It's a strange point of reference, but when sitting down to review Brütal Legend I found myself recalling two previous pieces I'd written. The first - my Metal Gear Solid 4 review, in which I lamented the fact that most newcomers to the series wouldn't get the continuous in-jokes. The second was Guitar Hero: Metallica - a game which only really appeals to one group of people, and just doesn't care about the rest
Brütal Legend makes both of these "mistakes". It's a game full of little in-jokes people who aren't familiar with the ins and outs of the heavy metal world wouldn't necessarily get - it features cameos from Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne, Motörhead's Lemmy, Judas Priest's Rob Halford and The Runaway's Lita Ford as voice actors in various roles. The imagery and artwork all heavily reference Heavy Metal themes - think motors, devil effigies, swords and celtic crosses adorning the countryside.
People who purchased the title expecting the Jack Black from Shallow Hal or School of Rock will be disappointed to see him play a role much closer to his Tenacious D roots (though anyone who purchased the game looking for a Shallow Hal experience deserves to be disappointed anyway). As Eddie Riggs, "the greatest Roadie ever", Black not only lends his voice to the role, but his likeness and personality as well. Part of me was afraid at first that 10 or so hours of listening to Jack Black being Jack Black was a torture method waiting to be discovered.
Fortunately the writing is good enough to avoid this - the story is amusing enough and instead of being himself, Black actually plays a role. Eddie is transported to the ancient world of metal when a stage piece crushes him to death - instead of being dead, he wakes up in a world where demons are common place and the nuns have bear traps for faces. He's quickly forced to fight for his life against priestly warrior guys, putting to use newfound special powers thanks to a magic guitar and an axe he found nearby.
From there the game plays like your typical Action RPG - one button for melee attacks, another for magic, another locks on targets and one more blocks. As you hack and slash your way through your foes, you meet new friends who will help you on your quest to free humanity from bondage (literal use of the word, judging from the apparel) and you can perform double team attacks with them.
The majority of the game plays out in an open world, pitting Eddie against waves of enemies from the flavour of the month villain. The Big Bad is Lord Doviculus, voiced by Tim Curry, but you'll find yourself pitted against other lesser Bads before you take him on. The game world is actually pretty involving - there's quite a few varied side quests available, and thankfully only a couple are a chore to do repeatedly. Sidequests and exploration also helps you earn the favour of the gods - which you can trade in to Ozzy Osbourne's Guardian of Metal for upgrades to your car, axe, guitar or for new special moves.
The car is a welcome feature in the game, and is directly related to my favourite part of the game. Eddie summons his vehicle by grabbing his guitar and ripping out a magic solo. Throughout the game there are quite a few of these solos to discover and use, though my favourite is easily the Facemelter, which does exactly what you'd think. When busting out a solo the game has you tap buttons ala Guitar Hero or Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
Before long the game transforms from Action RPG to Action RPG/Real Time Strategy hybrid. While in the open world Eddie continues to be a bad ass one man army, but when facing off against the various bosses Riggs and his army set up a stage to do epic battle. Here Eddie sprouts wings so he can command the battlefield from above while you and the other army battle to control "fan geysers" before eventually one stage is destroyed.
It's definitely RTS lite - resource management involves managing to gain resources, and the rock paper scissors method of unit matchup is in full effect. The challenge comes with the somewhat clunky controls - it can be difficult to direct your army while doing battle, especially when you need to select just the one type of unit (the stealthed Roadies are fantastic for destroying the other teams resource gatherers, but somewhat worthless if unstealthed units accompany them).
The graphics aren't anything to write home about, but they're not terrible either. There's a significant amount of pop-in at times, but the atmosphere created by the metal imagery makes up for it. First impressions aren't great for Eddie (especially coming off Uncharted 2), but as always it makes up for this in spades via the use of colour and the stylised, cartoony nature of the title.
Also helping is the Guitar Hero-esque soundtrack listing - 108 tracks from some 75 different bands have added their music to the game, and thanks to the range of metal chosen it allows the game to set moods rather well. You're able to change tracks with the push of a button as well, so you're not stuck listening to Cradle of Filth if you're not a fan.
My biggest gripe with Brütal Legend (apart from all those umlauts!) is the way the game ends. Without spoiling anything, the game takes you from boss to boss with exposition and unlocked areas in between, but the last boss fight occurs almost instantly after another one. With a release date announced way ahead of time I can't help but feel like they might have rushed the ending to meet the Rocktober 13 deadline.
I'm a casual metal fan, and I have a pretty decent knowledge of the tropes of the metal universe, so most of the humour and the overall theme of the game wasn't lost on me, but I'd hesitate to play the multiplayer if it's simply more of RTS lite gameplay. If you're big on your metal, Brütal Legend was made for you and you'll learn to deal with the quirks in the gameplay. Alternatively, if you hate metal there isn't much appeal for you here - you'll have to wait until Dave Chappelle stars in Tim Schafer's Original Gangsta* or something.