Brutal Legend Review
Brutal Legend, where have you been all my life? Or, at least for the last four years? I've been waiting for you since about five minutes after Psychonauts ended and for a while there, I thought you'd never come. I remember the early rumors years ago about Tim Schafer's next project, rumors that suggested he and his crew of fun-making tech elves were hard at work on a game about heavy metal. As much as I hoped the rumors were true, I hardly dared believe them. For many of us growing up in the 70's and 80's, metal wasn't just a convenient way of making our parents think we were possessed by Satan; it was an escape, a sanctuary—and as we got older, a memory held dear.
Finding out that one of the world's most creative game designers was making a game set smack in the middle of my deepest-held heavy metal fantasies was both exciting and scary. Would nostalgic reflections on my misspent metal youth be honored and celebrated or would they instead be mawkishly handled by an out-of-touch dev team? Well this week Brutal Legend came out and I'm here to say—there was no need to worry.
Brutal Legend, Tim Schafer's homage to metal is like the video game equivalent of one of those histrionic rock operas; like Pink Floyd's “The Wall”. Only funnier. With less alienation. And more leather. At the game's start, super-roadie Eddie Riggs is forced to endure the humiliation of working for the world's lamest pre-fab rock band. After being crushed by a falling stage set, Eddie's sent magically by blood-soaked belt buckle to the Age of Metal where he's swept into humanity's fight for freedom from the evil Emperor Doviculus. Upon landing in a torch-lit Druid temple, Eddie scores two axes—a real axe and a killer guitar—which he uses to defend himself against Doviculus' misshapen forces. He also builds himself a car. No, not a car. A nitrous-boosted, chrome-detailed, flame-painted monster called The Deuce. With it, he sets about helping hair farmer Lars Halford and his buxom sister Lita to build an army.
The first order of business is liberating the people, who depending on gender, are being forced to work in the mines or entertain at General Lionwhyte's Pleasure Palace. The entry to the mines is the first place metal lovers will say, “Oh yeah” because the entire liberation sequence happens to the tune of Def Leppard's pounding anthem, “Rock of Ages”. By playing a stirring Battle Cry solo, you turn the mindless miners into an army of mindless headbangers, using them to overthrow Doviculus' huge-fisted overseers. It's here the squad mechanic is introduced. The directional pad allows you to select commands that tell your boys to do things like “Follow”, “Guard” or “Smash the crap out of that object over there”. It's like the minion mechanic of the Overlord games (if the minions were lumbering goons with necks like tree trunks.)
In addition to their default attack, with the Y button you can get your headbangers to form a Mosh Pit with you around any target, using their cro-magnon skulls to pound it into a pulp. Once recruiting is done, the Battle Cry solo still comes in handy to buff your followers and throughout the game, you'll learn other solos that give you the power to raise relics, summon the Deuce, perform powerful attacks (Facemelter!) and manage your ever-growing army.
The storyline takes you through a set of linear missions as you take the Brutal Bus on tour with Lars and the Halford gang but you can also venture out and do secondary missions as well, in any order. Secondary missions consist of things like helping headbangers ambush enemies, racing the Deuce against a demon hotrodder (who must be first cousin to Glottis from Grim Fandango) and clearing squatters out of a local bat family's cave. To really see the detail of the game world, you should really spend some time running around it but note—the world is huge. It makes more sense and is much more fun to tour the land via hotrod. While seeing the sights, make sure to stop and smell the devil-horn flowers because they indicate the presence of relics that need raising. These relics range from Tab Slabs and Buried Metal which grant you new solos and soundtrack songs, as well as Motor Forges for upgrading and Artifacts of Legend which tell the tale of the Titans and the god Ormogoden. Raising these and “freeing” bound serpent statues with a killer guitar riff will earn you health bonuses and Fire Tributes which allow you to visit the Motor Forge. The Motor Forge is a Moria-like fire cavern where you find the Guardian of Metal—Ozzy Osbourne in the rose-colored glasses, skull rings and black tasseled robe he probably wears around the house. There he'll trade you Fire Tributes for upgrades to your car, your weapons and your abilities.
As the story progresses, you gain more units: rocket launcher metal chicks, roadies who function like stealth munitions experts, bikers on flaming choppers and fire-breathing beasts who seem to be wearing KISS makeup. You'll need them all during the Stage Battles which is where the game takes an unexpected and potentially controversial left turn. From a third-person action game with squad mechanics, the game suddenly becomes an RTS, demanding that you win battles by managing resources and building large numbers of units. The battle starts with your allied base—which in the world of Brutal Legend is a stage—being automatically built during a cool fast-motion time lapse sequence. Once it's up, your job is to convert what look like green, flaming bonfires called Fan Geysers into Merch Booths (that's T-shirt stands to you and me) using a Fan Tribute solo. These booths generate your resources, allowing you to upgrade your stage and build more units.
