Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Double Fine
ESRB rating: Mature
Release date: Available now
Of all the forms of rock and roll, heavy metal boasts perhaps the most hardcore fans, and has branched out into other forms of media more often than some of the other genres. It has spawned a well respected animated feature film (Heavy Metal) and several video games, including KISS Psycho Circus: The Nightmare Child and Heavy Metal F.A.K.K. 2; indeed, metal music is the centerpiece of Guitar Hero III. Adding to the headbanger legend is developer Double Fine’s metal fantasy, Brutal Legend, a violent and challenging journey through a world built on hard rock.
Eddie Riggs is the king of the roadies. It’s his job to build things, fix things, and make sure that his successful yet almost ungrateful employer looks great and rocks hard on stage. Eddie is killed in a tragic stage collapse, only to wake up in the land of Bladehenge, surrounded by red-robed skeletons that seem to be worshiping a giant battle axe. Eddie scoops up the weapon and discovers that it possesses great powers, which he uses to defeat the undead priests. As Eddie progresses through Bladehenge, he joins forces with Lita and Lars, who are trying to organize a revolt against the forces of the evil emperor Doviculus. And he falls in love with raven-haired Ophelia, who has a dark history of her own.
Brutal is a combination third-person brawler and RPG set in a beautiful but dangerous fantasy world in which metal is king. The action starts out slowly, allowing you to get a handle on combat and movement. You carry not only the axe (which Eddie has named The Separator), but also your guitar, which you use to manipulate your surroundings. Interacting with certain obelisks spread throughout the game world unlocks guitar solos that allow you to attack enemies, rally your troops, and most importantly, summon The Deuce, a tricked-out roadster that you can customize with everything from wild paint jobs to projectile weapons. A button press opens a map that shows the location of your current objective and side missions that you can complete to gain Brutal‘s currency: fan tributes. These are spent in the Metal Forges, gateways to the bowels of the Earth that you raise with a guitar solo. In the forges you meet the Guardian of Metal (perfectly voiced by Ozzy Osbourne), who sells you the upgrades to The Deuce. Tributes are also earned by completing story missions and various other activities.
One of the first things you notice about Brutal is the obvious reverence paid to the subject matter. Eddie is voiced by Jack Black, movie comedian and frontman of the metal band Tenacious D (several of their tunes appear in the game’s 107-song soundtrack), and he embraces his character in his excellent voice work. In fact, Brutal is filled with a who’s-who of metal, with appearances by Rob Halford of Judas Priest and Lemmy Kilmister (Motorhead), among others. The graphics detail and quality are exceptional, although The Deuce can sometimes be stopped in its tracks by objects that it should easily be able to destroy. The story is written by Tim Schafer, founder of Double Fine and formerly of LucasArts, where he worked on some of the greatest adventure games ever made. Schafer is the Tim Burton of gaming; his games combine striking but oddball visuals, memorable characters and a biting sense of humor, all of which can be found in Brutal.
But what you don’t get in Brutal is a story with much meat on its bones. It’s padded with side missions, but only three or four varieties, the most entertaining of which has you racing a toad-faced creature named Fletus across the landscape. In another of the side missions, you lead your forces in ambushes, but even if you’re the last man (or creature) standing, you still get the same ending cutscene with you and three comrades celebrating the victory. The voice acting is generally good, although there are one or two really bad performances. And the major conflicts in the game are stage battles, in which you build and upgrade a stage and summon warriors to fight the enemy. These fights are sometimes very difficult to win; fortunately you can change the game’s difficulty level if you find you’re getting your teeth kicked in too often. But the worst part of Brutal, as it has been in many other Xbox 360 games, is the driving controls. The throttle only knows two settings: fast and stop, and there are times when The Deuce handles more like a tank than a roadster. There are many missions in the game that I had to replay because the car refused to turn the way I directed it to turn.
I’ll admit it: the only heavy metal I know I learned from Guitar Hero. But the music combines with the visuals and the story to make Brutal Legend a game that every headbanging gamer should own; the soundtrack alone is worth the price of admission. The frustrating driving mechanics, the difficulty of the stage battles (which comprise the one and only multiplayer mode) and the threadbare story keep it from true greatness, but the great voice cast and the entertaining dialogue make it worth your time, metalhead or not.