Jack Black is an actor-musician known mostly for his physical and crude humor; someone who you don't typically see playing an all-for-one type character. His laughs may come cheap at times, but when it comes to rock and roll, he seemingly doesn't mess around (those who've seen School of Rock). This is why when he plays Eddie Riggs, a roadie who sacrifices everything for the glory of rock, he's a character you can't help but become fully engrossed with. From the moment you meet Eddie supporting a modern day wannabe rock band, to his mysterious appearance in a mythical past dominated by leather-clad demons, Black's performance feels genuine—Eddie is someone you wish you knew in the real world.
Eddie's philosophy reveals much of his character: a good roadie never makes his presence known, he prefers to stay out of the spotlight to make sure things go well during a show; you'd never know he was even there if he's doing his job right. Though you're propelling the story, what Tim Schafer and Double Fine want you to know in Brütal Legend is you're the supporting cast; you're there for the cause, not yourself.
As an open-world, real-time strategy, action-adventure game, Brütal Legend is a bit of departure from Schafer's past work. Unfortunately, it's the inexperience and experimentation with this hybrid genre which become evident as you play the game. For the most part, attention to detail and an extremely artistic design are overshadowed by action that's mildly interesting.
Brütal Legend demonstrates it's strengths before you even take control of Eddie, however: What seems like a commercial or extra content for the game is actually a setup for the Main Menu. With a live-action shot, Black enters a record store and uncovers a vinyl record with the game's title. Flipping Left and Right on the thumbstick cycles between menu options, while keeping with the physical aesthetic using both the sleeve and record itself. It's a simple enough gimmick, but it foreshadows the themes to come.
The entire fantasy world which Eddie falls into is designed after heavy metal album covers and lyrics; inspiration which lends the game incredible artistic freedom that's simply awesome. Reflecting contemporary beliefs of Norse and medieval mythology, the Rock Gods' world is based on heavy metal, chrome and hot rods. An entire sea wall built entirely of over-sized amplifiers is only but a taste of the rock-infused realm that Double Fine has created. Across the map, varied environments offer set-pieces on scale with the Titans that were have said to created them in the game's fiction.
Complementing such an intriguing setting are animations, in-game and especially in cutscenes, which convince you you're controlling one of the most dedicated, devout followers of metal. As Eddie strums solos on his Flying V guitar, in front of the camera and with pyrotechnics flaming in the background, or when he drops to his knees leaving a trail of fire from a power slide, these little touches remind you you're not just a hero, you're a rocker.
Similarly, spot-on facial contortions are deceivingly lifelike, despite the stylized appearance of characters. Everything from irony to sarcasm come across not only in superb voice-acting by a star-studded cast—who knew rock musicians could act as even Ozzy Osbourne sounds incredible, and understandable—but by subtle motions in avatars' faces. Eddie's determined and somewhat naïve demeanor only adds to his likability.
The only thing outshining the voice-over work may be the soundtrack. For those not fans of the classic heavy metal scene, cycling through songs by artists such as Lita Ford, Judas Priest and Black Sabbath can be grating. However, the music drives many of the events in the relatively short story while matching and adding to their aesthetic.
Unfortunately, most of the novelty and spectacle is lost the further along you get in the game. What is first a cleverly written yet fairly standard hack-and-slash title early on, soon develops into a real-time strategy game short on interaction and overdone with an often frustrating command system.
In both the story and multiplayer sides of things, an RTS element dominates gameplay. Here the theater of battle is like a literal Battle of Bands: factions build stages, procure resources by tapping into geysers of ethereal fans on-field, and recruit and upgrade units to destroy their rival's stage. Whether you're playing by yourself as Ironheade (yes, with an “e”) in the story, or as The Drowning Doom or Tainted Coil in multiplayer (online or local), the mechanic never seems to work fluidly.
Honestly, if you're an RTS gamer, Brütal Legend will most likely only succeed in frustrating you. Battles seemingly boil down to luck as it's impossible to group units together to achieve specific directives. While you can command a particular group of a single unit to complete a task, trying to do so in battle is futile as you have to be physically next to them, hope to highlight them as they're being attacked and moving about, and move them where you want them to go before they die.
Perhaps Brütal Legend simply has a steep learning curve when it comes to it's RTS strategy, but open-world fighting and a few key moments relying on limited beat-em-up combos do little to allay the action's shortcomings. Though you're able to upgrade attacks, your equipment and the hot rod you use to traverse the themed environment, nothing really feels satisfyingly different in the one-two, guitar-axe melee system or The Deuce's overall speed. Also, repetitive side-missions (to the point where dialogue is exactly the same) pervade the open world and become mere chores.
With Schafer's unrelenting enthusiasm for Brütal Legend, it's clear to see where it would have been easy to get carried away with the concept. In a case where style supersedes substance, the game presents some interesting eye candy, but, at times, falters to chuggy framerates; and delivers believable characters with compelling voice-acting, in favor of less-refined gameplay. While the idea is there, and it's great to see a director and studio trying new things, the execution unfortunately falls a bit flat.
That being said, it would be great to see the world, Eddie, and his compatriots make a return—just in a different genre.