No style of music has taken more of a beating over the years than heavy metal. Critics don’t respect it, kids are more likely to spend their allowances on hip-hop, and parents stopped worrying long ago about whether Black Sabbath was going to turn their teens into devil worshippers.
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to make fun of. The sharpest metal parodists — the members of Spinal Tap and Tenacious D — also appear to have a lot of affection for it. Jack Black, the latter band’s frontman, has always made it difficult to determine where the line between reverence and ridicule is drawn.
“Brutal Legend” (Electronic Arts, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99), Black’s collaboration with gonzo video-game designer Tim Schafer, doesn’t make it any easier. Sure, it tweaks the stoners and bimbos who go to metal concerts, but it also kind of loves them.
Black plays Eddie Riggs, a rock ‘n’ roll roadie who’s transported to an alternate dimension. That world, with its angular architecture and blood-red skies, will be familiar to anyone who’s studied album covers of the 1970s and ’80s (say, Diamond Head’s “Borrowed Time” or Dio’s “Holy Diver”).
Eddie joins the cause of a stud named Lars who’s trying to save humanity from enslavement by a demonic overlord. Eddie’s weapons are his axes: an actual one he uses to slice up demons and a guitar he uses to perform “face-melting” (literally) solos.
Laying waste to druids, S&M nuns and bony goth boys is wicked fun, as is cruising around in Eddie’s pimped-out hot rod, the Deuce. And the characters who join your army — thick-skulled head-bangers, big-haired groupies, thuggish bouncers — will be familiar to anyone who’s ever been to a metal club.
Unfortunately, “Brutal Legend” bogs down in its primary missions, most of which are versions of the “real-time strategy” battles in games like “Command & Conquer” and “Halo Wars.” The challenge is to stage a rock concert while your army battles the forces of evil; in essence, you need to boost your fan base, which allows you to recruit enough fighters to overwhelm the enemy.
Newcomers to real-time strategy games are likely to find these events too chaotic to control, and the goals within each stage are so poorly defined that it’s easy to win or lose without knowing why. RTS veterans, meanwhile, are unlikely to be satisfied with the simplified battles.
Secondary missions, including auto races, hunting expeditions and smaller-scale “ambushes,” are more fun, but there’s not enough variety among them. And as much as I enjoyed driving around, digging up relics and unleashing dragon statues, the rewards didn’t match the effort I was putting into them.
Still, the distinctive style and humor of “Brutal Legend” kept me playing. Metalheads will appreciate the voice work by the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Lita Ford and Judas Priest’s Rob Halford. Comedy nerds will enjoy the hilarious cameos by Brian Posehn and Tenacious D’s Kyle Gass.
And Black himself deserves credit for the most enthusiastic video-game performance I’ve ever heard. His Eddie Riggs is one of the most endearing new characters in years, and I hope he returns someday in a more satisfying game.
Rating: Three stars out of four.