Game trailer: Brutal Legend
We've written before about Brutal Legend, the just-released video game starring big-screen funnyman Jack Black. Produced by Tim Schafer, who has several cult classics (from Grim Fandango to Psychonauts) under his belt, the game has built up a lot of positive industry buzz, but is also in danger of being overshadowed by a flood of fall 2009 blockbusters, from Uncharted 2 to The Beatles: Rock Band.
Does Brutal Legend--a wide-ranging action/adventure about a foul-mouthed heavy metal band roadie who gets smacked on the head and wakes up in a D&D-style fantasy land--have what it takes to rock gamers this holiday season?
Having seen and played a few segments of the game at different times over the past eight months, I was eager to have a chance to spend a weekend playing through a bigger chunk of the main campaign. Several hours in, Brutal Legend has done an overall excellent job of treading the very fine line between comedy and gameplay--but not without some serious stumbles along the way.
I'd be the first to say I'm not a Jack Black "fan," but this is clearly a role he was born to play. He's apparently into it as well, and shows up as himself for a clever live-action intro video. The game's writing is sharp, even if much of it is clearly constructed from contextual one-liners that Black's character, Eddie Rigg, spouts off in a semi-random fashion.
But we ended up having more fun listening to the dialog than playing the game itself. Brutal Legend doesn't seem to know if it wants to be a hack-and-slash action game, an open-world exploration RPG, or a squad strategy game--as Eddie picks up small armies of head-banging locals to order around with basic follow/stay/attack D-pad commands.
Perhaps trying to mash all these genres together caused a few of the rough, unfinished edges we saw. Cut scenes and in-game dialog crashed awkwardly into each other, cutting off characters mid-sentence. Transitions between dialog and action scenes were abrupt and sometimes disorienting.
But despite some muddled ideas, we kept going back for more, drawn in by the Frank Frazetta-style art (think '70s metal album covers) and inside baseball music biz jokes--and as someone who has spent some time in a self-parodying heavy metal band, that's high praise.
It's tough to name a game that has as much hype this. It's probably because of the talent involved in the game; Jack Black has sported a Brutal Legend T-shirt everywhere he's gone for the last year and voice work comes from rock legends like Lemmy Kilmister (Motorhead) and Ozzy Osbourne.
Brutal Legend is unique, in that you'll experience a variety of gameplay genres mashed up together inside. The game incorporates open-world driving, action/adventure, real-time strategy, and elements of role-playing.
If there's one thing the game does right, it's establishing the metal atmosphere. The art direction is spot on, and most of the characters and enemies are wildly imagined creatures of rock that only the mind of Tim Schafer can supply. Also, the game is legitimately funny. Very few titles are able to deliver comedy without coming across as forced, but Brutal Legend is able to make it work.
Unfortunately, though, most of the enjoyment we got out of the game ends after the cut scenes and jokes. Gameplay is sometimes clunky and confusing, with no real semblance of organization--did we mention there is no jump button? While the main quest is presented in a mission-by-mission campaign, the side missions are repetitive and mostly lacking. Sure, you'll want to complete a few to gain Fire Tributes (the game's currency), but they aren't essential to the main story.
Metal fans won't want to skip Brutal Legend as the game's atmosphere and soundtrack are fantastic. While it's definitely not Schafer's best, it does retain the charisma and charm we've come to expect from a Double Fine-developed title.
Should a game be credited for being original? In my opinion, hell yes. So many games are franchise sequels or licensed properties--to see a game that is neither is refreshing. To see a game from a classic designer such as Tim Schafer, who's as much a gaming auteur as anyone, is doubly nice. But such credit can only go so far. Ideally, such an original game would also be great, and while it's true that Brutal Legend is absolutely above average, it does have some flaws.
As an adventure game with a good sense of humor, Brutal Legend mostly succeeds. The dreamscape, heavy metal-infused universe is expertly executed, but it's not the sort of world everyone is dying to visit. I'm not really a heavy metal fan at all, but I enjoyed the level of detail and passion Brutal Legend brought to its imagination.
The game as a whole also feels a little choppy--characters you were on a mission with moments ago suddenly disappear before starting a new quest, and there's no jump button (not that you really need it, but it feels odd). Some of the side quests and challenges, including the squad-controlling elements, feel a little clunky to control, and the onscreen help can sometimes disappear completely, leaving you oddly stranded. On the other hand, the game's a blast to watch and have others watch. In that sense, it joins Ghostbusters as perhaps one of the year's most entertaining games to observe.
There are plenty of side missions to unlock in the game's sprawling overworld map, which should keep you occupied after the main story's done. Overall, is it a keeper? Yes, as long as you're a serious fan of hard rock and leather spikes. It's not solid gold, but it's a collector's item.