System: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 :: Rating: Mature :: Players: 1
Genre: Action / RTS :: Released: 13 October 2009
By Aaron Robinson
24 December 2009 — It's not often that I'll actively follow the development of a game leading up to its release, but Brütal Legend was a little different. For one, the concept sounded crazy: a heavy metal-themed, open-world adventure game with real-time strategy battles as the big set pieces. It sounded like nothing I'd ever played before, and that made me curious. It certainly helped to hear that it was being developed by Double Fine, whose previous game, Psychonauts, I very much enjoyed. The only thing that I really questioned was the involvement of Jack Black, who voiced the main character Eddie Riggs and provided the basis for his design. It's not like I actively dislike Black, it's just that he tends to play a very specific character type: the loud, overconfident, and bumbling hero who is incapable of doing anything right until the final act. And it's a character I've been tired of for a while.
Luckily, it didn't take long for Brütal Legend to quell any worries I had for the character. The Jack Black here feels like he's been seriously subdued, and he's better for it. Sure, Eddie shares Black's affinity for heavy metal, but he's not overconfident, bumbling, or even particularly loud. In fact, some of the best lines are muttered under the character's breath or in passing. A lot of that can be placed on Tim Schafer, Double Fine's founder and lead designer. One thing all his games have shared, regardless of genre, is excellent writing, and Brütal Legend doesn't disappoint. But Black is equally deserving of praise. He voices Eddie with a much lower and raspier voice than usual, and his timing is almost always perfect. This might be the most entertaining I've found him in years.
Of course, Jack Black isn't the only voice actor here. Brütal Legend also has the vocal talents of several notable rock and metal icons. There's Ozzy Osbourne, Lita Ford, Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford, and Motörhead's Lemmy Kilmister. Since none of these singers are professional voice actors, the quality varies quite a bit. Ozzy sounds like he's having fun with his lines, and brings a lot of energy to his role. Halford pulls double duty by voicing two major characters, and he works well as both. Lemmy, on the other hand, almost sounds like he's half asleep, and Lita's performance is pretty forgettable. Aside from the musicians, you also have cameos from Kyle Gass and Brian Posehn. But the showstopper has to be Tim Curry, who voices Doviculus, the main villain, with his particular brand of sophisticated bravado.
For a game that has a fairly large, open world, it's amazing how much stuff they've packed into it. You can't drive more than five minutes without stumbling across an awe-inspiring monument that serves no real purpose beyond being something fantastic to look at. The world itself is inspired by heavy metal album covers, so if you're a fan you'll probably recognize all of the references. Even though the game doesn't have a fast travel option, the Druid Plow (Eddie's vehicle of choice) is fun enough to control that it's rarely an issue. The world itself is obviously designed around using the Druid Plow to travel, with ramps and winding roads all over the place. The lack of a quicksave feature is a bit annoying, though. There are areas where a wrong turn can lead to your death, and having to restart back at the last place the game autosaved can be tiresome.
When you're not driving, you control Eddie from a third-person perspective. Without any kind of jump button, it's pretty clear Eddie has been designed to be used primarily for roaming dungeons and taking part in battles — rather than exploring the world. The moment you start the game you're given two weapons: an axe for melee damage, and an electric guitar that shoots bolts of lighting from above. You'll keep these two weapons throughout the game, but you'll be able to modify both at a store run by Ozzy. Eddie himself controls okay, although certain actions (particularly dodging) feel a little too fiddly to use. Not that you'll be using him by himself much, since the game starts pushing the RTS segments early on, ensuring that you'll spend most of your time either surrounded by troops or in your vehicle. Nonetheless, the few areas where you have to control Eddie by himself are fun, if not short and a little shallow.
Where Brütal Legend really separates itself from the norm is in the aforementioned RTS segments. It's by far the most fleshed out part of the game, which is why almost every major battle is built around using said elements. Even the multiplayer portion consists entirely of RTS battles. For most, the term RTS will probably bring up thoughts of StarCraft or Command & Conquer, where you build and micromanage a small army from a bird's-eye view, using the resources available to you to eventually take out the enemy army. Brütal Legend has all of these things, but there are a few notable differences put in place to streamline the RTS sections and make them suitable for console gaming.
The first thing you'll probably notice is that you don't control battles from a bird's-eye view. Instead you continue to control Eddie the same way you do for the rest of the game, albeit with a few extra options thrown in for summoning and commanding the troops under your command. It's an interesting way of handling things, as it forces you to decide when you're going to participate in battles, and when you're going to micromanage things elsewhere. Sadly, I never really felt like I got the hang of the different elements. Even with all the streamlining, there's a lot to keep track of. The main game slowly introduces you to new elements and concepts right up until the end, but I had a hard time keeping up. That's not to say I didn't have fun, but by the time the game was ending, I'd only just started to feel like I was understanding how everything worked.
Many of my problems with Brütal Legend can be attributed to the way it gives out information. Take the bound dragons that can be found throughout the world; for every 10 dragons you free using the pyro attack, you gain a health bonus, but neither the game nor the manual explains how to do this. Instead you have to look at Eddie's journal, which is an in-game manual that tracks all the information you find on the world. It's a strange piece of info to hide, especially when you consider that Eddie remarks about freeing the dragons whenever you get near them. It's a shame he doesn't just hint at using fire, or at least refer to checking the journal. And whilst the journal is filled with clever details, even it doesn't tell you everything. The RTS battles, especially, feel like they should give you more information, since there's no easy way of seeing how different unit types handle.
As quick as I am to praise the writing in Brütal Legend, I can't deny that the story feels rushed. The first hour of the game moves at a really fast pace and is packed with hilarious dialog. It manages to keep things entertaining while introducing you to the basics of the gameplay. As soon as the world opens up, things slow down, and the game starts explaining the backstory. I was perfectly fine with both approaches, as it felt like there was a considerable amount of story to tell, and the game never felt like it had lost its sense of humor. But a strange transition happens when you vanquish your first major enemy; suddenly time jolts forward, and pivotal plot points start being revealed without enough build-up or time to sink in. This ultimately made the last half of the game feel hurried, making the incredibly ambitious story fall flat. You can tell early on that Brütal Legend wants to be an epic tale, but somewhere along the line things had to change. It's even reflected on the world itself, which becomes constrained as the game progresses.
One thing I have to mention is the soundtrack. There will be no prizes for guessing that it's nothing but licensed rock and metal, but the selection of tracks is astounding. You have everything from KISS to Mötley Crüe, to more recent metal acts like DragonForce and Mastodon. There are a few noticeable absences, which is understandable (I can only imagine the licensing costs for bands like Metallica in this day and age) and there are a few tracks here and there that I'm not fond of (more because of personal tastes than anything), but minor quibbles aside, this is one of the best soundtracks I've heard in ages.
As much as I enjoyed Brütal Legend, I can't deny that it's an impeccably flawed game. Even with the involvement of Jack Black and a host of well-known musicians and actors, it feels like it's been designed for a really niche audience. It mixes several different gameplay styles into a world that's unlike anything I've seen before, which makes it hard to recommend to someone who isn't at least partially interested in each aspect. For me, Brütal Legend scratched an itch I never really knew I had. For most, though, I'd imagine it would just be irritating.
Final Grade: 7/10