty amount of damage on his foes. The combat is fairly simple with one button for axe attacks and one for guitar. The axe handles exactly as you would imagine, slicing and dicing enemies into little pieces. The guitar, on the other hand, is a bit different to what you would expect, shocking enemies with its lightning and blowing them to smithereens with pyro effects. Combining the two together can rack up some combos, and eventually you’ll be able to purchase more in Brutal Legend’s market system (see: The Guardian of Metal). The combat is definitely a lot of fun, and the way it transforms a simple rock and roll act like a power slide into a devastating, killer move is both ridiculous and bad ass at the same time. When Brutal Legend was first shown it seemed like the majority of the game would consist of this combat mechanic, like a heavy metal God of War. If this were true the game would get pretty repetitive later on. Luckily, Double Fine threw in some more gameplay mechanics to keep things fresh and interesting throughout.
The Guardian of Metal
Throughout the landscape you’ll find special structures leading you to The Guardian of Metal (none other than Ozzy Osbourne himself). Besides from being absolutely hilarious, he also offers you upgrades in exchange for the fan tributes you earn for completing missions and finding items in the environment. You can buy more combos for Eddie to learn, better axes and guitars, and even upgrades for your car, including primary and secondary weapons.
The Druid Plow (AKA The Deuce) comes into play fairly early on. A ferocious hot rod that allows you to scour the open world of Brutal Legend. Like its characters, this ancient heavy metal land Eddie finds himself in is a personality unto itself. The landscape is filled with iconic metal symbology; rock formations shaped like devil horns and guitars cast shadows over the world, while giant exhaust pipes and vicious-looking steel car parts hold aloft many of its architecture; it really does look like an album cover come to life. There’s plenty of variety with grassy fields, snowy mountains and gloomy, graveyard-ridden forests populating the world map. The Druid Plow handles admirably, and traversing each environment is a ton of fun. Sadly, there’s no real incentive to explore unless you enjoy finding and collecting items. There are only a handful of side missions available and they repeat regularly, becoming monotonous way before games end. It’s a shame there isn’t more to do because this is a world that deserves to be better utilized.
Thankfully the main story missions are a tad more varied. From your typical open world-themed escorts, herding and races to your general hack and slash. You’ll usually be doing something new or different from mission to mission. However, the most heavily featured and expansive mission types are of the Real Time Strategy (RTS) mould. A very strange design decision that doesn’t seem to fit the theme of the game but actually makes sense within the narrative. You’ll spend a lot of the game recruiting new units to your army, before venturing on a mass world tour. At each location you set up a giant stage as your base of operations. Geysers spewing out fans are your resources, so capturing and maintaining these will be your key objectives. With a lot of fans you can begin spawning more units and upgrading your stage to unlock better, more powerful units and upgrades for your current batch. Units range from the aptly named headbangers who bash their foes to death, to thunderhogs who heal other units with their majestic bass strings (led by Lemmy himself) and a variety of vehicle classes all adept at taking on particular foes. It’s a streamlined approach that relies on simple D-Pad commands like attack, defend and move to. At first it can be a little overwhelming despite its simplicity since RTSs still have trouble functioning on consoles – selecting particular units is one constant aggravation – but once you get the hang of things it gradually becomes more enjoyable and you can always take matters into your own hands since you’re always involved in the action. The problem is the campaign isn’t particularly long at around seven hours, so it never feels like the RTS elements are every fully realised. The campaign acts more like a tutorial before you take things online and these large scale battles really open up. If you want to carry on with the multiplayer and exploit all of the RTS possibilities then you’ll gain a lot more from Brutal Legend. But based on the single player alone it can feel a tad lacklustre and brief.
Of course any game about heavy metal has to have an awesome soundtrack to boot, and Brutal Legend doesn’t disappoint. With 106 songs in total (Guitar Hero eat your heart out) ranging from classic heavy metal like Black Sabbath and Motorhead, to death metal like Carcass and even Jack Black’s own band, Tenacious D. There’s music from every spectrum of the metalsphere and you can listen to it all – well, those you’ve unlocked – whilst driving across the landscape. If you’re a fan of metal or not you’ll find something to like here, and the use of particular songs during missions is often something of visual and audio beauty.
Brutal Legend’s multiple gameplay styles are competent enough on their own, although I feel the RTS elements could have been explored more during the single player. It’s fine in multiplayer, but during this busy holiday period it will be hard to sustain longevity against some of the bigger titles. It’s not complex enough for the hardcore crowd and it remains to be seen how more casual gamers will react to this odd design choice and questionable functionality. Nonetheless, it’s a bold decision and it works relatively well for the most part. The hack and slash action is fun, and the world and characters that inhabit it are all exceptional with some top notch voicework from all involved. If you enjoy those elements then it’s worth taking the ride. It just might get a little bumpy across the relatively short journey time.