Brütal Legend has already been out for some considerable time on console boxes but has now finally slunk onto PC four years after the fact. This delay, which seems to be caused almost entirely but games industry politics (Activision and EA have both managed to muck this one around) has however given Double Fine a chance to spruce their game up for re-release with a bit of a graphical upgrade, a net code overhaul and a collection of bits and bobs that reached consoles as DLC.
For those of you who dodged or just don't remember the original release. Brütal Legend was marketed as Heavy Metal the video game; a sort of long haired black leather God of War fashioned into a Jack Black vehicle. This caused a certain degree of confusion, when on release Brütal Legend turned out to be an open world driving game, who's missions had been fashioned from the bones of an RTS.
Oh the hack and slash is still in there, its just mixed in with all the exploring, racing, hunting, and RTS elements. If that sounds like a bit of a mess consider that all those things have been squeezed into an epic fantasy world stitched together from album covers of old Metal records, bits of broken hot rod, and assorted live music gear. Blown up above life size and painted into a surreal landscape. Tied together with a gravelly voiced creation myth that would almost be at home in a run of the mill elves and dragons RPG. Then staple that lot down with a story which ended up being less of a Jack Black vehicle than an all stars and greatest hits tour of Heavy Metal history. (I'm not going to talk about all the people doing voice work for this since some of their reveals are more fun as a surprise. Suffice it to say the fellow who looks like Ozzy Ozbourne in all the promo materials, they actually got the real Ozzy in to do voice work; he's your shop keeper...) By this point the ideas and enthusiasm in this game have probably escaped clear definition and exploded through the brain in a chaotic rain of music, and gaming parody.
Brütal Legend isn't quite a shining ray of brilliance handed down from Double Fine and the Gods of Metal though. Its probably not surprising that with so much going on there isn't a lot of depth to any particular part. The exploration only provides a hand full of different varieties of intractable object to discover and every landmark is so large that their total number is rather limited by the fairly small world size. The driving physics are reminiscent of the mako of Mass Effect 1, floaty and improbable and your ride really does perform much like a Detroit motor, but less heavily armed. The side missions are pretty enjoyable, adding a touch of variety to gameplay and always showing the game's sense of humour and good voice work. Its just that there are only really four side missions that are copy pasted to make up the bulk of the open world content. The whole point of side missions is that their ideas don't merit stretching out to a core gameplay element, its fun the first time acceptable the second but I can't imagine sticking around for the sixth go.
For all its swagger the Metal ballad pacing of the main story falls short too. You conclude the climactic battle of the second act, get halfway through the resolution of Jack Black's entanglement with the act two boss and love interest so you can team up and go after the real evil. Only for the act three bad guy to show up mid cut scene cackle a bit and then treat you to an RTS battle in the set you just played. Then there is one last boss fight. Wrap everything up with a happily ever after cut scene and roll credits. Which is rather abrupt for a game that seemed to be gearing up for a few more hours of fun. Double Fine have stated that the game was repeatedly cut back by publishers and that the original story was supposed to be told by a longer Brütal Legend and a whole even larger second game. No wonder the final product feels a bit truncated. While Double Fine have expressed interest in finishing this saga as an independent publication, funding anything like the voice talent and sound track of Brütal Legend is going to be hard without old fashioned megacorp financial muscle. That said the story in the finished product does actually provide closure on the story, this isn't one of the innumerable cliff hanger endings for sequels that never materialised so common in gaming.
Those little niggles pale in comparison to the real elephant in the room. Brütal Legend has a truly terrible control scheme. Considering all the effort put in to polishing up the graphical fidelity, I'm slightly perplexed that I'm still faced with buggy radial menus and an RTS control scheme designed for gamepads that just don't have enough buttons to make tactical gameplay work. For example using little Guitar Hero-esque button sequences to summon special abilities in battle is a cool mechanic. Ripping out a blistering guitar solo to summon a giant burning zeppelin to the battlefield is awesome. Needing to bust out the guitar and amp just to change rally points for your units is less amusing.
It isn't impossible to pull off tactical play, mechanically speaking its just needlessly difficult to issue the orders. The absence of much apparent AI beyond a set of simple liner scripts for each battle doesn't really help encourage deep game play either. That said I do honestly think the core of the hybrid RTS/fighter is a good idea. Strategically placing and timing special powers, teaming up with unit characters to enhance their special abilities, and when all else fails just wading in with your axe and sorting the problem the hard way. Its a satisfying and entertaining addition to the usual formula, but Brütal Legend's execution doesn't match up to its ambition.
Perhaps that sums up Brütal Legend; lots of ambition and enthusiasm that just doesn't come together as well as it deserves to. Still, flawed genius is still genius. It might have some gameplay issues but that doesn't change the fact there is a real passion driving this game, a true love of Heavy Metal. If you've ever had any enthusiasm for the music you really must check this out; the £17 price is almost worth it just for the 107 track history of Metal that is the games sound track. Even if you don't care for the music I'd suggest you consider it if you're looking for an antidote to generic fantasy poisoning. Double Fine's strange sensibilities coupled with a triple A budget and bizarrely star studded cast makes for a particular and unique game world. One that might be troubled but is still well worth experiencing.