Have you got a favourite album that you didn’t like first time you heard it?
An album that you really, so badly, wanted to like before it even came out, that when you bought it and played it, you were secretly hoping the first track would just blow you away with sheer sonic genius, but it didn’t, so you went “meh” and threw the album into the shitpile for three months, only to pull it out one day and give it a listen while you were doing the dishes, at which point you had dropped your ridiculously high expectations for the album and came to like it for what it was?
That’s my experience with the third album by Queens of the Stone Age, Lullabies to Paralyze. And, coincidentally, Brütal Legend.
On paper Brütal Legend is like a supergroup, combining some of my favourite elements from different spheres thusly:
- Tim Schafer – Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, I never played Psychonauts but I heard it was awesome. Check.
- Jack Black —his work with Tenacious D nails the infectious spirit of music and this seemed a perfect fit. Check.
- Cameos by various hardened metal warriors – checkity goddamn check!
- A complete absence of Nolan North – check (sorry buddy, the backlash is beginning; your Nathan Fillion impersonation works in Drake’s Fortune but does it have to be in every damn game? I suppose I can give you some credit for mixing it up in Ratchet and Clank though. Anyways, we can probably talk about this later, I’m in the Cave of Assessment doing a review right now, cya.)
So the elements were there, but would the supergroup be Cream? Or merely Cactus? I initially thought Cactus, as discussed here, but now I have played through the whole game and I reverse that to a verdict of Cream, with a dollop of reasons below.
Brütal Legend is a tasty soup
You control Eddie Riggs, a roadie transported into a very metal open world of fire, blood and steel. Like many open-world games, the world a big soup containing different play ingredients. When Eddie’s on foot, he’s got an axe for melee attacks and a guitar for ranged attacks, and the game is a bit hack ‘n’ slash. Eddie can also do guitar solos for area effects and other purposes, and these are pulled off through a Guitar Hero-esque rhythm mini-game. One of these guitar solos summons Eddie’s car, introducing driving into the mix. The car can be upgraded with weapons, bringing in some driving combat, a highly underused feature in open world games. Eddie is generally trying to build an army to take on the gameworld’s antagonist-du-jour, but he has to start small. He can work with various other units he encounters in the game, introducing some squad-based hack n slash. Once the army is gathered, the big battles against Eddie’s antagonists are done through set-piece stage battles, wherein the much dreaded real-time strategy is thrown into the mix.
It’s an open world, so there’s side missions and a main mission. Once you unlock the car stereo, driving from A to B is a hoot because of the wicked soundtrack. There are collectibles to find which can lead to powerups for Eddie, more songs for your stereo, more guitar solos or just world-lore which sounds gay but is still pretty cool.
I wanna live where Brütal Legend is
Here I just need to pause to give big props to the look and feel of the gameworld, which is one of the coolest worlds I’ve gamed in. The world is peppered with heavy metal motifs and symbols. You will see landmarks and think “I’ve seen that on an album cover” or “that should be on an album cover”. As you unlock more parts of the world, the changes in landscape are a visual representation of the evolution of different genres of heavy metal. You start in a primal, late 60s-early 70s area with stuff like iron crosses and stone hands forming devil horns. Later you find your way into an 80’s stadium full of hair metal motifs and massive shag pile bear rugs… and further landscapes beyond.
The imagination of the artists is not just limited to the landscape but also manifests in the catalogue of beasties and other units you encounter. To give you but one example I will simply say this – panthers that shoot frikkin laser beams!!
The soundtrack is another star of the game. It feels like a huge mix tape made by that friend you had in high school who was always more fanatical about the music you were both into (unless you ARE that friend, in which case, you were right about Mastodon and I am backing away slowly now). There are over 100 songs to unlock and most bands don’t get more than two songs unless they are truly great, so it is quite an eclectic tracklist. As you would expect there are some big names present – Black Sabbath, Motorhead, Judas Priest, Slayer. However, the song list contains heaps more bands that you may not have heard of, or much of, e.g. Budgie, Manowar or Ratt. I also really liked the menu feature that divided the songs into various metal subgenres, which has prevented me from accidentally confusing my viking metal with my pirate metal at parties.
