Tim Schafer is an over-the-top kind of guy. With two decades of game development under his belt, Tim isn't afraid to swing for the fence and create some of the craziest games of all time. Games like Maniac Mansion, Grim Fandango and Monkey Island are still being talked about today thanks to their devilishly clever writing and great narratives. This time around he has teamed up with another over-the-top kind of guy, comedian/actor Jack Black. Together they have set off to create Brutal Legend, a game based on the loudest, craziest, most obnoxious music genre there is: Heavy Metal. Together these two guys have created a genuine masterpiece, a game of the ages that combines fantastical action with one, dare I say, an over-the-top concept that is just so crazy that it works.
Eddie Riggs is the pure embodiment of all things Metal. He's the world's greatest roadie working for a band called Kabbage Boy, a flavor-of-the-month Nu Metal group who is more concerned about becoming the next Jonas Brothers than Metallica. Eddie is a product of the good old days of heavy metal, a time when men weren't afraid to grow their hair long, wear excessive leather and destroy their eardrums with the beautiful sounds of The Metal. He feels his talents are being wasted with these kids and their crappy music, but he does his job and stays in the shadows (just like any roadie worth their weight would).
Things are different on this particular day. While Kabbage Boy "rocks" out on stage, Eddie makes sure that the instruments are in tune and ensures that nothing bad happens to the band. If somebody drops their guitar, he's there to give them a new one. If somebody falls from a stage prop, Eddie is there to catch them. Eddie can do just about anything ... well, everything except for survive a large piece of the stage falling on him.
But the rock gods are looking out for our hero. Instead of being crushed as flat as an LP, Eddie's blood mixes with his belt buckle and he's instantly transported to a Hellish medieval world inspired by some of the greatest heavy metal album covers of all time. While most people would be horrified by their new surroundings, Eddie feels right at home in this heavy metal universe. This is where he belongs. So with a battle axe and an electric guitar in tow, Eddie sets out on the greatest heavy metal adventure ever told.
In Brutal Legend you play this heavy metal roadie as he assembles a ragtag group of metal heads and tries to take down the oppressive force enslaving this mystical world. You battle through twelve levels to make new friends, herd wild animals, defeat the opposing army and, most importantly, rock out. But like the music it's based around, Brutal Legend offers more than meets the eye. At first it will look and feel like your typical 3D action game, sort of a poor-man's God of War. But look deeper, because the game has a funny way of quickly turning into something that resembles a real-time strategy game.
Actually, let me rephrase that, Brutal Legend does more than resemble a real-time strategy game; it IS a real-time strategy game. At least part of it. While there are plenty of sequences where you are doing nothing more than running around the large heavy metal-inspired open world, most of the major battles are done in the style of a WarCraft or Command & Conquer type game. And while Brutal Legend is nowhere near as deep or involving as those RTS classics, there's something intoxicating about the mixture of strategy and action.
While most console strategy games get bogged down with complicated controls and excessive rules, Brutal Legend keeps it simple. Each battlefield has several different resource centers, a small geyser where the souls of fans fly out looking for somebody to deliver the music. Your job is to cap those with merchandise booths. This allows you to collect fans, which in turn can be used to buy units and upgrade your stage. Upgrading your stage will allow you to create bigger and better units, making it easier for you to take over the enemy's stage. You can build units no matter where you are and moving your soldiers is as easy as pushing a direction on the D-pad. You do all of this by flying over the battlefield. Thanks to a demon's curse, Eddie Riggs can open up his wings and fly. This allows you to quickly survey your enemy units, tell your soldiers where to go and plan your attack. On top of giving out orders and creating new units, you are also able to swoop down and battle the demonic baddies by yourself. That means that you can hack and slash your foes with your giant battle axe and perform all of the other special attacks that you've earned (and bought) throughout the course of the game.
