Brutal Legend is the latest game from development studio Double Fine, the team headed by adventure game legend Tim Schafer and behind 2005's superb platforming adventure game Psychonauts. As such Brutal Legend had been expected to be the next big thing in the 'different to anything else' genre - an area that Schafer specialises in. The phrase 'Better than the sum of its parts' came to mind when playing this third-person metal epic, but after thinking about it some more in the days leading up to writing this review, that's not really fair. It's completely the opposite. Take almost every part of Brutal Legend on its own and you'd be looking at an often hilarious script, incredible audio, fantastic art design and some of the best ideas you'll ever come across. Yet playing Brutal Legend left me wishing it was better. It's undoubtedly a lovingly created game that deserves to be played, but too many of the fundamental gameplay mechanics don't feel right.
Eddie Riggs (voiced brilliantly by Hollywood A-lister Jack Black) is a roadie; not just any roadie, but the best roadie the world has ever seen. It's a roadie's job to make the band he's touring with look and sound great while remaining in the background. Eddie's only goal is to let the band put on an amazing show for the fans, and it's here where the story of Brutal Legend begins. Touring with a popular pop metal band (who aren't much in Eddie's eyes), the lead singer gets into trouble and it's Eddie who comes to his aid, catching him from what would have been a deadly fall. With the show saved Eddie slips back into the shadows, but the crumbling stage collapses on top of the heroic roadie, knocking him out and spilling his blood. It's not the end of the road for Eddie, though, with his blood activating a pendant worn around his neck, sending him into another world where metal is the only way of life.
This is a fantastical world, the kind you might see in a film by Tim Burton or a children's fantasy movie from the 80s, with large expanses of lush fields, volcanoes, towering icons of metal, freakish creatures and some unbelievable characters. After an action-packed opening in which you meet Ophelia (slightly emo rock chick), you soon meet the rest of the core cast. You've got main character Eddie (the meat-headed, big chested, lovable brute), Ophelia, Lars (the long-haired blond, pretty boy leader) and Lita (essentially a female version of Lars). Eddie is by far the most interesting and entertaining of the four, and will go down as one of the best new video game characters of this generation.
Lord Doviculus and General Lionwhyte serve as the big bad guys of the piece (even if Lionwhyte's glam metal appearance isn't overly menacing), having taken young men and women to serve as slaves. Without any way to combat the evil menace, Eddie takes it upon himself to put together a army the only way he knows how. Early parts of the game therefore see you going on quests in the large open world to recruit the various essential parts of a touring crew. The headbangers are my personal favourites; having been used as manual labourers, crushing rock with their heads (thanks to their massively overdeveloped and muscular necks and foreheads), these guys are dumb, but their one-liners are often hilarious. Also on hand to help out (once recruited) are projectile specialist female groupies and devastating, speaker-carrying roadies.
Combat is split into a few distinct styles, although it's here that the game hits its only major flaw: it's just not that good. When you're playing through one of the standard missions or side quests in which you come across a wave of enemies, you can hack and slash with Eddie, using his Separator axe and Clementine guitar as deadly weapons (the guitar can be used to fire electricity and to trigger special moves through a Rock Band-style series of notes). There's target lock on, a heavy strike achieved by holding down the attack button, block and dodging, but it still doesn't quite feel as tight as I want it to. It feels like a halfway house between the combat in Fable 2 and something you'd find in God of War, and ends up being as good as neither. There's a level of squad control on top of this, with Eddie able to send followers where he pleases, or team up with them to perform double team attacks - such as riding on top of roadies and firing their speakers. The double team moves are pretty neat, but the squad controls can be awkward during large battles.