Version tested: Xbox 360
Tim Schafer's latest game tunes up with an in-the-flesh appearance from Jack Black, but it only really starts to play when the character he portrays, Eddie Riggs, makes his entrance. Leather creaking and cigarette flaring in the darkness, it's Eddie - as with many Black characters, he's simultaneously wide-eyed and world weary, lecherous and yet somehow trustworthy - who steals the show, and it's Eddie who holds things together even when it becomes clear that the game, like a band split down the middle by creative differences, seems to want to go in two directions at once for much of the time.
In some ways, Brutal Legend's peculiar ambitions should make for a bewildering muddle, but they don't - and for that you've got Schafer and Black to thank: the experienced, often brilliant designer, and the twitchy, charismatic star, both coming together in the form of Riggs, the eternal backroom boy, the humble, stoical roadie made heroic.
Brutal Legend tells a rather simple story: Eddie Riggs, longing for times when music meant something ("The seventies?" "No, earlier than that. The early seventies"), is injured in a stage accident, and finds himself transported to a fantasy world ripped from the covers of classic metal albums, a world where chrome V-8 engines hang from chains between the columns of druidic temples, where mountains of worryingly unclassifiable skulls peak out from behind statues of vast helms and flaming dragons, and where the terrifying Lord Diviculus - a hot-rod mantis head wedged on an S&M body - has a cruel grip on the land.
The stage is quickly set for a smirking tale of good and evil, told in bursts of thunderous brawling and open-world exploration, and yet Brutal Legend refuses to conform to the template of a typical action-adventure. As a love letter to metal, Schafer's game is focused and all-encompassing, a blur of cameos including Lemmy and Ozzy Osborne, set to a blasting roll-call of classic songs spanning the likes of Motorhead, Black Sabbath and the Scorpions, yet Double Fine's latest wants to explore the potential in blending game genres, too.
As mash-ups go, it's both more disciplined and less imaginative than Psychonauts, Schafer's previous game, which also resisted easy classification. Psychonauts had a mind-hopping structure that let you go anywhere and do anything, flinging you into a Swiftian board-game one moment and a tangle of fetch-quests the next. Brutal Legend restricts itself to just two separate mechanics - those of the RTS and something best described as an adventurous brawler - and it merges the two quite slickly. And yet, inevitably, with such a split focus, the results will bemuse and possibly annoy as many people as they delight.
It's a game of two halves, in other words, and the first could be called Zelda in Leather. There's a pleasant sense of familiarity, despite the comically monstrous setting, with its stone circles, sacrificial pits, and zig-zagging Hell's highways, as you explore the map, taking on missions, learning new moves, and gathering together a band of unlikely heroes to stick it to the forces of darkness.
At times, the borrowings would seem almost shameless (if everyone else wasn't borrowing them too) as you trigger-target baddies, gain a handful of tricks by playing simple tunes at regular stone shrines, and zip about in a flame-splattered Epona stand-in called The Deuce, a fat-tyred roadster which can be upgraded by Ozzy Osbourne himself as the game progresses, until it's a low-riding white-trash Batmobile, tearing across the landscape with gatling guns, homing rockets and flames shooting out of side-mounted exhausts.
Simple to get to grips with, the combat's rather satisfying, your growing arsenal of attacks split between a range of melee axe smashes and a suite of guitar-triggered magic assaults, all of which resemble comically lame stage pyros. The two elements dovetail hilariously at times, as you learn to blast people into the air with a polite burst of flame before "knocking them into the bleachers of pure pain". Every ally you meet as you gather your band together will have their own double-team attack, too, allowing you to launch goth minx Ophelia into a wave of satanic nuns where she deals death like a make-up-encrusted ninja, or to blow away the enemy with murderous seagull-popping sound-waves while riding on teetering stacks of a roadie's amps.
Despite such pleasures, Brutal Legend never quite feels like its full attention is on the quest: beyond a smattering of spiders' nests and mines there are no real dungeons to hack through and surprisingly few bosses to dismember, and almost every mission is over in a brisk 15 or 20 minutes. It's tempting to say that the game's heart is not in the adventure because its mind is out roaming the battlefield - and this is where Brutal Legend starts to get wilful and a little divisive.
