The story is as old as time itself; a roadie gets blood on his cursed belt buckle, which is actually a demon, sending him back in time to an age when the gods of rock ruled the world. Okay, maybe it’s not The Iliad, but under its half parody of/half love letter to heavy metal coating, it’s a timeless retelling of a hero’s journey – a man finding his place in the world. There have been plenty of fantasies about lowly bumpkins with surnames like Skywalker and Potter who discover their destiny to save the world, but these blokes were always unremarkable and just got lucky in discovering their destinies. They didn’t have much in the way of character traits beyond whining and being unlucky as children. Eddie Riggs, Brutal Legend’s plump protagonist, is far richer a character, with genuine enthusiasm for what he does. i.e. being a roadie and living the rock ’n roll lifestyle from the sidelines. When he’s summoned into this world, all the skills that have made him an invaluable albeit invisible part of the industry manifest themselves in ways vital to saving the world. It sounds formulaic, but there are twists along the way, and the story is told with such enthusiasm that one can’t help but get wrapped up in Eddie’s struggles, "which some would call hellish. But I have to admit, is kind of badass."
Brutal Legend’s presentation is astounding – one of the best portrayals of a virtual world in a videogame. As Tim Schafer said, "if it looks like it would belong on a metal album cover, we can put it in the game." This is well presented in the environment, littered with runes of the ancient titans of rock. A giant wall of speakers, a skull for a moon, and a hive full of metal spiders that spin metal webs (of course) are just sample of the landscape available. Brutal Legend has the best art direction of any game since Okami. I wanted to take a screencap every 10 seconds and frame it on my wall. All this is aided by phenomenal voice-work by a star-studded cast, and one of the best uses of licensed music in a game with an epic soundtrack consisting of over 100 songs. All metal. All the time.
The game is also hilarious. The opening cutscene alone had me laughing more than any game since GLaDOS met her fate at the end of Portal. A good example of Brutal Legend’s unique brand of humor is its mockery of the videogame convention where players must choose to accept a mission or deny it, knowing full well that the game will only progress with "accept". After being briefed on a mission, the game pauses at the most inopportune moment only to ask whether to attempt the mission now or later. I recommend choosing "later" just to hear the great dialogue as Eddie has a last minute change of heart and tries to weasel out of his world saving duties.
The game play comprises three separate elements: combat, driving, and real-time strategy. The combat is hack-and-slash, with core weapons being a giant battle axe and Clementine, a guitar which sends electricity down from the heavens to vanquish evil. There also options to block, roll, and double up with NPCs for special attacks like throwing them at enemies or hopping into a vehicle. The combat feels loose at times with a troublesome lock-on function, but generally gets the job done – just don’t expect the next God of War.
Driving is the most successful part of the game due to tight controls for "the Deuce," Eddie’s hotrod and go-to vehicle. These segments present much of the world’s visual splendor. Driving around the world searching for collectables, side-quests, and lore, is a delight. The main drawback is that a lion’s share of the driving missions are escort based, which gets old after awhile. They’re still fun, though it’s a back-handed compliment to say that the game is at it’s best when not doing the missions.
The most notable unadvertised feature of Brutal Legend is how much of a real-time strategy game it is. Don’t let the demo fool you (as it did me, when I described the game as a Zelda clone after playing the demo at E3). Brutal Legend’s main campaign consists more of RTS elements than anything else. There will be several times when Eddie and his band Ironheade (the extra "e" is to show they mean business, according to Eddie) will set up a stage and use the power of their rock to fend off enemy troops. During these sequences, Eddie sprouts a pair of demon wings allowing him to fly around, command troops, and set up merch booths to harvest the souls of fans (currency used to build more troops). Eddie can also get into the thick of the fight himself, which is more beneficial than it sounds. It’s an interesting idea, but not without its share of problems.
Real-time strategy is a genre built around commanding troops, and doing so is more art than science. It’s often unclear which troops are in Eddie’s range when he issues commands. A circle portraying his command radius would be infinitely helpful. Selecting only one type of unit is also troublesome and feels like there should have been an easier option. There’s also no aiming reticule, so placing a marker to send troops to is imprecise. Annoyingly, it’s difficult to gauge from a distance which troops are friendly or hostile. They were going for a HUD-less screen to increase immersion, but this makes it much harder than it should be to locate troops. My kingdom for a mini-map!
Finally, several of these battles have unclear win conditions. In one battle, the mission objective is to rendezvous with someone. I looked around for a quarter hour before realizing that the goal was simply to stay alive long enough for a cutscene to trigger showing his arrival on the battlefield. Maybe I had to kill enough enemies to trigger said cutscene, I’m still not sure.
Provided players can get past the fiddly controls of the RTS elements, there’s a lot of depth. Possibly too much, as the learning curve is way steeper than the rest of the game. New units and enemies are introduced every battle, so players will have all new rules to learn just when they feel they’ve gotten the hang of it. The game ended unexpectedly after a dozen or so hours, just as I was getting a good feel for it.
It’s as if the single player RTS matches serve as a tutorial for the game’s multiplayer – an offshoot of these stage battles allowing up to eight players to duke it out as two teams compete. The multiplayer stage battles are infinitely more complex than their single player counterparts and better in every way. Win conditions are clear, the game is more balanced against other people, and all the guitar solos (special commands, found in the main game) are available. Better yet, players can play as the enemy armies, each with their own unique units and attributes. The issues plaguing single player stage battles are still present, but variety makes up for a lack of refinement. Freed from the constraints of a structured narrative where the stage battles took a toll on the pacing, the multiplayer mode allows one to enjoy the complex RTS elements on their own terms. As such, they‘re good, though hardly the reason to check out the game.
Brutal Legend is a difficult game to rate; brilliant in many ways but backwards in others. On one hand, it’s both the prettiest and funniest game I’ve played this year. In terms of writing, Tim Schafer has lost none of his roguish charm, though Schafer’s weaknesses as a game designer are more telling here than in his previous work. Psychonauts never had the best platforming, but it was rarely distracting. Grim Fandango’s puzzles ranged from brilliant to obtuse, but were generally good. Brutal Legend, however, feels amateurish with repetitive mission structure combined with fun-less hours spent rebuilding bases from failed stage battles. I appreciate Schafer’s trying something new, and suggest everyone buy it so he can continue making these madcap brilliant game worlds.
In spite of glaring faults, Brutal Legend is one of the best games of the year. It’s frustrating at times, but exploring Brutal Legend’s world, discovering its rich heritage, talking to its cast, riding a panther that can shoot lasers out of its eyes, all while rocking out to every kind of metal there is – it’s more than enough to make up for any shortcomings, though it falls a couple marks short of what it should have been. Then again, it should have cranked up to 11, making the final score…
(Someone’s been watching too much X-Play -ED)