Brütal Legend (Xbox 360)
I may be in the minority, but Rock Band has never inspired me to pick up a real guitar. In fact, the nutzo note charts for some of the game's most difficult songs discouraged me from ever wanting to try playing music again. If I have to practice all day to play a fake rendition of Megadeth's "The Conjuring" on Expert difficulty, then how the hell am I ever going to convince a Strat and an amp to make those sounds?
Last night, while playing Brütal Legend, I got the urge to pick up an axe and play for the first time in ages. I was tooling around in a hot rod as Eddie Riggs. "Am I Evil" by Diamond Head blared out of his ride's car stereo. Even though my digits were wrapped around an Xbox 360 controller, my fingers could remember what it felt like to hammer the notes in the song's opening solo. For a moment I was transported back to my teenage years, where I'd spent more than a few afternoons sweating Metallica's album "Kill 'Em All." The band's cover of "Am I Evil" was one of my favorites.
Brütal Legend taps into a very specific nostalgia for heavy music of the '70s and '80s. It's a powerful alchemy that put a wide grin on my face more than a couple times.
Jack Black plays Eddie Riggs, a roadie who is transported to an alternate world where the heavy-metal faithful have been enslaved, driven into the fringes by the powers of evil and by human sellouts who want to leverage the spirit of metal for profit and survival. It's the story of a very particular time in the history of heavy metal: when the pop glam of Poison and Warrant overcame and, some would say, defeated true metal. Riggs allies himself with a ragtag gang of rockers -- an army that needs the guidance, organization and soundchecking skills of a man like Riggs to bring metal back to its former glory.
Sure, it's not all that daring to make a game about monsters and axe-fights. But by injecting it with the DNA of heavy metal, Brütal Legend subverts classical fantasy to an insane degree. With imagery culled straight from album covers -- the gleaming chrome and sickly blue neon of vintage Judas Priest, the towering pagan grandeur of Led Zeppelin and the oil-stained denim grime of Motörhead are chopped, screwed and channeled into Brütal Legend expertly.
This desire to revisit the past glory of metal is intensely personal to Tim Schafer. But he and Double Fine spin this passion into a wildly imaginative and genuine expression that doesn't require a history with heavy metal. You don't need a closet full of faded T-shirts or the muscle memory of old guitar solos to appreciate Brütal Legend. The game's appeal is upfront and unassuming, just like a concert. You buy a ticket. You feel the noise. You get rocked.
This is due in part to the keen, clever writing and expressive, subtle animation that bring characters like Eddie Riggs to life. As Riggs gathers his allies, we come to know a handful of characters -- the proud but ditzy Lars, his wary and loyal sister Lita, the mysterious and alluring Ophelia. More fun, though, are the characters on the periphery. Rob Halford's falsetto hair-metaller General Lionwhyte is a hoot. And Alex Fernandez as the burnt-out Mangus is particularly likable. Best, though, is Ozzy Osbourne, who in his brief moments as a profane guardian of the secrets of metal undoes all the doddering and foolishness of his years as an MTV reality-show spectacle.
Much of the game is spent exploring the world in Riggs' hot rod, powering over jumps and plowing through enemies. The landscape has a World of Warcraft feel, dramatic and over-the-top. No one geographical idea lingers too long -- arid ZZ Top desert rapidly gives way to dales punctuated by ancient Norse boathouses.
Brütal Legend is a lot like Double Fine's last outing, Psychonauts. It plays like a m?lange of other games, skittering from genre to genre with ADHD focus. There's hack-and-slash fighting, racing, open-world exploration, shooting galleries, rhythm action and, most surprisingly, deep and involved real-time strategy. And as you'd expect of a Jack-of-all-trades, none of these are truly spectacular. But they're the right kind of play for the particular moments where they appear, and no one type of play overstays its welcome. Many sections are optional, and the mandatory races, real-time battles and boss fights feel well spaced.
What matters is where Brütal Legend takes you and how it gets you there. We can fight about this later, but this is one of those moments in gaming where story counts. It's everything. The characters are all written with Schafer's wry wit. The overarching plot is one of redemption, and Riggs himself wrestles with issues of trust and love. The betrayals and revelations here are heartfelt and real.
Riggs' biggest challenge isn't to defeat the minions of evil, but to come to terms with a girl. And like all of us, he screws up at first, letting his trust in Ophelia flag just when she needs it most. That's what's great about Brütal Legend. It's not just a riff on metal. The music's influence on the game is bone-deep. And the emotions that drive our passion for metal -- loyalty, love and (often) loneliness -- are right there in the meat of it all.
So forgive Brütal Legend its flaws. The moments where objects pop or the processor chugs are like the audible crackle of a needle scraping the groove of a dusty piece of vinyl. It's technology getting in the way of the art. What matters is the music -- and how it drives us to dream, to imagine, to live and to love. Play Brütal Legend and you may not learn to love metal, but you'll certainly feel the love that Tim Schafer and Double Fine carry with them. Their art here screams with passion.
It's refreshing to see such energy in worshiping something, anything, other than The Lord of the Rings and Aliens. And though I'm all for game makers avoiding the trap of sequels and spinoffs, I'll be the first to thrust my lighter toward the sky for a Brütal Legend encore. Now that I've found myself back in the loud world of heavy metal, I don't want to leave. Now where did I pack that guitar?
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 game provided by the publisher.