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.
Certain story missions are big battles, carried out in arenas hastily put together by the crew, complete with a stage. Here you are fighting against an enemy army using a system very similar to what you'd find in a RTS. Fan geysers are strewn across the battlefield, with Eddie able to 'harvest' them by playing a riff on his guitar and then building a merchandise tent on top. It's simple resource gathering, with the fans then used as credits to buy units for use in battle, be it a group of headbangers, an attack vehicle or one of the more advanced units. With the enemy equally keen to take over these fan geysers, a fairly complex controller-based RTS control scheme to think about, and the overall goal of defeating the enemy on your mind, these missions can descend into tedium. For a game that's tongue-in cheek and over the top, the RTS gameplay comes across as too serious and at times tough. Most people will just want to get stuck in with Eddie's melee moves, but doing so here will almost always result in failure.
It's this RTS gameplay style that forms the multiplayer component of Brutal Legend, and your enjoyment of this will entirely rest on how you find the controls. For me the combination of third-person action and RTS just doesn't fit well together, with the viewpoint (even though Eddie can get a bird's eye view of the map) and simple unit controls just not working as well as a proper RTS - such as Command & Conquer. Up to eight players can take part in teams of four, but it's hard to see it gaining much of a following beyond the initial burst of players close to release.
Typical of the open world genre, a world map represents the large open area that you're free to explore, with symbols showing the available side missions (racing, target shooting, fighting and more) and next story mission. You're free to play these as in any order you wish, with some taking place in the game world and others in MMO-style instances. Getting around is simple thanks to Eddie's car, the Deuce. This road hog can be summoned by playing a riff on your guitar, and then driven around the world at high speed. At times there's an awful lot of heading back and forth between areas, and it would have been nice to be able to teleport to key locations, but the driving is good fun and there are various ramps placed around the world to drive off - checking another item off the list on the stats page.
As with any good action game, your tools and abilities can be upgraded as you progress. In Brutal Legend this is handled by fire tributes - points handed out by completing missions and pleasing the metal gods. Head to the Motor Forge, where Ozzy Osbourne awaits, to upgrade the Deuce with new weapons or to buy new perks for Eddie's axe and guitar. Early on you gain the ability to listen to the game's many licensed metal tracks while cruising around, using what is referred to as the Metal Mouth, and there's even a way to change tracks in-game. There are tons of collectables, too, things to see, non-essential side missions to play through, and characters to meet. On seeing the story to its conclusion (which is unlikely to take as long as you'll want it to) it's doubtful you'll be anywhere near to the 100% completion mark, and you're thrown back into the world to continue should you want to.
From a technical point of view Brutal Legend falls short of what's required in today's market, with an awful lot of pop-in, some terrible frame rate stuttering and fairly low-detail environments, but somehow that doesn't matter. The world has been created with such a clear passion for all things metal that you can't help but stop and smile at what you're looking at. Whether it be the towering structures built to resemble iconic metal objects, the awesome bosses that resemble the kind of monstrosities you'd find in Zelda adventure games - albeit with a metal twist - or the superb special moves (such as the face melting guitar riff), it's hard not to enjoy just spending time in the game world.
Brutal Legend is a game that an awful lot of people are going to enjoy, despite its combat failings. It's undoubtedly a fun game, packed full with humour (although this does tail off towards the end), metal references, amazing encounters and memorable characters. It's the RTS sections that really let the game down for me, feeling like a good idea that hasn't quite been implemented well enough to gel with the rest of the game. It's testament to the quality of Brutal Legend as a whole that this core gameplay component can be overlooked, as in a lesser game, created by a less imaginative team, such problems would be a deal-breaking flaw. For Brutal Legend, it just prevents a great game from being one of the greatest.