In 2005, Harmonix and Red Octane rocked the videogame world with a peripheral-based music title like North Americans had never seen. With Guitar Hero, dreams of rock n' roll stardom were fulfilled in living rooms and basements across the nation, and a pop culture phenonmenon was born.
Earlier this year, Harmonix announced that they'd be moving on to another project, and passed the torch to Neversoft, best known for their work on Activision's Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series. Legs trembled and lips quivered -- what would the fate of the series be? Would we have to perform kick flips before every guitar solo? Would we have to throw out that faded denim jacket with the Iron Maiden patches on it?
Don't take your studded belt off just yet, because not much has changed, and it looks like things are going to be just fine.
Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (PS3, PS2, Wii -- reviewed on Xbox 360)
Neversoft may have been tasked with re-building the Guitar Hero engine from scratch (Harmonix took it and ran off into the night), but most people would be hard pressed to tell the difference. The scrolling note mechanic introduced in Harmonix's Frequency (and later adapted and popularized by Guitar Hero) is back, and maintains a similar feel to the earlier titles. Additions like a visible "notes hit" counter and a smoother visual transition when activating "Star Power" make the experience tighter and cleaner than ever before.
While players with less experience may not notice it, Guitar Hero veterans will immediately recognized the wider window of opportunity you're given to hit notes. This makes the hammer-on and pull-off mechanic a bit easier, and you may find yourself nailing insane licks you never would have been able to in previous titles. It seems like a great plan -- by making the timing more forgiving, more difficult levels should be more accessible to players who might have been struggling with some of the series' tougher tracks. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on who you ask), this isn't the case.
Without question, Guitar Hero III is the toughest game in the series. Playing with inexperienced players, I immediately noticed that the difficulty level on the game's easiest mode ramped up rather quickly, causing missed notes and a great deal of early frustration. On more difficult levels, some of the tracks are absolutely brutal – songs like Slayer's "Raining Blood" and Metallica's "One" may actually be more difficult to play in the game than they are on an actual guitar. Bottom line -- just because the gameplay has been loosened up a bit, that doesn't mean Neversoft are cutting you any slack, so start stretching your fingers and cracking your knuckles now.
The game's career mode doesn't stray too far from the original formula either, and while that familiarity is nice, we're getting into some dangerous territory here. Taking a quick look at Neversoft's other popular franchise, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, is cause for alarm -- only minor tweaks and additions from year to year have caused that series to become dated and stale. Still, Neversoft does bring something new to the table with Legends of Rock -- the boss battle.
During the career mode, you'll go face to face with the likes of Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello and Guns n' Roses legend, Slash. In this new battle mode, "Star Power" is replaced with "Battle Power." Certain phrases of notes will contain "Battle Gems," and successfully nailing the notes will net you an "attack." Activating "Battle Power" will result in a number of different attacks, including leveling up your opponent difficulty, or reversing notes.
This battle mode is actually a blast when playing against a human opponent -- yelling, laughter, spilled beers, and frustration occur when a newbie tosses a lefty flip in the face of an expert opponent. However, including the boss battles within the game serve only to make the title feel less like fun rock n' roll fantasy, and more like (dare I say it) a videogame. Doing so takes you out of the rock God mindset, and makes it abundantly clear that this is not reality, and you're not a rock star -- you're standing in your living room, wearing boxer shorts, and playing a plastic guitar. And those aren't groupies ... those are your parents.
It's easy to appreciate that Neversoft wanted to try something new with the series, but it doesn't come across as an addition that takes the game to the next level. Even the original guitar battle recordings by Morello and Slash are boring and uninspired; next time we're itching for head-to-head guitar battles, I'll reach for my Crossroads VHS, thank you very much.
What Neversoft did bring to the table is a solid understanding of some great rock music when applied to a game like Guitar Hero. If there's one area where the Tony Hawk games never really suffered, it's in having a varied and eclectic soundtrack. While some could argue the point (and lose, because I'm right and you're wrong), Guitar Hero III has one one of the most solid soundtracks in the series. Tracks by Metallica, The Rolling Strones, Weezer, and even Sonic Youth are represented with master recordings. In fact, there are more original recording tracks than ever before in this year's game. And while the covers aren't all up to snuff, not even a studio musician's bored Rob Zombie impression on "Black Sunshine" can ruin the otherwise killer soundtrack.
The game features the full suite of the expected multiplayer modes, including Face-off, Pro Face-off, Guitar Battle, and cooperative quickplay (available as a title update on Xbox Live). Guitar Hero III also features a Co-op Career mode, which is a great addition, and features a modified song tier structure, alternate cut-scenes, and exclusive encore songs that can only be unlocked through this mode.
Online play also makes its triumphant debut, along with an official community page that keeps tracks of enough stats to make anyone's head spin. Activision are also promising a bevy of downloadable content for the title ... at least until Guitar Hero IV is announced. And while they're already delivering on this promise, forced bundles of songs at a premium are enough to make me take pause before dumping my cash into the Guitar Hero III money-machine.
What the game looks like has always taken a backseat to how hard it lets you rock the f**k out, but Guitar Hero III on the Xbox 360 has a noticeable visual improvement. Everything looks impressively crisp in high definition, and the venues and characters are more detailed than before, with impressive lighting effects highlighting the experience. Although some of the game's "main characters" have made a return, the designs have been tweaked a bit, but unfortunately suffer from some laughable animations. The drummer is particularly bad, for instance, and waves his arms around carelessly, like a malfunctioning Chuck E. Cheese bot. This shouldn't bother anyone who's actually playing the game, but considering that the previous games had some solid and convincing rock n' roll animation, this is inexcusable.
The game can be purchased as a standalone disc or as a bundle with the new wireless Les Paul, and I can't recommend the new wireless guitar enough. Despite the obvious freedom it provides, the neck of the guitar is a bit longer, and the controller feels more substantial in your hands. The whammy bar has also been tweaked, and has a tighter feel. The neck of the guitar is removable for easy storage and travel, although I found that breaking the controller down into two pieces made it harder to transport. Instead of carrying one piece to a friends house, now I'm expected to carry two? Which hand am I going to use to carry the six pack of Budweiser, dude?
The bottom line here is no real surprise -- if you're a fan of the Guitar Hero series, you've already purchased this game, and you're just reading this review so you can bitch about the score. And if you've never played a Guitar Hero game before, it's hard to go wrong with Legends of Rock, despite the brutal difficulty of some songs. With online play, cooperative career, and a flesh-melting soundtrack, this is the best installment of the series yet.