A moderate but divisive hit on console a few years back, rock-obsessed action-strategy-open-world curio Brutal Legend now gets a spit'n'polished PC version. It's the best version of the game yet, and it's also a chance to set the record straight after the game was promoted as being something very different for its initial launch.
Coming from cult development studio Double Fine, this rock odyssey is the brain child of the guy behind classic 90s adventure games such as Grim Fandango and Full Throttle. It's a love letter to the heavy metal of his adolescence, starring a refreshing low-key Jack Black as a roadie mysteriously transported to a land of rock tropes and clichés made real. Chrome skulls, towering henges, flames and demons abound, but offered in an affectionately cartoonish middleground between playing it straight and pastiche. There's a rich vein of very funny humour and absurd characterisation in there, but it never comes at the expense of the subject matter. Unlike inevitable comparison Spinal Tap, Brutal Legend comes only to praise metal, not to bury it.
Initially, the game seems set to be a hack and lash brawler, as player-character Eddie Riggs enthusiastically smacks down spindly-legged horrors and glam rock defectors with a combo of axe (the bladed kind) and axe (the stringed kind). Quickly though, the game reveals that it has little idea of what it really is, throwing in awkward car racing, a beautiful but highly restrictive open world and ambitious but addled real-time strategy battles. It's basically a bucket of idea-slop thrown at the wall in the hope some will stick.
A lot does, but that's much more to do with the enthusiasm, wit and art of the game than it is the strength of these raw facets. Changing focus every half hour or so, before looping back to revisit earlier elements, it's a whirlwind of just-because moments, many of which are a ton of consciously silly fun but not quite enough of which are fleshed out enough to give the game a core.
As the game wears on, the comfortably entertaining hack and slash combat is increasingly sidelined by the real-time strategy battles in which Eddie leads of army of roadies, bouncers and biker ladies against a legion of goths or glam rockers. There's more to these than it might appear, but the game does a pretty poor job of explaining how to turn into something other than a push'n'pull grind with very limited control over your units.
Crucial army-management abilities, such as rallying everyone to Eddie's location or moving the spawn point, are even dependent on finding upgrades in the open world part of the game. They're not hard to find, but if you do for any reason miss 'em the RTS stuff becomes a tiresome grind. Even with them, the strategy's a pale imitation of what a dedicated RTS might do - for its PC version, it needed far more substantial tweaking than merely the graphics.
Speaking of which, the game's really done the work on PC. It's not as though it was a bad-looker on console, but the newly-raised draw distance, resolution and assorted other bells and whistles make the game look like it was surely supposed to look.
The towering, moody world of iron spikes, bone fortresses and motorbike-themed temples looks spectacular as it stretches to the cartoon horizon. It's a shame there isn't more to do outside of the (well-written, well-performed) storyline missions - just collectormania and some repetitive racing in Eddie's oddly feather-light 'Druid Plow' buggy.
But the spirit of the thing, and its highly infectious love of metal and everything to do with it, ultimately saves Brutal Legend from its many follies. Whatever it might get wrong in terms of game mechanics, it's just a wonderful, ridiculous, hilarious place to be. Some preposterous sight is rarely more than a few minutes away, and if all else fails there's the freedom to race around the desert, forest or Dry Ice mines in a high-speed, flame-emblazoned death0buggy to a Motorhead soundtrack. That's almost worth the price of entry alone.