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Being a child of the 80's, Brutal Legend's holy reverence for Heavy Metal made this game sing (in a high-pitch squeal) to my soul. The hilarious and witty script poked the right amount of fun at the Rock culture I grew up while also treating it with a huge amount of respect. However, the decision to change the gameplay from the hack and slash adventure at the start into a real-time strategy experience nearly ruined it. Thanks to the wonderful and evocative characters and thrilling story, Brutal Legend clawed its way back into my heart, keeping me and the family hooked until the very end.
Being someone who loves the music they grew up with, I unashamedly sat my son down to watch me play this game. With profanity filters and gore settings turned off (much to his dismay), we embarked on Brutal Legend's story eager to see how one of the funniest game writers, Tim Schafer, could portray a period of time that meant so much to me.
Before the game properly started it was doing something unique and bizarre. Instead of bringing up the main menu instantly, we were treated to some real-time footage of Jack Black - who voices the main character Eddie Riggs - stealing into a record shop and showing you a special and mystical album. This album cover, of course, turns into the main menu. But having this bizarre method of introducing the game really worked wonders. We were instantly hooked and it made the character of Eddie Riggs seem that little bit more believable - in that 'ultimate Roadie who can build anything' way.
This first part of the game, mechanics-wise, was easy to get into and I gladly gave control over to my son as he hacked and slashed his way through the opening levels.
Getting into the real game was even better. The opening cut-scene sets up the world of 'Heavy Metal' as it is today with a cynical and knowing wink before we were transported into a mystical and fantastical world that the rest of the game is set in. This first part of the game, mechanics-wise, was easy to get into and I gladly gave control over to my son as he hacked and slashed his way through the opening levels. This beginning section was a little misleading as we both thought the majority of the game would follow on in the same vein - using Eddie's Axe or Guitar and cutting through a variety of bad dudes until the next incredible cut-scene was triggered.
But our real experience ended up being very different. After a few hours the world opened up and we got to ride around a giant continent, complete with side-quests, memorable landmarks to discover and collectibles to gather. The change from linear campaign to open-world was subtle, but it certainly wasn't what we were expecting and the rabbit hole of Brutal Legend became much deeper the further we progressed into the story.
Within about four hours of the start the brawling aspect of the game was discarded and we were now ordering our troops around. Building units and structures to support our army and using Eddie as a glorified mouse cursor. Before I realised what was happening my son pointed out that the game had turned into a Rock version of Company of Heroes - a game he'd seen me play on the PC. To go from a God of War-like experience into a real-time strategy was shocking. To be fair to Brutal Legend it makes the transition in a logical and clean fashion but I never thought when I put the disk in my 360 that I'd be stacking up unit orders like I do in Command and Conquer.
This change is what really made Brutal Legend so difficult to enjoy in regard to its gameplay. After struggling through the first battle like this, my son gave control back to me. For him the fun of the game was following the story and wielding Eddie's axe and guitar. Although he could still do this in the RTS sections, the management aspect simply took away all the enjoyment and turned Brutal Legend into a stressful strategy Sim rather than the Rock fairy-tale we thought it was. Having to blast though this part of the game wasn't fun for me either. The Xbox360 controller and the game just isn't equipped to make this kind of mechanic fun - I ended up putting the difficult level right down to easy and trying to bum-rush every situation as aggressively as possible.
Before I realised what was happening my son pointed out that the game had turned into a Rock version of Company of Heroes
For the most part this approach worked and it gave my son something entertaining to watch as a ton of Headbangers swept into a bunch of Emo troops and evil demons. But it was a job to get though these parts despite the length of the game being pretty short. I think the nature of these RTS battles made the game feel a lot longer than it really was and it very nearly forced us to stop playing all-together. But it shows how much we adored the writing and the story that we forced ourselves to complete these battles, just so we could see the next cut-scene and enjoy what was happening to Eddie and his friends.
One of my concerns about Brutal Legend when I first started playing it was Jack Black. I'm usually hot and cold about his performances in films, but here he excels as Eddie Riggs. Sure, there are over-the-top parts when itís needed - like when we decapitate the first boss, but the vast majority of the acting is understated and that works so well in selling the game and its raft of fantastic characters. That's because Jack Black isn't the only major name that appears in the game. We were thrilled to see Ozzy Osbourne appear as the game's merchant and somehow he gives the most cognitive performance I've ever heard him do since his early Sabbath days. My son couldn't believe his voice was so eloquent and free from his usual stuttering and groaning from The Osbourne's TV show.
For me, the inclusion of Lemmy from Motorhead and Lita Ford from The Runaways enabled me forgive the game its flaws. To gather such an impressive voice cast is an achievement in itself but to get them to perform so well and have a script and story that ties it all together is amazing. I wasn't really sure what to expect from a game set in a Medieval Rock otherworld but I was surprised to find it enthralling and taking some unexpected twists and turns.
But it shows how much we adored the writing and the story that we forced ourselves to complete these battles, just so we could see the next cut-scene and enjoy what was happening to Eddie and his friends.
Giving it even more depth were the knowing and clever touches peppered throughout. Finding out the slaves that we were going to free were 'Headbangers' and they'd been forced to crush rocks using only their heads was hilarious and somehow appropriate. Likewise, the enemies we faced later on were exactly the sort of emo-kids I saw on my way to work - making me break out in a wry smile, even if that was lost on my son. This kind of detail and humour is so rare in videogames that when you find it you tend to evangelise and cherish the opportunity to experience. I couldn't help but gush about this game to my other half and insist she sat down and watched with us as we went through the opening again. Now and again I'll also catch my son using phrases or lines from the game - the most appropriate being when one of his Lego toys accidentally (on-purpose probably) loses its head and he follows it up with 'Decapitatiooon!' - Eddie's glorious battle-cry after slaying a demon.
Brutal Legend was not the game I thought it would be. It some ways it's a lot better. In others it's a lot worse - thanks in no small part to the tedious RTS sections that nearly ruined the entire experience for us. But the sharp and humorous writing, the wonderful characters drawn from the world of classic rock, and the performance of Jack Black as Eddie Riggs gave us that quality experience I was hoping Brutal Legend would deliver. But the most important verdict came from my son who exclaimed, after the end of the game, - 'so that's what growing up with Heavy Metal was all about? Cool!'
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