Friday, October 2, 2009

Do You Like Your Legends Brütal?

Get it?  Another nickname for guitar is Axe.Rocktober is upon us, ladies and gentlemen.  In a mere two weeks, Tim Schafer’s new project Brütal Legend hits store shelves.  If you’ve somehow managed to avoid all of the prerelease press, let me just tell you that it’s an action-adventure game featuring a heavy metal roadie who gets transported into some kind of medieval Tim Burton world.

Gamers who don’t recognize Schafer by name should know that his oeuvre includes the original Monkey Island series, Full Throttle, and the critical-darling-slash-commercial-bust Psychonauts.  Also attached to the game is actor/comedian and Tenacious D frontman Jack Black.  Brütal Legend’s protagonist, Eddie Riggs, bears a vague resemblance to Black – mostly in a cartoon steroids way, but more on that later.  Schafer’s also crammed a ton of classic metal tracks into the game, as well as the voices of Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy Kilmister and other Gods of Rock.

I’ve been wondering for a while now if the game could possibly live up to its hype, especially given the names behind it.  Thankfully, Microsoft tossed the demo up on Xbox Live yesterday, so I gave it a go.

I have to start just by addressing the genius of the concept.  Brütal Legend arrives at a perfect time.  The Adult Swim show Metalocalypse has proven that we’ve distanced ourselves just far enough from Metal’s genesis that it can now be enjoyed in a fashion simultaneously ironic and genuine.  There’s a grandiosity to the genre that synched up nicely with the gross decadence of the 80s.  And it’s the same sprawling scope that’s made Metal a common bedfellow of medieval adventure.  When you’re scoring a film like Lord of the Rings, you’ve got two choices: Celtic classical or driving metal.  You might choose the former if you want to win an Oscar.  But if you want to Rock, well I think you can guess.

And Brütal Legend’s design taps into another cultural phenomenon: Guitar Hero.  Just look at Eddie Riggs and tell me he doesn’t borrow heavily from the closet of Lars Umlaut.  For whatever reason, the guitar possesses a certain mythos.  Schafer’s simply putting his spin on the myth.  Plus, Black’s basically made a career off of being the Guy Who’s Still Into Metal (see his HBO series, movie, and two albums with Tenacious D and the film School of Rock).  My funny bone’s built up an immunity to Black of late (some D songs hold up, most don’t), but I can’t deny he’s perfect for the role of Eddie Riggs.

The game quickly points out that Eddie is no superstar.  He’s a roadie for a band whose idea of Metal is to play some crunchy riffs while rapping, whining, or otherwise epitomizing the term “metrosexual.”  Contrast their emaciated character models with the burly, my-hands-are-bigger-than-my-face design of Eddie.  After an unfortunate onstage accident nearly wipes him from this mortal coil, Eddie awakes in a demonic world of skulls, spikes, and shiny chrome engines – not to mention monsters and hot babes.  Game narratives are often derided for being unable to shake of the constraints of mere power fantasies, but Brütal Legend weaves them into the story.  Schafer, via a couple minutes of exposition and a few extremely clever one-liners, nimbly depicts Eddie as a man in need of an escape from his humdrum reality.

The biggest concern with a game of this magnitude (not only does it promise third-person God of War-style combat but RTS elements, vehicular combat, and guitar-playing mini-games) is how it handles.  Unfortunately, the demo – busy trying to sell you on the story (which I believe it does) – offers only a slice of the third-person combat and some driving sequences.  The combat’s satisfying, if not a little clunky.  Eddie doesn’t move fluidly from one animation to the next like a Kratos; his melee attacks feel choppy and often seem to lag behind my button presses.  Also, I’m…intrigued by the lack of jump button.  Aesthetically, I understand why a dude like Eddie might not be able to leap eight feet in the air, but years of gaming have hardwired my brain to expect the ability to jump.  I worry that this may have lead to uninteresting, flat level design.  Hopefully the other mechanics will distract me from that in final build.

I noticed a few framerate issues, yadda yadda yadda.  I’m not sure when Brütal Legend went gold, but I’m fairly certain this demo’s been around the block, so hopefully a lot of the technical issues have been ironed out.  I am in love with the presentation, though.  It’s treatment of Metal lore (the stereotypical evil medieval fantasy land) is wonderfully campy and sincere.  We’re getting a subjective view of the world through Eddie’s eyes.  And the Main Menu is unbelievable.  Go download the demo just to play around in the title screen.  A pair of real hands flip through what appears to be a real album cover that doubles as the game’s menus.  There’s a metaphor somewhere in that about having a visceral connection to music, I just can’t express it succinctly.

I remain skeptical about Brütal Legend’s ability to fully execute on what it promises.  And the multiplayer, while unique-looking, may not have very long legs given the miniscule market for console RTSes.  But the storytelling and humor, Schafer’s hallmarks, look like they’ll be present in spades.