Perhaps the most interesting wrinkle in the gameplay comes when you start teaming up with your own guys. It's called "Double Team" and it's what sets Brutal Legend apart from the likes of Command & Conquer 3. You can double team every unit you build, which means that you will suddenly be given a special power associated with that unit. For example, if you build a Metal Beast (a large bear-like creature) you can ride around the level breathing fire. Another unit allows you to ride a motorcycle around enemies so that you can trap them in a ring of fire. And teaming with the Razor Girls (with their skin tight t-shirts and Farrah Fawcett hair cut) will let you run around the level firing large shotguns.
Early in the game you won't have to worry too much about double teaming the enemy, but as you progress through the game you'll discover that much of the strategy involves you quickly deciding who would be best to team up with and when. Since you aren't stuck with one double team, you can quickly discard one unit for another, creating a fighting force of unquestioned power.
When you aren't fiddling around in these real-time strategy battles, you are exploring the world around you and getting into random skirmishes. From the get-go you have two weapons to play around with, your trusty battle axe and Clementine, your guitar. The battle axe is for short-range attacks, while the guitar allows you to shoot lightning and fire several feet ahead of you. On top of these weapons, you also have the ability to combine these into a metal solo which stomps the ground and push everybody away from you. This move does very little damage, but it will give you a chance to catch your breath and get out of a rough situation.
Along with your standard weapons, you also have what some might consider to be magical powers. The game's spells are presented as guitar solos; short musical notes that you'll have to play in order to cast your spell. In a lot of ways it's like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, only instead of a wind instrument you rock out on your electric guitar. The difficulty of the solo will depend entirely on how powerful the magic is, so get ready to bust out some Rock Band-style guitar riffs from time to time. Thankfully these riffs only use three of the Xbox 360's face buttons and the system is incredibly forgiving.
The magic is a real mixed bag in Brutal Legends. Early on you're given the power to summon your hotrod (known as The Deuce); which may just be the single most useful spell in your tour book. Other spells include the ability to literally melt your enemy's faces off with the power of rock and recruit new followers just by showing them the beauty of heavy metal. By the end of the game you are rockin' some of the craziest spells I've ever seen in an adventure game, including one that is so destructive (and cool) that I don't dare spoil it for you in this review.
This nightmarish world of Brutal Legend is fully realized and a lot of fun to explore. This isn't one of those games where most of the world feels randomly placed; every inch of the world feels like it was hand crafted by the metal gods. Best of all, each area of the map is completely unique. You start out in a field full of rock formations in the design of guitars, hands and other metal images. Before long you are in the jungle battling panthers that shoot lasers out of their eyes, the snowy mountains with saber-tooth mammoths and in a spooky graveyard-style world where the dead roam freely and there are large dogs with guillotines for a tail.
The world isn't simply gorgeous to look at, it's also filled with extra missions to complete and secret objects to find. In that sense it's a lot like Grand Theft Auto or any of the other popular open world games on the Xbox 360. While it's not pigeons you're killing, you do have to raise 120 statues and find all of the hidden music. You will still perform in car races that are straight out of Rockstar Games' crime simulator. You can hunt and help friends beat back ambushes, it's all par for the course.
In a funny way, this world comes alive thanks in large part to the music that is constantly playing in the background and the cast of characters. Not enough can be said about Jack Black's performance in Brutal Legend; it's a role that feels like it was specifically made for the comedian. Jack had me in stitches from beginning to end, thanks in large part to his spot-on delivery of each and every one of the game's one-liners. It doesn't hurt that the character of Eddie Riggs is a lot more expressive than your usual video game hero, it all comes together to create one of the greatest video game characters of all time. I cannot think of a better pairing than Jack Black and a game about the power of metal, it's a match made in Heaven ... or would that be Hell?The rest of the voice actors aren't too snazzy, either. Because this is a game about how cool heavy metal is, you can expect to hear a lot of familiar voices. I knew going in that I get performances by Lemmy of Motorhead, Rob Halford of Judas Priest and Lita Ford, but I had no idea that these rockers had so much acting range. Lemmy isn't going to win any awards for his acting chops, but he pulled off a few funny jokes and convinced me that he could do competent voice acting. The only rocker who doesn't have much range is Ozzy Osbourne, who has a teeny tiny role as the Guardian of Rock (a shopkeeper where you buy upgrades). I'm not going to say that he's the worst actor in the world, but anybody who has watched Ozzy knows that he's kind of the same character no matter what. That's not a complaint as there's something comforting in the sameness of Ozzy.