Threaded inside the main narrative - and becoming an increasingly regular occurrence as the game continues - is a surprisingly elaborate RTS: the characters you meet en route double as traditional unit types, and the open world you explore on foot or behind the wheel of the Deuce is built to pull back into a smart arena of capture spots and choke-points. It's all rather elegant; as the game's dual nature starts to take shape, it's fascinating to watch how Double Fine gets the videogame equivalent of overtime out of the same small handful of elements. That said, it may come as something of an annoyance if you were expecting a few hours of soothingly simple hacking and slashing only to find yourself leading troops into pitched combat instead.
Still, even RTS newcomers shouldn't have trouble handling Brutal Legend's battles. Early on, Riggs gains the ability - this is a spoiler of sorts, but a small one - to sprout wings on cue and move about the field of conflict from above, and the d-pad is home to a handful of basic commands - attack, defend, follow, and move-over-there - that cover almost every eventuality. The massive rumbles are fairly streamlined - each fight is framed as a battle of opposing bands, with trashy stages providing the HQs to over-run, while "fan-geysers" can be captured to increase the flow of resources you'll need to build new units.
What Double Fine doesn't necessarily bring with it is the constant drip-feed of new objectives that keeps the best RTS games from feeling like slogs. Although Brutal Legend does occasionally throw in mid-mission challenges, they're uninspired affairs based on taking down various defences to get closer to the enemy base. Even on easy mode, the game's rather basic arenas make for some drawn-out encounters, and the whole thing never quite shakes the feeling that this half of the adventure is something of a cover version: a commendable attempt at a strategy game made by a team more at home with the one-on-one slugging.
Yet the whole thing scales very well: even when you're commanding the troops and orchestrating a tank-rush, you can still drop back down to earth and get into close-up lamping, or summon the Deuce to run over your enemy's advancing guard. Even ignoring such options, over the course of the game I went from ambivalence regarding the RTS interludes to actually looking forward to them, which is handy for me as they also represent the game's online mode, with Stage Battles allowing you to pick from a limited range of factions and take on rival rock generals around the world.
If they do continue to leave you cold, the more strategic side of the game is rarely actually frustrating. Nothing in Brutal Legend is, really, partly because each task is generally over and done with before you have a chance to become irritated, and then you're off to try your hand at something else. Eddie Riggs is not the star of a particularly lengthy adventure - if you really must, you can plough straight through the main campaign quite comfortably in about eight hours, but I wouldn't recommend it: this is a game to linger over, and its side-quests, although formulaic, are generally not to be missed.
Besides, the world itself is a constant unfolding delight, a homage to heavy metal's air-brushed icons that manages to be both mocking and reverent. Over the course of his travels, Riggs will discover deserts where anvil-shaped rocks jut from the ground, an emperor's palace pixelated with the kitsch mosaics of a Vegas bathroom, and grim marshes filled with Aztec temples and candelabra trees, while the wilds are alive with fire-spouting bears clad in spiked manacles, iron porcupines, and terrifying super-powered deer.
And then there's the cast. The misplaced roadie and his band of louche misfits - nasty bouffants hiding steely resolves - are the pleasingly domestic heart that beats at the centre of the game, but the enemies aren't bad either: whether it's the scarlet-robed ranks of the fetish clergy, or the creepy stick-figure goths who wheel their splindly perambulators into battle, flanked by thunder and lighting as they step from Wacky Races stretch autos, which appear to have been mated with church organs.
Everyone has something witty or touching to say, everything has a little design flourish that makes it worth a second look, and the script has a consistency that tugs the game through some of its patchier spots. There may not be a laugh in every line, but there's generally a warm grin, and next to Uncharted 2, the natural charm of Black in particular suggests that this Christmas is, if nothing else, a great time for genuine videogame characters: rounded, personable leads who are distinctly superior to the usual throngs of cybermen and super-vixens.
It's probably Brutal Legend's characters that win out. Since the days when he provided dialogue options for Guybrush Threepwood, Schafer's secret skill has been to people his games with lovable oddballs who quickly start to feel like friends, creating bonds strong enough to ensure you forgive some of the ropier moments. In this case, Schafer, Double Fine, and Black haven't just created a story about roadies: they've become them, scuttling about energetically, heads down and minds focused, as they pull a handful of simple props together in order to put on an amazing show.
8 / 10