Brutal Legend ReviewBy Jake Gaskill - Posted Oct 13, 2009
Brütal Legend, developer Double Fine's heavy-metal opus, transports players into its mytho-rock-ical universe with screaming, fiery abandon. Seriously, if you ever wanted to know what it would be like to live inside heavy-metal album covers, creative director/designer Tim Schafer's vision is as close as you'll ever get. It's got its issues, but overall, Brütal Legend is a hell of a lot of fun.
- Brilliantly realized heavy-metal world
- Stylish and varied combat
- Great performances
- Story raises more questions than it answers
- Multiplayer isn't terribly deep
- Occasionally clunky controls
Brutal Legend, developer Double Fine’s heavy-metal opus, transports players into its mytho-rock-ical universe with screaming, fiery abandon. Seriously, if you ever wanted to know what it would be like to live inside heavy-metal album covers, creative director/designer Tim Schafer’s vision is as close as you’ll ever get. And even though metal fans will obviously glean added satisfaction from the game’s design, settings and references, the world itself is designed with such care and devotion that non-metal heads should find plenty to unleash a tasty riff about should they embark on this brutal and fantastic legend. It’s got its issues, but overall, Brütal Legend is a hell of a lot of fun.
In the Beginning, There Was Metal
Brutal Legend tells the story of the world’s greatest roadie, Eddie Riggs, who, after being fatally injured while working for a major poser band in modern times, gets transported to a mystical land where heavy-metal isn’t just a genre of music, but rather it is the foundation for all of existence. The mythology behind the game’s universe is one of its strongest elements, and as you travel around the game world, you’ll come across Artifacts of Legend, which tell the story of how the world came into existence, and provide a fair amount of context for the “modern day” events in which Eddie finds himself intimately connected.
Now, as you’d expect from a Tim Schafer game, story and character play a huge role in Brutal Legend. The dialogue has just the right mix of quirkiness, grandiosity and wit, and the performances are top notch all across the board. Jack Black infuses Eddie Riggs with the same kind of fierce devotion to rock seen in his other projects like Tenacious D and School of Rock, and Tim Curry delivers a truly haunting performance as the arch-villain Doviculus. Yet for as interesting and stylized as the story is, there are several points where things aren’t really explained that well, which ends up leaving you a bit confused as to just what’s going on. It’s certainly an engaging tale, but there are a lot of unanswered questions by the end of it, which ends up hurting even more given Double Fine’s narrative pedigree.
It’s a Metal, Metal, Metal, Metal World
The world of Brutal Legend is stunning. Each area has its own theme, complete with weather effects and animal types, and they all transition into each other seamlessly. The draw distances are particularly impressive, especially as you’re driving around Bladehenge, Ironheade’s territory, as its lush green fields are surrounded by towering mountains, volcanoes and vicious thunder storms. There are also jungles, deserts, snow-covered mountain passes, ghostly swamplands and more, all of which add up to one of the most visually impressive and straight up gorgeous game worlds seen in some time.
And then there’s the soundtrack. Holy Ormagoden. Listening to the game’s 108 licensed tracks is like taking a class in heavy metal appreciation. (See JP Shub’s breakdown of the artists that make an appearance in the game for even more metal knowledge.) Throw in some fantastic original pieces by revered game composer Peter McConnell, and you’ve got one of the best soundtracks of the year. Hands down.
Single-player gameplay consists of exploration, stage battles and freeform combat. Although you can ride almost every animal in the game, you’ll be spending most of your free-roaming time in your car. The driving controls are super simple, and there are a number of upgrades (primary and secondary weapons, armor, performance and paint jobs) to unlock, so by the end of the game, your ride will have gone from a simple hot rod to a steel and fire infused death chariot. There are times though when the car feels a bit too much like a matchbox car and the camera doesn’t always do you any favors. Fortunately, it’s not a deal-breaker.
There are also a number of secondary missions, like ambushing enemy forces or designating cannonball targets with your car. However, there aren’t really that many of them, and they all play out pretty much exactly the same every time. You can compete in a series of races as well, but these are never close, and the only way you can lose is if you really try to. The most beneficial secondary challenge consists of killing a certain number of the game’s various animal types. The best part about this challenge is that you can eventually summon the creature in battle using a guitar solo (more on that later) designed to lure them. Summons can often be crucial to success in battle, and the perk doesn’t require any resources, which is a big plus.
