Playing Brutal Legend is like living in the world of the bombastic doodling in the margins of a heavy metal-obsessed teenager’s high school notebook. Which is not entirely a bad thing.
To understand the story and mythology behind Brutal Legend, imagine if the world sung about and depicted on the album covers of every heavy metal band in existence were real. Imagine if there really was a place where Norse mythology blended seamlessly with the counter-culture of hot rods and motor bikes, and leather-clad warriors clashed in glorious battle to the screaming siren song of multi-part falsetto harmonies and orgiastic explosions of squealy guitars. That world, in a nut shell, is Brutal Legend.
You play as Eddie Riggs, underappreciated roadie for a lackluster band until fate conspires to propel him into another world, where he meets Lita and Lars Halford, the erstwhile leaders of a rebellion against the forces of General Lionwhyte. Lionwhyte’s army of pink spandex-clad hair bangers has ravaged the land, depriving mankind of the glorious music of the Titans, aka “Heavy Metal,” and, until Eddie arrives, all hope seems lost.
Tapping his vast stores of practical roadie knowledge, Eddie teaches the Halfords how to wield the mysterious remnants of the great beast Ormagoden, using his metal bones to forge weapons and build mighty chariots, and uses his guitar and mighty axe to wage glorious battle. He then starts a band called “Ironheade” and leads them on a quest to reclaim the land in the name of metal.
Seriously, that’s the game. It stars infamous music fan and funny guy Jack Black as Eddie, and a spattering of real-life metal musicians in supporting roles. Ozzy Osbourne even makes an appearance as “The Guardian of Metal” who tends the “Motor Forge” where Eddie can purchase upgrades to his weapons and improve his vehicle, known as “Druid Chariot” or “The Deuce.”
The Deuce is worth mentioning here, as you will most likely spend more than half your playing time behind its wheel, tooling around, seeing the sights, listening to unlockable heavy metal songs, collecting various collectibles and completing missions. The Deuce is probably one of the most entertaining videogame vehicles ever devised. The driving physics aren’t particularly realistic (you can move forward while all four wheels are out of contact with the ground, for example), but with its flame-spurting exhaust pipes, front-mounted machine guns, nitrous boosters and customizable paint jobs, it’s more-or-less the platonic ideal of heavy metal roadsters.
You don’t have to love heavy metal music to enjoy Brutal Legend, but it does help. The soundtrack is peppered with metal classics from Motorhead, Judas Priest and Black Sabbath (among many, many other bands), so even if you’re not currently a metalhead, the game will get you up to speed pretty quickly. Still, it’s all metal all the time. If falsetto harmonies and shrieking guitars aren’t your thing, you might want to turn the music slider all the way down. At which point, I will mock you mercilessly for being a wussy, but this is your own iron cross to bear, not mine.
What the game lacks in musical variety, it more than makes up for in gameplay. You can spend as much time as you like exploring the sandbox, unlocking collectibles like “bound serpents” and so forth, but you can also engage in combat pretty much any time you wish. And there are plenty of options there, too, all of which are satisfying and fun.
Your basic melee attack is with the axe, which you can use to cleave your enemies in twain. Your guitar is used to call down the lighting of the gods, set enemies on fire and perform various other awesome acts of metal mayhem, including buffing your allies with a battle cry power solo and summoning wild beasts to do your bidding.
But what would a game about heavy metal be without the ability to lead gigantic armies into battle while hovering high above the fray on leathery bat wings? Not Brutal Legend, that’s for sure. In an odd twist, Brutal Legend includes a sort of “real-time strategy lite” mode, which also forms the core of the multiplayer. At various stages in the game – and I do mean “stages” – you will be tasked with defending your base against various armies of evil beings out to rid the world of metal. To wage battle on an epic scale, you’ll play a special guitar solo to enlist “fans” then erect a “merchandise booth” to harness their energy to create individual units. It’s challenging, but silly and fun and as far as boss battles go, it’s a nice reprieve from the “find the weak spot” grind of similar games.
There’s a lot to chew on in Brutal Legend, and for the most part it’s a well-assembled, if eclectic mix of gameplay styles. But the game’s true strength is the fantastic and funny writing of Tim Schafer. At first glance, the story of Brutal Legend seems as silly as the set-up, and the emotional tugs feel trite and dismissable, but after a few hours the heart of the story shines through and you realize there’s more to this heavy metal saga than meets the eye.
Remember that metal-obsessed teenager? Playing Brutal Legend will remind you of his hopes and dreams, and the fact that heavy metal music was a convenient – if brutal – outlet for his creative spirit; the armor over his soft, mushy feelings. The game may be hard to take seriously at first, but don’t let its outrageous exterior fool you. The deeper it goes, the more meaningful it gets. As Jack Black says in the game’s live-action intro, this game will not only blow your mind, but also your soul.
Bottom Line: Brutal Legend is a fun romp through the outrageous culture of heavy metal, and its variety of gameplay styles and accessible characters and art make it fun for just about anyone. Plus, if you’ve never yet been exposed to the creepy/funny/touching work of Tim Schafer, this game is as good a place as any to start.
Recommendation: Buy this game. Go to the game store right now and buy it. Then kick over the cash register and smash your plastic guitar in the name of metal.
Russ Pitts still thinks “Breadfan” is one of the best metal songs ever.