The most important piece of knowledge you need going into Brutal Legend has nothing to do with heavy metal music. Sure, a deep love of that genre can play a huge part in your overall enjoyment of the game's guitar-solo-fueled and star-studded story, but it's easier to find satisfaction in what the game is when you're not expecting it to be something it is not. With this PC release of Brutal Legend coming years after its 2009 console debut, it's easier to prepare for the unique experience it offers while also enjoying it at a higher resolution.
Merely looking at screenshots or old prerelease marketing materials for the game can make it appear to be many things, yet it's not "Zelda with a guitar," and it's not "God of War as told by Black Sabbath," as cool as either of those things might have been. It's a real-time strategy game, even though that term may not accurately represent the first couple of hours of the campaign.
Brutal Legend follows Eddie Riggs, a roadie (voiced by Jack Black) with a profound love of classic metal who finds himself transported to an appropriately brutal fantasy land that's part The Lord of the Rings and part Iron Maiden album art. The game's strongest qualities lie in its writing, its characters, and its world. The magic (and much of the humor) is in how many fantasy tropes are twisted to fit into a heavy metal world. Basic melee characters, for instance, are literal headbangers who smash their craniums against anything in their way. Roadies are your strong but stealthy units; guitar solos can literally melt faces; and "fans" are your mystical, music-loving resource. This all combines with a well-acted cast of characters featuring voices from the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy Kilmister, and Tim Curry. The story does lose some of its whimsy toward the end, when the plot is in danger of taking itself too seriously, but the over-the-top nature persists through the six- to eight-hour adventure.
The first time you take control of Eddie, you might feel as if you're playing a rather standard character action game, since mashing out simple combos is your path to bloodily slaughtering groups of enemies. Soon, however, the world opens up, and you may get a strong The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time vibe as you search the landscape for collectibles and play your magical instrument (a guitar, which is, of course, much more hardcore than an ocarina) to perform solos that can summon your trusty car or reveal hidden garages. Just when you feel like this might be what the game is about, Brutal Legend starts letting you give orders to small squads of units, which is when the strategy aspect becomes more apparent. This is a good thing, due in no small part to the fact that an entire game of nothing but Brutal Legend's on-foot combat wouldn't be the most pleasant of experiences.
It's a little while before you reach a point where this feels like a more full-fledged (if simple and action-heavy) real-time strategy game. In the game's stage battles, you are given a single stage (your base), which can be upgraded and which produces all of your units. Fans serve as your band/army's single resource, and controlling fan geysers spread across the map is key to victory. It's never possible to amass as large an army as you might be used to in other strategy games, and there is only one simple upgrade path to pursue, but there is a good variety in how each unit behaves, which can allow for many different strategies.
You always control Eddie directly and can get your axe bloody in on-foot battles yourself, but you need to spend a lot of time managing your troops from the air. A simple button press sends you flying into the sky, where you can quickly survey the land and order troops around. If you're serious about doing damage with your own hands, units at your command have double-team attacks that let you control them more directly, whether by marching with a mosh pit of headbangers, driving a vehicle, or operating a turret.
When you're not on a story mission, the world is riddled with side quests to take on, which can vary in style from race events to small-scale battles to hunting missions. Unfortunately, there is a lot of repetition in these quests that makes them become tedious quickly, especially when the rewards (typically nothing more than a small amount of experience) aren't necessary to proceed through the game.
Once you've finished the rather short campaign, you can hop into multiplayer, which expands on the stage battle formula with two additional factions. If you want to practice your skills, you have the option of battling an AI opponent across a range of difficulty settings, though your options are sadly limited to one-on-one duels (which is also true of non-custom online matches). This is a bit unfortunate, since Brutal Legend doesn't sport the most populated multiplayer servers, meaning you may have to play the AI more often than you'd like if you're starving for more battles.
The PC version adds higher resolution and multiple frame-rate options, allowing the game to be played in 1080p at 60fps. There are also a host of new anti-aliasing options along with sliders to adjust field of view and draw distance. But Brutal Legend's graphical assets do nothing to hide the fact that this was originally a console game several years ago, though the game's art style, which gives off a heavy metal album-cover vibe with every new environment, holds up well. Rounding out the reasonably priced package is all the downloadable content that was originally released for the console versions, which doesn't add a ton of meat to the single-player experience but is a fun perk anyway.
The main place where Brutal Legend's PC port feels like a missed opportunity is in its controls, and it's weird to say that an RTS actually controls better with a gamepad than with a mouse. While you can plug in an Xbox 360 controller and immediately have a console-like control experience, those intending to play with a mouse and keyboard may not have as good a time. The game certainly isn't unplayable in this setup, but it's not ideal. The radial menus make sense when you're using analog sticks, but they make building units quickly a chore when you're using a mouse. It would have been nice if Double Fine had taken the extra step to add something PC RTS players are more used to, such as a menu bar. As it is, the game doesn't feel as natural when you're using a keyboard.
Ultimately, this is an upscaled version of the exact same Brutal Legend experience console gamers got in 2009, warts and all. A few minor technical hiccups aside (which the developer seems dedicated to fixing with patches), the game runs well. With Brutal Legend's new graphics options and its budget-friendly price point, Double Fine seems to have done most things right in bringing the game to the PC--effective mouse and keyboard controls being the obvious exception. Plug in a gamepad, though, and you have a fine version of what remains a unique action strategy experience. Just be sure you know what type of game you're getting into.