Writers note: Metal, for the purposes of this review, is now an adjective, noun, and whatever other part of speech it needs to be. If you disagree, you are clearly not metal.
I would like to know who it was that decided that Jack Black was the main stream representative of heavy metal. Outside of Tenacious D, which is much closer to Spinal Tap without all the humor than anything I would bang my head to, he is decidedly not metal. Jack Black is grating, annoying, over acts at every opportunity and chews on the scenery with more enthusiasm than a female extra trying to get Brad Pitt’s attention. I loathe him and actively avoid any movie that he has anything to do with. Oddly enough, all of this makes him the perfect choice as the voice of Eddie Riggs in Brutal Legend. Eddie is behind the scenes metal and not nearly as cool as he thinks he is, at least at first, which makes the over confident bombast of Jack Black playing himself fit him perfectly. Eddie, like the game, grows on you slowly, until you are part of his album cover world and killing things with a guitar while being healed by a subwoofer laden trike driven by Lemmy, just after Ozzy sold you upgrades to your deuce coupe, all make a twisted sort of sense.
Brutal Legend, for better or worse, refuses to be forced into a single genre. Things start out very familiar as a third person hack and slash platformer with simple two button combat and stays that way until it dawns on you that there is no jump button. Eddie has no ups, which makes exploration on foot much more tedious than it needs to be. Just as the annoyance of having to walk everywhere begins to set in Eddie discovers his ride which will be used and upgraded for the rest of the game. Driving is clearly the best way to get anywhere, especially when you can put rocket launchers and lightning guns on your fenders. Exploring the environment with the Deuce feels a great deal like Far Cry 2: it gets you places quickly, but to actually see anything you still have to get out and walk, and there is a lot to see. Brutal Legend’s world is expansive but not intimidating. There are a lot of sites to take in and a lot of little bits of nonsense to collect, but the size of the world is never overwhelming. Exploration is accessible; getting side tracked by a particularly metal bit of architecture doesn’t take you thirty minutes out of your way, and the view is always worth the trip.
Driving around the world is also where most of the cracks in the game begin to show. Brutal Legend, in a technical sense, is not the best looking game in the world. Characters and enemies aside from the main few are not terribly detailed, and the environments tend to lose a little when viewed from point blank range. Every single short coming in fidelity, though, is more than made up for by its unique style. Individual areas vary tremendously in theme and look, but they all fit the overarching idea of an entire world based on metal album liner notes. It could have been clichéd, or terrible, or difficult to look at, but it isn’t. Somehow Brutal Legend has captured the look of metal, if there is such a thing, and it never gets old. It’s a shame that turning too quickly because you missed something destroys the frame-rate, because save for that and a few ugly textures it is a world to get lost and rock out in.
Brutal Legend also gets a little thin when it attempts to spread out into a third genre, that of a simplified RTS. A simple console RTS has been done before and done quite well, notable by Overlord and Overlord 2, but that is all that those games tried to do. There was no driving or platforming in Overlord, though the overlord himself would be right at home on the cover of a Cradle of Filth album; he is pretty metal. Brutal Legend takes one step towards simplicity to far by making it seem like controlling individual units or groups of units is not a necessity. In the first few stage battles it isn’t; sending in a Zerg rush of head bangers will get the job done. In the second half of the game, when the enemies shift from glam rockers to emo wrist cutters who have a sense of strategy and planning, not to mention large vehicles, a rush will not work. Defending merch booths becomes more important, and far too often trying to leave behind a garrison of bazooka wielding rock chicks led to everyone staying, or sending invisible roadies out to destroy a building led my healers to their deaths. Defeat is frustrating on its own, being beaten by tear drinkers is worse, and being beaten by tear drinkers because I inadvertently marched my metal army to destruction by choke point is not metal at all; it’s downright easy listening.
Tim Schaffer made a small internet splash by saying that people complaining about the RTS elements were doing it wrong, but I think he is selling the strategy elements of his own game a little short and underestimating how savvy most gamers really are. Apparently Brutal Legend started out as a full blown RTS and was scaled back from there for more general consumption. All that is left is a shell that looks and acts like real time strategy, but you really aren’t supposed to play that way, at least according to Mr. Schaffer. It is true that Eddie is the strongest unit available, especially in his car, so you should always have him in the thick of things, but trying to Rambo a mission is even less successful than sending in hordes of low level minions. More strategy is required than the interface will allow, which makes the final few battles a matter of trial and error, luck, and simple persistence. It would have been awesome, and more than a little surreal, to accurately command an army of the bizarre units available in Brutal Legend. Instead, you end up shepherding your comrades from one objective to the next, trying not to get them killed while doing most of the work for them. If I wanted real time babysitting I would play The Sims, and The Sims is decidedly not metal.
It would be disingenuous to talk about Brutal Legend without mentioning its soundtrack. I wouldn’t exactly call it varied: there is metal, more metal, pseudo metal, industrial, death metal, and at least two self serving Tenacious D tracks which don’t really fit anywhere. Music is handled much in the same way as in Grand Theft Auto; hopping into a car starts a random track. When you get out of the Deuce, however, the song doesn’t stop. Instead, the sound changes to that of more distant music providing a convenient way of finding the car if you lose it. The metal almost never ceases, which can lead to repeats early in the game as many songs are unlocked only by finding items in the environment, but most of the songs are good enough that I didn’t mind. It is truly a tremendous track list, both in breadth and depth, and provides a guided tour of quite a few metal variants. If you don’t like metal you should probably just go play another game anyway, you big wuss, maybe something with pink ponies is more your speed.
Brutal Legend manages to overcome its own shortcoming with style, atmosphere, and metal. As frustrated as I was with the botched strategy portions of the game, it was worth soldiering through them to move along to the next area to explore. Once the final battle is over the world is wide open for exploration; searching for all the songs and guitar riffs that were missed the first time is a great excuse to revisit the best parts of the game. Tim Schafer has an obviously impressive resume, but cross genre sand box RTS’s are notably absent and while it probably should have stayed that way, his strengths of humor and design are undeniable present. Brutal Legend makes Jack Black tolerable, almost amusing, which is something that I didn’t think was possible. It also pulls excellent voice acting out of Ozzy Osborne, Lemmy from Motorhead, Rob Halford, and Tim Curry. Three of these are a pleasant surprise; everyone knows Tim Curry already kicks ass and having him voice a demonic Frank N. Furter is absolute genius. Every album has a few bad tracks, even the metal-est of metal has an off day, and Brutal Legend is much the same. Treat the stage battles as the B-sides that were thrown in for free: you have to listen to them once to just to say that you did, but after just skip over them to get to the good stuff: the metal.