Not everybody in the game comes from a heavy metal background. Early in the game's development Ronnie James Dio was announced, but due to unknown circumstances he had to drop out. Thankfully his replacement is no slouch. The always versatile Tim Curry brings a lot of evil and dread to his performance as the game's main villain, Doviculus. The game also features funny takes from David Cross (Arrested Development, Mr. Show) and Brian Posehn (The Comedians of Comedy). They all complete one of the greatest lists of voice acting talent ever assembled for an action game.
And if you think the voice talent is good, wait until you check out the game's epic soundtrack. Tim Schafer wasn't messing around when he and his team went to license classic metal cuts. The soundtrack features a staggering 108 songs from 75 different artists, making it the most comprehensive list of heavy metal ever put into a video game. The songs come from heavy metal bands big and small, including everybody from Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Motorhead, Kiss, Scorpions, King Diamond, Manowar, Megadeth, Ratt, Motley Crue, Dokken, Riot, Anvil and, of course, Tenacious D.
Unfortunately not everything about the game is as epic as the soundtrack. There's no question that the game is of superior quality (especially compared to most of the games I've played this year), but I did run into a few minor problems along the way. The biggest complaint people are likely to have is the game's length, which runs around six hours. Now, that six hour time assumes that you aren't doing the side quests or exploring, but for some it may be a deal breaker. If you go around and do and find everything the game's length will easily double, so there is still a lot of value in the single-player campaign.
Another problem I have is that it's too easy to get stuck in some of the levels. I found several weird glitches where I literally couldn't move out and had to start from a save point. Speaking of saving, I also noticed that the game doesn't have any checkpoints. There were times when I accidentally died and then had to drive all the way back to where I was when I died. This isn't a huge problem, but it did make me thankful for all of those other games that think about adding checkpoints here and there.
While the checkpoint issue is likely to go unfixed, you will find that there's a lot more game to be had when you switch over to the spectacular multiplayer mode. This online component allows you to play a four-on-four battle using the real-time strategy elements I talked about earlier in this review. Surprisingly the simplistic real-time strategy works well online, allowing each team to assign tasks and make sure that the rounds are speedy. When you play online there are three different factions - the main Eddie Riggs led Ironheade and two other teams, Tainted Coil (death metal) and Drowning Doom (goth). Each faction not only has their own unique units, but also guitar solos that only they can pull off. Unfortunately there aren't a lot of different variations on the standard RTS mode, but at least you have eight levels to work on. Best of all, you can play this online mode with bots, just in case you need to practice up before taking on the world.
What I'm going to take from Brutal Legends is not the ridiculous story or even the kick ass guitar solos, but rather the game's sense of humor and undying admiration for all things metal. This is a game for everybody who ever looked at the covers of their records and wished they could live in that heavy metal world. And best of all, it's hilarious all the way through. Sure some of the plot twists can be seen a mile away, I found myself falling in love with the idea of being in this fantastical world. This hellish world has just as much atmosphere as BioShock's Rapture or Grand Theft Auto's Liberty City. Only this game is both devilishly clever and always funny.
Even with its non-stop references to heavy metal and specialized soundtrack, Brutal Legend comes off feeling like one of Tim Schafer's most accessible game. The real-time strategy aspects are carefully explained and never feel too daunting for the average console gamer. What's more, the game's humor and over-the-top story will make you want to see the game through to the end. And when it was over I kept playing, just because I didn't want my experience to end. There's a lot to love about Brutal Legend, so put down your fake plastic guitar and run out to the store and pick up one of the best games of the year.