Once in a while I pick up something new for the Wii or 360, and hope it won't eat 20-40 hours of my available gaming time. Recently I've been playing Brutal Legend (umlaut omitted here) on the XBox 360, designed by Lucasarts and Psychonauts legend Tim Shafer; it's gotten good reviews, and I found it marked down to $20 at retail (likely signaling an imminent arrival on the XBox Games on Demand downloadable service.) The hours it's eaten over the past several weeks have been gladly sacrificed.
Now, if you've ever seen my video podcast, you know I'm a geek, not a metalhead. I've never owned a studded collar, coveted a stack of Peaveys or banged my head at the moon with Ozzy blasting in the background. I've never fantasized about having a giant styro-stone version of myself lowered onto a fog-covered stage, just before I emerge to scream into the mic, bass guitars droning with fearsome power. Well, okay, not often. Bad poetry aside, I'm certainly no expert on the music or its culture.
But Brutal Legend gets it, truly and honestly. And its enthusiasm is infectious. The game has a genuine affection for classic metal music, and it casts aging icons Ozzy Osbourne, Rob Halford, Lita Ford and Lemmy as significant characters. The story is a Molly Hatchet album cover come to life, melding sword-and-sorcery fantasy with iconic poster imagery and anthemic hard rock. Jack Black stars as the voice of roadie Eddie Riggs, called magically to a land oppressed by evil (in the form of hair-metal bands, goth kids, and a demonic overlord) to bring the lost music of the Titans back. The Titans being, of course, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Motorhead and company. Tim Curry voices Doviculus, the demonic-but-not-in-a-good-way villain.
It's the perfect tale with which to celebrate heavy metal -- Eddie rounds up metalheads and groupies to form an ever-growing tribe of warriors. These kids aren't bright, but they're dedicated and enthusiastic, and they are united by music into a formidable fighting force. It's youthful rock fantasy made real -- we're in the right, we are oppressed, we're hittin' the road, and giant amps and basslines will blow the enemy away. The game has a sense of Spinal Tap humor, but it respects the metal subculture at the same time -- the gags are affectionate and character-driven, and playing as a roadie swinging an enchanted battle axe feels just right.
The art design is fantastic, filled with flowing chrome, stone skulls and medieval hardware, incorporating knowing visual references wherever possible. Eddie jumps in his Flaming Deuce convertible to race an Ed Roth-inspired demon with bug-eyes, exhaust-pipe teeth and an 8-ball stick shift. Monsters in the graveyard zone resemble the other Eddie of Iron Maiden album cover fame. The female warriors of the Kaulia tribe wear black-and-white makeup and revealing studded leather gear, looking like they've just stepped out of a KISS Destroyer fantasy. And red flowers dot the land, indicating hidden treasures to be unearthed with a raging Relic Raiser solo.
The references aren't strictly visual, either, and they're always well-considered and lovingly indulged. Eddie's fighting companion is a blonde warrior named Lita Halford, for example. And licensed classic metal anthems are invoked at just the right moments -- Eddie's battle to free young metalheads from their corporate enslavement is accompanied by Def Leppard's Rock of Ages, while a creepy flashback in which a character gives herself over to evil plays to the haunting strains of Osbourne's Mr. Crowley.
The icing on the cake is that Brutal Legend is actually a decent gameplay experience. It's structured as a sandbox game, with a map that opens up gradually as core story missions are completed, augmented by entertaining secondary missions. Eddie hunts critters, fights off invading enemies, visits the Guardian of Metal (voiced by Mr. Osbourne) to upgrade his skills and equipment, and learns magical guitar solos to enhance his army's battle performance. He also raises ancient buried metal from the ground, adding it to the repertoire of in-game music played on the car stereo.
Ultimately this is a battle-and-collecting game, with nothing really new on offer. And I'm bogged down at the moment dealing with a bruising battle that's ramped the difficulty curve up at a steep angle. But even if I never quite finish it, I've gotten my twenty bucks' worth of gaming out of it -- Brutal Legend is a huge amount of fun. The music, the look and the attitude of heavy metal run deep in its blood.
It might be the most entertaining art appreciation course ever.