When the battle begins, squad commands are used to direct your units' movements. You can single out categories of units for special orders but that can get pretty hairy the more units there are on screen. The idea is generally to destroy the enemy's fortress or stage but the effect of this classic RTS concept on action/adventure gameplay is uneven. Most RTS's are played from an overhead point of view and that's for a reason; you need to be able to see your enemy's movements at a glance and react accordingly. Brutal Legend tries to solve this by giving Eddie a demonic ability to fly and direct the battle from above but doing so is somewhat clunky. It can be confusing too, even from that vantage point, to really grasp what's going on since there's no mini-map or easy method of selecting individual units or knowing which areas are being attacked.
This is definitely the weakest part of the game but it's compensated for by the game's personality and style. The game starts with a video intro with Jack Black which sets up the game's menus as a metal album cover. Throughout, the game shows an incredible attention to detail by making tutorial tips fun or making it amusing to choose whether or not to have profanity and gore. In addition to great UI, the game's writing and art are some of the best you'll see. Funny dialog is a given in a Tim Schafer game, and thankfully, Jack Black does a great job of carrying it off without “over-Jack-Blacking” it. Visual in-jokes are everywhere too and anyone who is, or was at any time, a metalhead will crack up on them. There's the colossal cliff wall of deadly seagull-killing speakers, the mountain of the “Kill Master” (Lemmy Kilmister from Motorhead), the “The Baron” (Rob Halford of Judas Priest), the red flowers that look like hands doing metal-head devil horns and the army of sexy Amazon women who look like KISS army groupies.
While the graphics are humorous, they're definitely not limited to jokey references. Just as creative lead Tim Schafer had planned, they're like the most epic metal album covers come to life. Huge swords pierce the lightning-filled sky, Stonehenge-like rock formations cast shadows across the rocky hills, a Holy Diver-esque horned monument stands majestic near actively erupting volcanoes. The dev team, obviously wanting gamers to appreciate this spectacular landscape, set up Landmark Viewers here and there which give panoramic views of the most impressive monuments. The large-scale graphics are stunning for sure, but the small-scale art has no problem keeping up with it. The metal icon cameos are right on the money with great 3D models of Lemmy, Ozzy and Rob Halford. The main characters too—Eddie, Ophelia, Lita, Lars and the seemingly David Bowie-inspired General Lionwhyte—are all very well-realized. Secondary characters provide great caricatures too, especially the Iron Heade headbangers and absurdly-overburdened roadies, not to mention the collection of unique enemy types.
The best of the enemies are the blonde, pink-hat-wearing, pop rock counterparts to Eddie's heavy metal headbangers and just about every unit in the goth rock faction, the Drowning Doom. This faction is something to see with its lethal baby carriages, Munsters-like dirge machines and undead grave diggers who continue to fight even after being beheaded. Talk about scary; what good is a face-melting solo if your enemies don't need faces to fight? Environment and character art aside, it's a relief to see that Brutal Legend has overcome the cinematics issues that plagued Psychonauts. The in-game art in Psychonauts was phenomenal but when you got to the cutscenes, everything suddenly looked like it was being seen through waxed paper. Brutal Legend has no such problem and the cutscenes look great.
Overall, Brutal Legend is a blast to play. Combat both with the guitar and battleaxe is easy and fun (the highlight of which is a combo attack that sends your enemies skyward on a high-flying eruption of sparks) and the driving is awesome. There's nothing like hitting that nitrous boost with Motorhead's “We Are the Road Crew” pounding in your head. Where the game goes slightly wrong is in the often chaotic and confusing RTS sequences, which point out its occasionally troublesome split-personality. It's not surprising that a studio as creative as Double Fine would want to jam as many ideas into their game as possible and while the motto of “more is always more” always works for metal, for game design it often doesn't. Brutal Legend's multiple control systems—for Eddie on the ground, for Eddie flying, for driving the Deuce, for guiding your squad, for managing the RTS element—sometimes make things a bit confusing, especially since the context-sensitive UI prompts aren't consistent.
Objectives too can be vague at times. During a mission at Lionwhyte's Pleasure Palace, my stated objective was “mobilize the troops” but the mission had me driving around like a maniac trying to avoid a giant monster. I won the mission but I'm not sure how. Similarly, several times I won Stage Battles without really understanding why. I'd be off in a corner trying to convert a Fan Geyser and suddenly get the “Brutal Victory” screen and go, “Huh?”
Anyway, these complaints are minor and in the scheme of things, make up only a small part of the game. What's more important is that Brutal Legend is a ton of fun to play and fiercely stakes its claim as one of the most unique, most ambitious titles on the market today. It marks the sophomore action/adventure effort of Double Fine Productions' dev team and as such, shows marked improvement over the company's previous title, Psychonauts. Once you get the multiple control schemes down, the game is more fun than a barrel of groupies and is full to bursting with hilarious dialog, stellar artwork, great tunes, and about a million metal in-jokes. Mind you, you don't have to be a metal junkie to enjoy the game, but metal fans--your prayers have been answered.