Developer: Double Fine Productions
Released: 16th October 2009
Other Formats: Xbox 360
Bioshock's final boss fight, Mass Effect 2's mining, Far Cry 2's re-spawning enemies. What do they have in common? They are all great games let down by tiny aspects of design that hinder the overall experience. But where a boss fight at the end of a truly atmospheric, hugely accomplished title can be seen as a little misstep on what is considered one of the greatest games of the generation, it is a little harder to forgive Brutal Legend's use of its real-time strategy hybrid 'Stage Battles', time and time again. In fact, it acts as a significant portion of the game. But more on this later...
From Tim Schafer, of Grim Fandango and Monkey Island fame, Brutal Legend is first and foremost, an action-adventure game with an infusion of RTS-style mechanics. Schafer's hand lends itself to the writing, creative direction and design of the game, which uses its heavy metal inspiration to deliver a story of roadie Eddie Riggs, voiced by Jack Black, who has been sent to an unnamed fantasy world of rock to overthrow the evil forces at work.
The world, first and foremost, is fantastically crafted. Taking its inspiration from heavy metal, this is a world where awesome solos are used as literal face-melting attacks and guitar's are used as overpowered weaponry. The open-world is filled with landmarks such as 'Devil Thorns', locations such as the 'Dry Ice Mines' and 'Bladehenge' and populated by fantastical beasts of rock. It's refreshing to see a game's design so involved in a singular vision, the heavy metal inspiration is everywhere, from the character models to the superbly integrated soundtrack and the art style of bone, stone and metal. It even lends itself to the combat, a mix of axe and guitar combos and special moves. Solos, a necessity to perform such actions as summoning your customisable hot rod or perform special attacks, can be activated with a click of the right trigger and the completion of a short rhythm-action inspired guitar riff.
The plot unfolds through a series of linear levels that are activated within the main open-world. The story is well written and well presented, delivering a unique assortment of characters, a unique sense of humour and, thanks to the profanity selection, gives plenty of blood, gore and strong language. In addition to Jack Black's over-exuberant tones, Tim Curry, Kyle Gass and Ozzy Osbourne also lend a hand to voice duties. The latter's appearance is also used as the 'Guardian of Metal'- a provider of all upgrades within the game which keeps things feeling fresh and powerful throughout. Mission types are positively varied and well sustained whilst secondary objectives are somewhat more restricted. I'd be tempted to avoid these altogether were it not for the award of 'fire tributes' which are the currency lent to upgradeable items and combos.
Moving on to the aforementioned RTS-hybrid 'stage battles', which act as stop-gaps between important events within the narrative. A sort of replacement of the boss battle, as it were. The concept is to attack the enemies' stage whilst protecting your own, all with the help of several unit types. The three basic; 'head bangers', 'razor girls' and 'thunder hogs', accompanied with more specialised squads such as the 'roadies' which are used to destroy towers. Afforded the luxury of flying during these sections, tactics amount to little more than taking over 'fan geysers' which essentially provide you with fans/resources to build unit types and upgrade items, and then marching your troops to the enemies stage in a full blown attack. To tell you the 'stage battles' don't quite work would be an understatement. Frankly, their existence within the game breaks any pace that the story had going and delivers frustration and difficulty in ordering squads in equal measure. Not to say it doesn't get easier to get to grips with, because it does, but it would have been nice to have seen a more whole-hearted RTS design or just remove it altogether. Having to mix combat with RTS management is difficult and unappealing. The whole design choice that means commands are only applicable to those within an immediate vicinity or “voice distance” away from Eddie means that tactics, even if you have any, are frustratingly difficult to fulfil since units on the other side of the map need to be flown to, meaning your strategy is probably already dead on its feet before you give the proper orders! The use of stronger 'double-team' moves with any of the squad types is helpful in delivering stronger attacks, however, the 'stage battle' experience, ultimately, is a strange design choice, and means the game suffers because of it.
It's hard not to be ultimately disappointed by Brutal Legend. From a team of this calibre, it's clear for all to see the effort and singularity in vision that is afforded to the game. This, in a market full of FPS-clones and casual titles, is great to see. But then, were it not for the strange mix of real-time strategy into the core of the game, it might be easier to rate amongst the very best this generation has to offer. As it is, the game is easy to recommend, especially for heavy metal fans, just don't go expecting the game that it could have been.