Brütal Legend has been a long time coming--so long now that I was getting a little worried whether Tim Schafer's rock opus would still play or not by the time it finally trudges to shelves. A lot has happened since the game's production began four years ago, you know? Guitar Hero went from brave-little-rock-game-that-could to annualized corporate institution. Ozzy Osbourne and his lovely family are hosting a deplorable variety hour these days on Fox. Rock defender Jack Black's unending schtick has been threatening to turn the guy into a self-parody for a while now. Is it really still cool to be way into heavy metal? Can you actually get away with that in 2009?
Here's the good news: Brütal Legend's stalwart devotion to skulls, chains, leather, the devil, chicks with big boobs--all things metal, you know--is not cliched or predictable. It's funny and creative, thanks to Schafer's finely honed script. Black's role in the game (at least what I heard of it) is not overwrought, grating, or played out. He really fits. Even if you think you're totally over metal these days--or you hated it to start with--you will be hard pressed not to throw the horns in the air to the major beats of Brütal Legend's headbanging hilarity.
Here's the bonus good news: Brütal Legend also looks like a game I actually want to play, not just laugh at.
The first few minutes of the demo we saw at Double Fine didn't paint the game that way. But looking back, I can't help wondering if Schafer was playing a trick on us, sitting off to the side and going "Just you wait" with a big grin on his face. About five minutes in, I'd have told you Brütal Legend was a run-of-the-mill, linear third-person combat game, God of War with an axe and an, uh, axe (the other kind). I knew it was a safe bet the game would be legitimately funny and charming, but truthfully that wasn't going to be enough to convince me to play it in the absence of some more interesting game mechanics.
Good thing Brütal Legend is nothing like that! But I'll get to the gameplay in a minute.
The game is about Black's character Eddie Riggs, a rock roadie whose grotesque belt buckle happens to be shaped in the image of the ancient god Ormagöden. The buckle tastes blood during an unfortunate backstage mishap and immediately transports Eddie to a world of black metallic humor--mountains made of skulls, demonic battle nuns, and an evil emperor named Doviculus, oppressing the good rock-loving citizens of the land.
Armed only with his battle axe the Separator and his guitar Clementine, Eddie wastes no time hooking up with a raven-haired vixen named Ophelia, slaying a few dozen evil druid minions, and hightailing it to Bladehenge, the center of the human resistance led by Nordic-looking siblings Lars and Lita Halford. Yes, there are at least half a dozen prominent metal references in the last two paragraphs. It's that thick.
By the time you reach Bladehenge, you'll have crafted the Deuce, also known as the Druid Plow, a screaming hot rod forged by dark magics from ancient, fossilized carburetors and chassis. The Deuce looks totally cherry and rather boss, but more importantly it also acts as your main mode of transportation, because--surprise!--Brütal Legend is an open-world game. It's got around two dozen story-related missions and numerous side quests, races, and other activities to undertake while you roam the land. Expect plenty of funny hidden secrets as well, such as some primitive-looking graffiti hiding under a natural overpass. And yes, the Deuce has a radio that will stream metal classics new and old, more of which you can find hidden across the landscape.
The only story mission we got to see centered around Eddie's need to build an army that could defeat Doviculus. He set out to the mines controlled by General Lionwhyte, Doviculus' human lackey voiced by none other than Judas Priest's Rob Halford. The poor boneheads toiling there were forced to continually smash ore by banging their own bare ponderous noggins into the rock, while Lionwhyte screeched corporate motivational slogans at them from nearby loudspeakers. Eddie was quickly able to convince the tattooed, cap-wearing headbangers to join his cause with the power of metal. Their bandana-wearing, frosted-tipped glam counterparts, however, snidely chose to remain in servitude.
The eternal battle between heavy metal and glam rock will be one of the game's central humorous focal points, Schafer said. He seems to have a deeply personal bias toward this particular issue, and it's clear the glam guys are going to get the short end of the stick.
Anyway, once Eddie had won the metalheads over to his cause, Schafer showed off the last aspect of Brütal Legend's gameplay for the demo, which is a minion-command system not unlike what you've seen in Overlord. Except I'd feel safer with a bunch of aggro headbangers getting my back than some piddly little gremlins. While you're doing your own slaying and shredding against enemies, you can also order groups of your allies around to attack and defend at various places on the map. Since you'll be able to amass at least a dozen followers, you'd think the battles--and the strategy--may become suitably epic later in the game.
There's plenty more to find out about Brütal Legend before EA's targeted release window of "fall 2009." Next up on the list: Some sort of button-based guitar-playing mechanic that will let you cast rock spells. The full voiceover cast (metal names like Halford, Lemmy Kilmister, and Lita Ford are already confirmed). A finalized soundtrack listing. And details on the headbanger-to-headbanger multiplayer mode, which will put you in command of an army against other players' own metal legions.
But I've seen enough to know I'm totally stoked already. Let him who hath understanding reckon the might of Tim Schafer. He and Double Fine may have just rescued heavy metal from the brink of cheesy irrelevance with a smart combination of Schafer's brilliant humor and a melding of modern gaming styles. Come fall, I hope we all have an earnest reason to bang our heads once more.
If you've forgotten, here's the teaser for the game from the Spike TV Video Game Awards. Quite a bit of the footage you see here is what I saw in my demo, which means it's all from the very early parts of the game.