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Hands on with Brutal Legend, faces melted

Brutal Legend is the latest from legendary game designer Tim Schafer, who is responsible for such classics as Grim Fandango and Psychonauts.

Brutal Legend is the latest from legendary game designer Tim Schafer, who is responsible for such classics as Grim Fandango and Psychonauts. His latest adventure, undoubtedly the most mainstream yet, stars Jack Black as the voice of Eddie Riggs, a roadie for a metal band who finds himself transported to demonic, metal-infused world.

We got a chance to sit down with the near-final build of Brutal Legend in New York. Here's how the game is shaping up:

Brutal Legend is a metal fan's absolute fantasy come true. The game is overflowing with references and jokes about the genre and is sure to lure in gamers on charm alone. Beneath the metal spikes and skulls lies a hack and slash action/adventure game, but it seems that the overall production value, soundtrack, and presentation might be the winners here.

After about an hour with the game, it's clear that Schafer's latest epic isn't just about over-the-top solos and double bass pedals. You'll drive around an open-world environment decapitating cleverly drawn-up foes with your battleaxe and perform spells to unearth areas to upgrade your ride.

What also stood out during our demo was the writing. Try and think of a video game that actually made you laugh--it's a short list. In the 15 minutes or so of cut scenes we witnessed, Brutal Legend had us legitimately amused. It's certainly a refreshing change of pace after countless titles that try so hard to put a smile on your face.

With an all-star metal cast including Ozzy Osbourne, Motorhead's Lemmy Kilmister, and Judas Priest's Rob Halford, Brutal Legend has no problem proving its metal cred. Whether you'll be playing just for the cut scenes and music is yet to be determined.

After sitting through a fairly decent-size playthrough of the beginning of Brutal Legend, a few things became apparent: Tim Schafer hasn't lost his sense of humor, and the game will involve a lot of God of War-esque hacking and slashing throughout its open-world adventure. While I personally couldn't care less about heavy metal and its iconic fantasy landscapes, I credit the game for sucking me in with good storytelling and amusing action scenes regardless.

Apart from the well-executed casting and fish-out-of-water satire, the game also features a simple and accessible interface. Jack Black's leather-jacketed alter ego is free to roam anywhere, but clear well-lit beacons guide the way without spelling it out in a glittering trail of fairy-dust. Spells cast via guitar feel like an homage to Ocarina of Time, and there were plenty of Spinal Tap-like jokes and intriguingly over-the-top character designs to still give this mainstream game a good dose of Schafer-by-way-of-Tim-Burton.

As to what I hope exists in the rest of the game? More quirky monsters and side characters, an increasingly over-the-top set of vehicle customizations (the few we witnessed were simple but dramatic), and hopefully a good dose of absurdism to go with that heaping helping of headbanging. Until then, this definitely looks like one of the original headliners of the fall '09 gaming season.

With loving (but tongue-in-cheek) homages to '70s/'80s NWOBHM culture and overblown D&D fantasy set pieces, Brutal Legend has set itself up from the start as something outside of the gaming mainstream. That kind of meta-contextual appropriation of cultural cliches is extremely difficult to pull off, and walks a fine line between laughing at and laughing with its subject matter.

Fortunately, this project springs from the mind of one of the game industry's few name-brand auteurs, Tim Schafer (the man behind one of our all-time cult favorites, Grim Fandango).

In the brief hands-on time we recently had with the game, and several other extended demo sessions we've seen, the writing and voice acting are as rapid-fire funny as a "Family Guy" episode, which puts it miles past most other video games.

The actual hacking, slashing, spell-casting, and driving that make up most of the actual gameplay (at least that we've seen so far) is more pedestrian: not bad by any stretch, just not anything radically new. While we'll have to dive deeper into the quest-based storyline to see if the game mechanics hold up as well as the script, what we may end up with is one of the first video games that's more fun to watch someone else play.

Brutal Legend is set to spawn October 13 on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.