With so many awesome inclusions in the soundtrack, the omissions stick out like a groupie’s boobs. No Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden or Metallica? I presume that these bands were disappointingly greedy and wanted too much cash to allow their songs to be included… just my opinion.
The combination of soundtrack and landscape was crucial to my enjoyment of the game. It made me want to explore the world and kept me interested in the side missions. Let’s face it, open world games have a lot of repetitive commuting in them. Brütal Legend makes the commute bearable the same way commuters in real life do, by jacking up some cool tunes. Often I would arrive at a side mission location and wait until the song was finished before I jumped out to begin the mission.
Speaking of side missions, I found them to be a nice mix between on-foot and in-car challenges. Some side missions are mini-fights, where you can practice some squad based commands or just get your hack n slash on. Some are car races, some are of the “kill ten beasties” variety. There are some unique side missions, like “protect the headbanger while he chats up the razor girl” or “drive the beer to the party without spilling it” – I would have been happy with more of these, for variety’s sake.
The main missions were also nicely varied including hack ‘n’ slash, vehicle escort missions, and the dreaded real time strategy stage battles.
The RTS bits were actually good!
RTS is notoriously difficult on consoles, and Brütal Legend takes it a step further than usual by having you control the RTS via Eddie, rather than through the usual “God on a cloud” top-down view. This means Eddie has to be near other units to issue commands. In addition, Eddie can team up with any particular unit and do a “double team” attack that’s stronger than the unit’s regular attack, which is a great way to lead your army from the front and get your hands dirty. As a trade-off for being on the front line, it can get confusing at times keeping tabs on what your troops are up to and knowing what the enemy is doing. I was going to gripe more about this until I realised that I have experienced this kind of confusion in every RTS game I’ve ever played, from Dune 2 on the PC to Red Alert 3 on the PS3. It’s the stress created by the “RT” part of the equation.
Speaking of confusion, does anyone else have a problem with L3? I accidentally press it all the time in games, and when you do it during a stage battle in Brütal Legend, it makes you sprout wings and fly above the battlefield. Not good when I’m trying to rip out a facemelter!
All said, the RTS part of the game wasn’t nearly the nightmare I had feared and, dare I say it, was even enjoyable. You will quickly learn that although Eddie has some cool powers, he cannot win every war off his own axe. The difficulty of the stage battles ramps up sequentially (rather than exponentially), so that the battles are challenging, but not so much that they become too difficult and spoil the game. In some early fights you can get away with spamming grunts and rushing them to each location one by one, but by the end of the game you will need to know more advanced techniques such as how to divide your forces, rally a squad to defend one position while you take another squad somewhere else and so forth.
The story gets a little confusing after a while, mostly serving as a vehicle to establish some new enemies and unit types for the stage battles. Although the story falters, the characters Eddie encounters are high quality. Ozzy Osbourne plays the upgrade merchant and I ended up visiting him often just to hear his commentary on various items. Lemmy from Motörhead appears early on, and his laid back comments, provided even in the heat of battle, added more awesome sauce into the soup. There are other cameos, but it’s more fun to spot them for yourself. I do have one question: who was the bat?
Time to leave the Cave of Assessment – final thoughts and the numbers
Brütal Legend is a testament to the notion that a game’s personality can get you over other niggles. It has one of the most original gameworlds I’ve visited in a long while and a blend of gameplay nuggets that combine to form a tasty buffet that defies categorisation into neat back of the box genres. And hey, I finally finished a console game with RTS in it, ma!! All that said, if you actively don’t like heavy metal (as opposed to not knowing whether you like it because you haven’t heard much of it) you probably will not enjoy this game. And you suck.