While his music doesn’t really push our buttons, Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell (released in 1977) had a fantastically schlocky album cover – a demonic bat watches as a skull adorned motorbike bursts from the ground, while the grimacing long haired rider hangs on for dear life; it really doesn’t get much more unashamedly ‘Heavy Metal’ than that. It’s from this same studded-leather-clad era that Tim Schafer (creator of Psychonauts and Grim Fandango) and Double Fine Productions have drawn upon to unleash the rock’n'roll odyssey that is Brutal Legend. The question is, have they managed to crank the volume all the way up to eleven, or is Brutal Legend merely a scale model of Stonehenge that is in danger of being crushed by a dwarf (if you’ll pardon the inevitable Spinal Tap references!)?
Brutal Legend does a great job of getting you on side from the moment you first load it up; Jack Black (the voice of the game’s hero, Eddie Riggs) takes you into a dusty music store to locate a record – called Brutal Legend – that he proclaims, is so powerful “it’s not going to just blow your mind… It’s going to blow your soul”. A lofty claim though this may be, you’ve got to admire the gusto with which it’s delivered; and for a game to want to blow your soul (rather than just your eyeballs or eardrums!) demonstrates a degree of ambition that can only be applauded.
And ambition is something that Brutal Legend has in spades. After an on-stage mishap at a Kabbage Boy (think Limp Bizkit meets Marilyn Manson) gig, our hero, roadie Eddie Riggs, finds himself transported to a heavy metal utopia created by (so we are told) Ormagöden, The Fire Beast, Cremator of the Sky, and Destroyer of the Ancient World. A cultural alien in his own reality, Ormagöden’s kingdom of fire, brimstone and heavy riffing is home from home for the hapless roadie, and he soon finds himself leader of a head-banging resistance in fight against the forces of Doviculus, Emperor of the Tainted Coil.
While the opening section (as featured in the recent demo) hint at a fairly traditional hack ‘n’ slash experience with a smattering of driving, the game that follows proves to be a far more eclectic affair. In fact, it’s hard to classify, with a dizzying number of tried and tested genres being thrown at you (often in quick succession, often at the same time). It could be described as a real-time strategy-racer-sandbox-rhythm-action-beat ‘em up, though EA have wisely decided to avoided attaching such an awkward moniker to the title. Double Fine attempt to tie these disparate elements together with a focused, enthusiastic and often intoxicating commitment to all thing Rock (with a capital ‘R’), with every aspect of the game seemingly drawn from decades of heavy metal folk-lore.
On the whole, Brutal Legend does succeed in blending genres by wrapping them up in a strongly conceived aesthetic and thematic package. Visually, the game is sumptuously rendered, effortlessly transporting you to the world hinted at by countless heavy metal album covers, all backed up by an expertly crafted and frequently hilarious script. The synergy between Eddie Riggs and Jack Black works wonderfully well, and the tight animation, full of character, adds to the charm. Guest appearances by Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest’s Rob Halford and Motorhead’s Lemmy feel unforced and natural, and lend further rock ‘n’ roll credentials to the experience. The game’s many environments – all lightning bolts, rock-hewn skulls, broad-swords and amplifiers -also drip with charisma. That Double Fine had a blast crafting them is unquestionable; that they’re hugely pleasing to the eye as a result is also beyond doubt.
Structurally Brutal Legend shares a lot in common with Psychonauts and Ubisoft’s Beyond Good and Evil, with much of the action taking place in a huge central hub-world (allegedly 64km squared in size) which is spotted with a plethora of side-quests and gateways to the main narrative missions. In true sand-box tradition, quests can be tackled at your leisure, and there is much fun to be had in simply cruising the heavy metal wastelands in Eddie’s undeniably cool (and wonderfully named) hotrod – “The Deuce”, a.k.a. “The Druid Plow”.
It’s somewhat of a shame then that the missions themselves aren’t as breezily enjoyable as the rest of the game, with many elements treading dangerously close to be merely competent. For example, while controlling Riggs directly in combat is satisfyingly meaty, racing sections fall some way short of providing the types of thrills delivered by the likes of Burnout Paradise. While the ambition of Double Fine’s production obviously did not afford them the time or resources to polish each element to the same degree as more single-minded productions, the simple fact remains that, though consistently entertaining, many elements of Brutal Legend leave you wanting. Some cruel restarts should you fail to complete your goals also frustrate, and in a somewhat ironic twist of gaming conventions, you in fact often find yourself longing for the next cutscene, with the tasks in between often feeling like a means to that particular end rather than a satisfying experience in themselves.
Brutal Legend is at its most quirky (and arguably most original) in the frequent forays into real-time strategy. These ’stage battles’ (as they are known) play like a mixture of Dynasty Warriors and RTS standard-bearers such as Command and Conquer. Rather than simply commanding your troops with a click on the mouse (or should that be joypad) you must dart around the battlefield as Riggs, issuing orders requesting the construction of new units and assisting with the fighting all while attempting to win more ‘fans’ (which serve as the fuel for your war-machine), with ultimate victory being achieving by destroying your opponents stage. On paper, this concept coupled with the heavy metal theme sounds like an absolute riot, however in practice it can be a confusing and ultimately muddled affair. Even with the ability to fly over the map, keeping track of your units can be difficult, and the use of riffing (with Guitar Hero-esque inputs, something that is used throughout the game) to call for support, while a fun concept, quickly becomes an irritation. Simply put, Eddie Riggs is no replacement for the accuracy and effortlessness offered by more standard RTS controls. The ’stage battles’ are also the foundation of Brutal Legend’s online modes, but if this aspect of the single player fails to connect with you, there’s little incentive to take your axe online.
Ultimately, Brutal Legend manages to paper over the cracks of its various shortfalls through sheer force of will, with the highlights proving engaging enough to keep you playing. For example, rolling across the heavy metal planes in The Deuce with Judas Priest blaring from your speakers is very nearly worth the price of admission alone, as is the wonderfully crafted script. It also offers enough variety and quirky ideas to hold your attention, with the fast turn-over never giving you a lot of time to dwell on the negative aspects of one mode of play before you’re ushered into another. Brutal Legend has clearly been a labour of love for Double Fine Productions, and this is reflected in the degree of ambition demonstrated on nearly every level. Unfortunately, like the LOVE and HATE tattoos emblazoned on the knuckles of many a Hell’s Angel, with one you must have the other, and Brutal Legend is no exception. But hey, let’s be honest – if you turn it up loud enough you’ll no doubt be rocking too hard to care.
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