Brutal Legend Review
Developer: Electronic Arts
Platforms: Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3
Reviewed on PlayStation 3
Eddie Riggs is the ultimate roadie. On a night like any other, when Riggs was saving a show while remaining in the shadows and behind the scenes, an injury caused his blood to trickle into his belt buckle. But Riggs is no ordinary roadie. He's the best roadie who ever lived. His belt buckle, too, is no ordinary buckle. Fueled by blood, it transports Riggs to an ancient age when man is oppressed by demons, heavy metal is the source of all power and a revolution is about to begin...
Games are supposed to be about play, so it might seem strange to read that I loved absolutely everything about Brutal Legend except for the play itself. Think of it this way: You might hate brussels sprouts, but if aliens arrived on our world, bringing peace and prosperity to all, and it happened while you were eating brussels sprouts, you might develop something of a fondness for them. And the play in Brutal Legend is more like carrots, or perhaps slightly rubbery chicken. So while the play in Brutal Legend spreads itself too thin, never quite fleshing out the real-time strategy battles, racing, melee combat or any of its other myriad elements, still the world is so rich, the concept so clever, and everything delivered with such enthusiasm and diabolical humor that I kept playing, rushing to finish the simple battles to learn more about the world, explore the heavy metal landscape and learn what next gift the Guardian of Metal might bestow unto me.
Brutal Legend's brilliance lies in the self-consistent reality that it constructs from the lyrics of metal songs and shapes from the art of classic heavy metal album covers. Everything is just right. In fact, the game world is a startling work of genius, from its creation myths to the various factions roaming the land to the spectacular landscape and music. There are swords, skulls and crosses sticking out of the ground everywhere, with classic car parts growing like trees and ground shrubs made of cymbals. Each portion of the land is, itself, a tribute to a subset of metal, from heavy to hair. When the ancient Titans left their lore for future generations, they didn't chisel their wisdom onto tablets, they forged glowing tablatures.
The game is such a genius celebration of the culture of heavy metal (with a pleasantly ironic twist), that the game even converted me. I was never a particular fan of metal, but like the music of Tenacious D (Jack Black provides the voice of protagonist Eddie Riggs, and that's his band), Brutal Legend both worships and lampoons heavy metal culture in exactly the right balance. Even the choice of a roadie as the main character is ideal. In the same way that the player saves the world from behind the scenes, doing all the work with the controller but receiving none of the plaudits, Eddie Riggs is saving the world, one tour stop at a time. And while Riggs does all the heavy lifting... or axe swinging... or axe playing... the credit always goes to the star of the show.
As much as I'd recommend the story and humor to nearly everyone, Brutal Legend has a little extra punch for those with some knowledge of heavy metal, or at least those who are old enough to know that Ozzy Osbourne was in Black Sabbath before he starred in a reality TV series. After being transported into the distant past (the Age of Metal), Eddie first frees the headbangers from servitude, moving on to defeat the Hair Metal oppressors, face off against the Goths and ultimately defeat the demonic purveyors of metal (with a stop along the way in the jungle where Kiss Army-lookalikes dwell).
The biggest problem with Brutal Legend, as I mentioned, is the actual play. The game adheres to the basic open-world formula of play. As Eddie Riggs, you can run or drive around the world, picking up story missions that further the plot and unlock more of the world, pursue plenty of side missions, or search for the world's myriad collectibles. Combat is basic, and more of a button-mashing affair than something that requires real effort. There are a variety of simple mini-game missions, such as racing a demon, manning a turret or guiding a mortar to its targets. None of these are particularly difficult, polished or fun. But they do earn the tribute from the gods of metal needed to unlock even cooler stuff for the game.
The game's core mission style involves stage battles – a real-time strategy take on the classic battle-of-the-bands formula. Each faction mans a stage that serves as a base, builds merchandise booths over "fan geysers" that serve as resources (fans apparently emerge in a primal way from the earth and gravitate toward metal music) and builds units to send at other bands' stages. It actually works a lot like a classic PC game, Sacrifice. As Eddie Riggs (or another faction leader in multiplayer), the players actually run around the battlefield, participating in combat, playing guitar solos to invoke special effects, and issuing orders to various units. It's actually a good idea, but a singular lack of polish made these battles a chore, rather than fun. It's difficult to manage troops as a large cluster, and even harder to give commands to individual units. The clunky interface and lack of control made me simply wish these battles were over as soon as they began.
My absolute favorite portion of Brutal Legend was the exploration. It was a pleasure to drive around the game's world, discovering backstory in the form of ancient lore and landmarks. The art, from the wall of amps bellowing noise into the sea to the wild chandeliers and flying buttresses of the Goth areas made it worth just cruising around the world in Eddie Riggs' vehicle, the Druid Plow. It's also glorious how the landscape and sky change with the plot, even if some of the late stages of the game make the world so dark I either had to play regular guitar solos (to bring the dawn) or just tweak the brightness. In fact, I spent so long exploring the world that when I finally came back to play the final stage battle, I was just annoyed that I had to finish the stage battle to see the end of the game.
Ultimately, the only thing that Brutal Legend needed to fix to be a nigh-perfect game was the play. I'm still staggered that I could enjoy it so much despite that obvious flaw. Brutal Legend either needed to tightly constrain play and abandon the open-world formula, allowing the story, art and music to shine through, or to heavily polish all of the disparate play elements to make them seriously entertaining rather than a repetitive placeholder between wit, plot, scenery and sound.