Jack Black, the can't-quite-tell-when-he's-serious actor, has an effusive personality. Star of many movies (and bit-player in many more), Jack Black (never just Jack) is also a member of Tenacious D, a tongue-in-cheek (we assume) heavy metal band with a couple of CDs and even a movie to their name. His appearance, then, in a not-really-serious-yet-unmistakably-hardcore Heavy Metal themed videogame should come as no surprise.
In Brutal Legend, Double Fine's second game, Jack Black lends his voice (and, no doubt, a lot of ad libbed dialogue - it screams Jack Black from the opening words to the end) to the lead character Eddie Riggs. A disenfranchised roadie for a Heavy Metal / new-pop tween band, Eddie's fate is sent in another direction (and, possibly, dimension) in the opening cinematic when a concert goes badly wrong. Thrust into a world where Heavy Metal seems to define the very fabric of the universe, it seems Eddie is the legendary warrior sent to free the oppressed human population from the foul beasts of Heavy Metal Album Covers and Nightmare.
The world in which Eddie finds himself is constructed from everything and anything you might imagine, should you be familiar with Heavy Metal. Chrome, big engines, horrible beasts, bones and candles are the stuff from which everything is inspired, with flame and spiky collars reaching near critical mass on the populace - how people hug around here without maiming each other is something which shall forever remain a mystery.
The gameplay is a combination of a third-person roam-anywhere brawler, Grand Theft Auto and even a little (or a lot) of Overlord thrown in there for good minion-management measure. You control Eddie with the analogue stick, swinging a (literal) axe at foes with the X button, bust out your figurative axe (guitar) with the square button, block with circle and interact with your minions or AI buddies with the triangle.
Your basic melee attack (the aforementioned axe) is a good basic method of mixing it up with enemies from an up close and personal perspective. You can spice it up with an unbreakable charge attack (simply hold X) or can string together combos, by mashing X or mixing in some other buttons for extra spiciness. The guitar attack is predominantly useful for attacking ranged enemies but the fact that it temporarily stuns makes it a useful attack for many melee situations as well, such as juggling multiple combatants at any one time.
You can also do a bunch of combination attacks, such as area-effect knockbacks or damage, each of which feels like a worthy inclusion and is accompanied by the requisite metalesque riffs and samples.
Combat can get a little hectic, with a lot of combatants at any one time - not all of which are enemies. It's not always easy to tell who you're supposed to be swinging your axe at, either, resulting in the occasional situation where all of the enemies are dead but you're still swinging away trying to take on a dude who's blissfully ignoring you since you're actually his friend.
Another option at Eddie's disposal is the ability to bust out a mean riff for some sort of gameplay benefit. This is similar to Zelda's Ocarina interface, if you're familiar with that, where you need to follow a pattern of notes (handily shown as controller buttons on a musical score) and, if successful, will deliver the assigned benefit to your character. There's a bunch of these things to find, scattered around the world, each of which brings its own special bonus - use one to summon your car, another to convince nearby minions to join your army.
Minions are controlled primarily via the directional pad; press up to send them at an enemy or location, left to follow you, down to stay - etc. You can also interact with them in other ways, such as with the triangle button (instructing them to perform the Mosh Pit attack, where they surround you and headbang anything that gets in your way).
Gameplay generally follows the formula of driving around the open-world between missions (handily highlighted by a massive beam of light which looks cool and makes them easy, but not too easy, to find), which you can then trigger or elect to return to later. Exactly what you have to do will vary as you advance but generally you'll have a multi-stage task to perform which is revealed as you advance through the custom (mission-specific) chunk of the world.
The missions vary and they tend to be a little less obvious as to what you need to do than we'd generally expect, with a few genuine head scratchers as NPCs died for no apparent reason (resulting in a very-metal Brutal Defeat) and level layouts that can get confusing. Fortunately the core mechanic of bonking things on the head as you advance is spiced up with seemingly endless Jack Black (and supporting actors) spouting on in a very humorous (and very metal) way and if you really do get stuck, the game tends to prompt you in what to do to advance.
The presentation is a mixed bag - it's generally very good, especially when close up with the characters, with numerous laugh-out-loud moments and loads of little in-jokes for the metal-heads amongst us. The menu system is also one of the most unique and suitable we've ever seen, all seeming like a video of someone flipping through a Slayer or Megadeth record cover. Occasionally, however, it can look a bit rough (particularly near the start), belying its protracted development period and triple-A (assumed) budget. There's no doubt whatsoever, however, that the people involved had a genuine understanding and passion for the material - Brutal Legend is arguably more metal than many of the bands that grace its soundtrack.
The audio, as you might expect for a game tightly bound to a genre of music, is excellent. Jack Black's voice work (which is extensive) is the most perfectly suited to Eddie as any voice to any videogame character ever - or any character, for that matter. Eddie is super believable and super likeable from the very first time you ever see him, with Jack Black's voice being superbly backed up by smart character design and fantastic animation.
The game is entirely backed by a killer soundtrack of classic heavy metal, helping to keep the player grounded in this weird heavy metal reality - without ever droning or becoming too repetitive. If you like classic metal, you're going to love this - if you're not familiar with it, relax: it's pretty laid back compared to the modern variants of the genre. That it suits the game is in no doubt, it threads through the visuals and stitches the package tightly together.
Brutal Legend is a solid game. It has its quirks: NPCs that don't react as you'd expect them to all the time and some confusing objectives in missions, but you'll push through these and eventually adjust as if they were part of the style of the game. It oozes atmosphere and totally delivers a believable world which you'll long to spend time in, long after the game is done. It's genuinely funny 95% of the time and feels like a solid story experience, rather than a tacked-on justification for the action.
Tim Schafer's previous game, Psychonauts, got the critical acclaim it deserved but not the sales - what's been delivered in Brutal Legend suggests that whilst the acclaim might be a little more muted this time around, the sales should be (deservedly) strong. Brutal Legend comes with NZGamer's recommendation.