Developer Tim Schafer has been delivering funny games for the past two decades, but none of them have enjoyed the marketing push of Brutal Legend. Gaming's best kept secret has been given the limelight. Has Schafer and his studio Double Fine created something worthy of all this attention?
Oh, hell yeah. This is one of the best games I've played all year and it provides something we don't find often enough in this industry: a unique experience. I'm pretty sure you've never played a game quite like this before. True, a game needs to be more than "different" to work -- it has to be fun. And Brutal Legend is a lot of fun.
It all kicks off with a hilarious intro poking fun at the softer, more mainstream direction heavy metal has taken in the past couple decades. Brutal Legend is front heavy with the humor stuff, though. While the first half hour will have you shooting milk through your nose, the laughs eventually taper off leaving you with a story that is rich and bizarre but lacking in the bite of the opening scenes. Brutal Legend is a celebration of classic heavy metal and takes every cheap shot it can at hair metal, nu metal, and other diluted variations on the genre. While the ultimate evil and its minions are truly terrible monsters, the lesser bad guys are made up to resemble glam rockers or emo kids. It will appeal most to those that spent at least some of their formative years as angsty headbangers although it isn't exclusionary.
The story takes plenty of twists and turns along the way and deals with some interesting themes of quiet heroism and personal sacrifice. Our hero, Eddie Riggs, is a roadie and knows his place is out of the spotlight. He's not here for glory -- he's here to make someone else look good. Riggs keeps this same attitude even when he is warped back in time and has the chance to be a real hero and save the world. Brutal Legend doesn't take itself too seriously, but at the same time the story has some substance.
When it comes time to play the game instead of watching you'll find a mix of genres coming together to create a variety of gameplay opportunities. Most of the story missions are real-time strategy battles that find you commanding troops on a battlefield made up to look like an epic rock concert. But the ability to join the fight and deal out a little justice of your own adds some action to the strategy. Outside of story missions the game can be a beat 'em up or a shooter or a racer. The pieces all come together well without any of these mechanics feeling tacked on or inadequate.
The RTS-style battles turn out to be great fun in multiplayer, too. Here players can choose to lead any of the game's three factions, giving folks a chance to play the bad guys. Up to eight people can join the fight online with four on each side. There are seven maps, each with the simple goal of destroying your opponents' base. The mode is great fun and happily extends the life of Brutal Legend after a shorter single-player campaign.
Brutal Legend lives up to its name: there is plenty of delightful gore to be found here, although the cartoon art style softens the effect. Heads are chopped off, blood is splattered, and faces melted, but it's all in good fun. The game is rated M for Mature, so theoretically if you're playing you're old enough to appreciate that sort of thing, but regardless you can choose to turn the gore on or off at any time. That might be a handy feature if you have kids that wander into the room from time to time while you're playing. The same can be done with the game's harsh language -- you'll even get the classic Parental Advisory sticker over any middle fingers that are flipped.
Collectors and obsessive compulsives will find plenty to do in Brutal Legend. Outside of the large-scale battles that propel the story forward there is an open fantasy world to explore with loads of secrets to find and unlockables to discover. The impressive vistas were designed to resemble a Frank Frazetta painting and there's a lot of eye candy to take in. Many side quests are waiting to be accepted, helpfully indicated on your map so you don't have to wander around looking for them. Don't worry, not every secret is pointed out to you. The secondary missions could use a bit more variety, though. There are only three or so types of activities, and with few exceptions you'll be repeating them all over the map. My first time through Brutal Legend I accepted many sidequests and finished the story with 62 percent of the game completed. After the legend ends you're turned loose in the world to take on the remaining side missions, but you'll find the same few quest types you've been performing since the beginning.
For all of Eddie's talents, he lacks the ability to jump. For the most part, it's not an issue. But I did get stuck in between rocks while exploring the environment -- a mishap that could have been avoided if Eddie could have just jumped over them. I had to load my last save point, but thankfully the game saves often. If there is a sequel to Brutal Legend (and the story does set one up) I'd love to see Eddie learn to jump.
There are also a couple instances where the game doesn't explain your win/loss conditions well enough. During an ambush mission, I had seemingly defeated all enemies but never received a "brutal victory" message. Turns out the enemies will try to escape and if they're successful, you'll lose. I had to learn this detail the hard way. Thankfully, these end up being minor complaints in an overall terrific game and I never became frustrated to the point where I wanted to quit playing.
Fire Tributes are the game's currency, bestowed upon Eddie for pleasing the Titans. These can be earned in any number of ways: winning battles, completing secondary missions, unearthing long lost artifacts… An exhaustive stat tracking system keeps track of everything from the percentage of game completed to the songs unlocked to enemy minions defeated. Once you've saved up a few tributes you can spend them at the Motor Forge on Deuce/axe/guitar upgrades, new combat moves, or paint jobs. The Forge is run by the Guardian of Metal, appropriately (and impressively) voiced by Ozzy Osbourne.
In fact, Brutal Legend is full of great voice work. Jack Black completely committed to his role as Eddie Riggs, negating any worries that he might just be cashing a pay check. He's hilarious and is very likeable in the role. And everyone below him, from the supporting cast to the minor players, turns in solid performances. Helping sell these characters is some very nice facial animation. Many of the game's laughs come from a sly grin or a raised eyebrow.
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