Combat is as deep as you want to make it. Eddie’s axe and guitar provide quick and satisfying kills, and you can upgrade them both in various ways. They can also be used in conjunction to pull off killer combos. The ground stomp and fire bolt attacks are also used to unlock Artifacts of Legend and stone serpent statues scattered around the world -- something I didn’t realize until well into the game. You’re welcome.
One of Brutal Legend’s unique features is the guitar solo, which seems inspired as much by Ocarina of Time as Guitar Hero. By hitting a side-scrolling note highway, Eddie can summon a variety of features, such as his car, troops, animals to fight for his army, and, of course, melting the faces of nearby enemies. One of the most important solos is the Relic Raiser, which you use to restore Metal Forges (where you purchase upgrades from the Guardian of Metal, aka Ozzy Osbourne) and unearth buried metal statues. The soloing mini-game works just fine, but having to use it every single time you want your car can get a bit old after a while.
At various points in the game, you’ll participate in massive stage battles against the differing factions in the world -- think of these moments as the basis for the multiplayer mode. Battles basically come down to building merchandise booths on fan geysers to accumulate enough fans to build up your army and then marching on your opponents stage. Whoever’s stage falls first loses.
In the single-player game, you control Eddie’s army, Ironheade, which consists of head-banging grunts, ranged rifle babes, giant-fisted brawlers, a giant tank-like rock crusher and more. You’re allowed 40 units at a time, and many units can be beefed up once you’ve upgraded your stage. The battles are particularly satisfying thanks to the variety of combat. You can fight alongside your troops, hacking enemies to bits and pulling off killer guitar solos, direct your troops -- during these battles, Eddie can sprout wings, which basically serves to mimic a top-down RTS camera -- or use the special Double Team attack, which ranges from fire-breathing metal beats to deadly mosh pits. Every unit in the three factions in the game (Ironheade, Drowning Doom and the Tainted Coil) has a Double Team feature, which adds tremendous amounts of variety and depth to the combat.
Tonight We Dine in Heavy Metal
Multiplayer plays out exactly like it does in single-player, except you can play as the two evil factions in addition to Ironheade. Each faction has its strengths and weaknesses, but based on my time with the game, Tainted Coil (the faction that seems designed for RTS vets) appears to have some very definite advantages over the other two, primarily due its ability to summon troops anywhere on the battlefield. For all three factions, troops come out of the player’s stage, but once the Tainted Coil’s battle nun or warfather leave the stage, they act like mobile stages, and it’s the only way to summon additional troops. Skilled players can win with every faction, and they are all equally fun to play with, but I have a feeling that a lot of players are going to abuse Tainted Coil much to the frustration of everyone else.
Stylistically, all of the armies have fantastic character design, and they all look kick ass marching into battle, especially the Tim Burton-esque Drowning Doom. Gameplay wise, multiplayer is a bit hard to pin down. It’s certainly simple enough for non-RTS players to pick up and play, but because there is only one game type and six maps, it’s a little lacking in depth. Granted, watching massive heavy metal armies colliding on the field of battle is a deeply satisfying and enjoyable experience, but without any big online updates, it won’t have enough legs to keep players coming back. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the multiplayer a novelty, but because it’s so straightforward and thin on game types, it leans in that direction a bit more than I was expecting. Also, I encountered some noticeable lag on both versions of the game, although it didn’t render the game unplayable. For a game that’s allegedly so multiplayer-driven, these kinds of issues are bit surprising.
Schafer Strikes Again
It’s got some bumpy moments, but overall, Brutal Legend is an absolute blast. Between the excellent voice talent, the heavy metal-driven universe and mythology that Tim Schafer and Co. have crafted, and the totality of the game’s vision make this a truly unique and worth addition to the Double Fine canon. That said, there are some plot stumbles, and control issues, and the multiplayer could be much deeper. However, for those willing to embrace the game’s tone and style, you’re in for one hell of a ride.