If the name Tim Schafer doesn't ring a bell, it probably should. He's known as one of the funniest writers in the games industry, having put his stamp on the first pair of Monkey Island games in addition to the critically adored platformer Psychonauts. Now he's hard at work on Brutal Legend, an interactive ode to heavy metal music starring Jack Black as protagonist Eddie Riggs. With GDC 2009 under way last week, we traveled to the San Francisco studios of Double Fine Productions, Schafer's development house, to have a look at how Brutal Legend is coming along.
The story told in Brutal Legend is a pastiche of heavy metal imagery that feels like a combination of genuine love for the genre and biting satire. After Riggs--the world's greatest roadie--accidentally spills some blood on his belt buckle while tuning a guitar, the buckle transports him to an alternate world filled with every last metal trope you can imagine--a place where humans are fighting very real demons in a battle for survival. Our demo began where the game does: Riggs awakens in a mysterious temple as druids are circling around an axe planted in the ground. In a bit of Arthurian resourcefulness, Riggs yanks the axe out of the ground and promptly begins smashing these evil druids to bloody bits.
The fact that combat is introduced so quickly is no coincidence; Brutal Legend's core gameplay is very much that of a brawler. Riggs soon picks up a magical guitar (named Clementine) that gives him the ability to shock enemies from afar. It's these two weapons that provide the meat and potatoes of Riggs' fighting style--the axe is for up-close dismemberment, and the guitar is for ranged destruction. Having not had the opportunity to pick up a controller, we can't yet say how the combat system really operates, but so far it looks like a fun combination of straightforward brawling augmented by special moves--such as using the axe like a baseball bat to knock enemies into one another--doled out rather generously along the way. The animations look pretty solid, and there's a whole lot of blood and flying limbs to boot.
After dealing with this first wave of druids, the next few minutes of the demo were filled with a collection of over-the-top metal images that provided fertile ground for Riggs to react humorously to his newfound surroundings. A sexy demon nun riding a giant spider? Yep. A sweet hot rod summoned from ancient relics in the ground that can be unlocked only with an amazing guitar solo? That's there. A boss fight against a massive worm skeleton that can die only when you behead it on a spiked gate? Of course. In fact, according to Schafer, every visual element of the game was designed in such a way that it should feel like it was pulled right from the cover art of a metal album. It works well, too: for all the overwrought demonic and Nordic imagery, Eddie Riggs maintains a grounded sense of humor about the whole thing as he quips his way through it all.
After an extended vehicle sequence that sees Riggs and his newfound female acquaintance, Ophelia, race along a collapsing freeway filled with druids and demons, complete with volcanoes erupting ominously in the background, the game's relatively linear opener is complete and you're introduced to the world of Brutal Legend as a whole. It's a 64-square-kilometer world that includes open terrain and a stunning view of Mt. Rockmore, a Rushmore-inspired landmark depicting the face of the villainous General Lionwhyte--four times over. You find out about this evil glam rocker when you visit Bladehenge, a city that's home to a small resistance movement. Lionwhyte has taken all the male residents of the village and sent them to work in the mines, while all the females have been sent to his pleasure tower. He's not a nice guy, that Lionwhyte.
That little bit of background information lays the foundation for your first quest, where you meet with resistance leader Lars at the entrance to the mines in order to free Bladehenge's male population. They've been brainwashed into banging their heads against rocks all day long, or in other words, they're a legion of brain-dead headbangers. "What do you do with an army of kids who do nothing but bang their heads all day long?" Lars asks. After a pensive pause, Riggs replies, "You start a revolution!" At which point you're greeted with a prompt that asks whether you'd like to start a revolution "Now" or "Later." This particular exchange had the room erupting in laughter, and it shows how sharp Schafer's sense of comedic timing is after all these years.
Inside the mines, Riggs manages to recruit the headbangers and is subsequently introduced to a new gameplay feature that lets him command a number of troops. It's a "stay, follow, attack" type of system that allows Riggs to guide his legion of headbangers against a legion of hair metal kids in a heated battle over metal supremacy. Oh, and there's also a giant spinning pain wheel suspended above a lava pit. It's a strange mine.
That's about where the demo ended. We thoroughly enjoyed seeing the game in motion, though Schafer's comedic narration certainly helped. The writing is snappy, clever, and not overly reliant on knowledge of heavy metal minutiae to really understand the jokes. The combat also looked interesting with the way it managed to combine humor and ample violence. While this build suffered from a choppy frame rate and unpredictable textures, there's still a lot of time to iron out the kinks before the game's release later this year. Minor technical issue and all, we're eager to see Brutal Legend again, so stay tuned for more coverage