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Guitar Hero III or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Rock...for the most part

Better late than never, right? Well, I�ve now played through much of the career mode in Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock � I�m up to the second guitar battle (the one with Slash), which takes place at the end of tier 5, �Shanker�s Island� � and I feel like I have a pretty good grasp of the game. Since I know so many of you have been waiting with bated breath for my review (*wink*), I now present it to you here. Note: I am reviewing the PS3 version of the game, which is the one I have. Also, this review will be LONG (nearly 1,700 words, in fact).

All you apprehensive guitar heroes out there can rest easy: Neversoft and Activision have not ruined, tarnished, desecrated, sullied the name of, or defiled the Guitar Hero franchise with this game. Guitar Hero III is a solid entry in the ever-popular series, and while it doesn�t come close to being perfect, it doesn�t exactly herald the apocalypse or anything, as some unhappy players have been suggesting.

Obviously, the core gameplay remains the same in this second sequel to the original Guitar Hero (that is, of course, if you don�t count the abomination that was Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s). With a guitar-shaped plastic controller, you press combinations of five primary-colored buttons in conjunction with a strum bar, all of which is meant to simulate playing an actual guitar. And it works well � to an extent. The new wireless controller, meant to evoke the classic Gibson Les Paul, is a solid piece of equipment. Some people have reported problems with the detachable neck of the guitar, saying that it may move around during periods of rocking out, but I haven�t had any such issues as of yet; there�s a locking mechanism on the guitar to help ensure that these kinds of things don�t happen, and I don�t really move around that much while I�m playing in my cramped dorm room.

However, I�ve had my share of qualms with the new guitar controller For example, its reduced button sensitivity is annoying. That is, you have to press the buttons harder � and noticeably so � for the game to register that you hit the note. This was apparent to me right away. I�ve been playing on Expert since the original Guitar Hero, and I was missing notes that I shouldn�t have been missing on the first song, �Slow Ride�. Also, you can�t relent in keeping the buttons held down � if you make the slightest reduction in pressure on a sustained note or chord, it will end. In addition, and this may just have been an isolated problem with my game, the lag calibration wasn�t working for me. I have a 26" Samsung LCD HDTV, and my lag on Guitar Hero II was over 40 milliseconds (ms). I tried to calibrate lag numerous times, and I kept getting a lag of 0 ms. Since I was missing more notes than I thought was acceptable for me, I manually set the lag to 20 ms (yes, you can change it yourself this time around), and it has been smooth sailing ever since. Overall, though, the controller works fine, and the wireless syncing with the USB dongle (why couldn�t they use Bluetooth again?) is a breeze.

Now, on to the meat and potatoes of the review: the setlist and the gameplay. Indeed, these kinds of games are defined by the songs they feature. In my opinion, Guitar Hero III has the best group of songs yet, and while that doesn�t mean there are no songs in the game that I would�ve liked to see, I�m happy with what�s there. Something that I definitely found disappointing, however, was the lack of original master tracks � and this is where comparisons to the upcoming Rock Band start to rear their heads. Out of the 40 main tracks (not counting the guitar battles with Tom Morello and Slash, which feature original compositions) in Guitar Hero III � and I�m talking about the regular career mode because I don�t have a friend with a second guitar controller at college to play through the co-op career mode � just over half of the songs, a paltry 22 of them, are original master tracks. On the other hand, Rock Band will feature 45 songs on the disc that ships in the box, and only seven of them aren�t original master recordings. Say what you want, but this definitely detracts from the game, especially when many of the songs that are covers feature artists with very individualistic (and therefore, difficult to reproduce) vocals. For example, the singer on ZZ Top�s �La Grange� can�t get nearly as low as Billy Gibbons, and the vocalist who covers �The Seeker� is a mere shadow of Roger Daltrey. As usual, some are better than others, though: the singer for Heart�s �Barracuda� does a decent job of approximating Ann Wilson�s high-pitched wailing. Still, as you all know, nothing beats having the original album versions in the game.

Graphics-wise, the PS3 version is somewhat disappointing. I played a demo of the game at DigitalLife in September, and each kiosk had the game running on a 360. It seems that they turned the contrast down for the PS3 version; colors look much more rich and vibrant on the 360. However, there�s an upside to reduced contrast: the people on the 360 version look very shiny at times (again, it�s that �new-gen� sheen), and that�s not a problem on the PS3, so it really comes down to personal preference. But what isn�t a debatable issue is the quality of the graphics; they�re definitely more pixelated on the PS3 version (for details and comparison shots, see IGN�s Head-to-Head between the PS3, 360, and Wii versions).

Regarding the gameplay, Neversoft made some questionable decisions this time around. Obviously, they were trying to spice things up, but in most cases, they hurt the game more than they helped it. According to IGN�s review, Neversoft didn�t have access to Harmonix�s code from any of the past iterations in the series; in other words, they built this game from the ground up, and they certainly deserve a great deal of credit for that. The major change they made in the actual playing of the songs was increasing the window that players are given to hit hammer-ons and pull-offs; I heard somewhere that they did so by 25%, and the difference is definitely noticeable. They�ve also greatly raised the number of notes that can be hammered on and pulled off, or at least it seems so to me. You would think that this serves to make the game a piece of cake, but believe me, it still serves up enough of a challenge � there are many more chords this time around, especially quick changes between two- and three-button chords.

The news isn�t so good on the mode side. For some reason, Neversoft chose to make certain songs (such as the Beastie Boys� �Sabotage�) unlockable only through the co-op career mode, which leaves us loners out in the cold. I don�t understand the point behind this, but at least all the songs are playable (from the start, mind you) online. Also, I really don�t care for the new Battle Mode, in which you�ll hit certain strings of notes for �attacks� instead of Star Power. I�m a purist � I generally only play Pro Face-Off games on Expert � and this is one case where I do think that Neversoft has bastardized the core gameplay of the series. Battle Mode just seems like a gimmick to me. In this mode, the game is about luck more than skill, as some attacks are much easier to fend off than others (Double Notes can be daunting when faced with a string of quick single notes that jump around the fretboard � those two-button chords become very difficult to hit � but Whammy generally isn�t too bad). And the career mode requires you to do this when you �face� Tom Morello and Slash. Unfortunately, you have to cause the Legend of Rock to fail before the end of the song, or you automatically lose � there�s no point system, just a modified rock meter. And obviously, they�ll only miss notes when you use a power-up on them. It�s a good idea in theory, but the implementation leaves something to be desired.

Ah, yes: online play. These new-gen versions of Guitar Hero have been eagerly anticipated because countless users wanted to play friends who weren�t physically with them in the room at the moment. But does it work? Well, like the rest of Guitar Hero III, it isn�t flawless, but the essence of the game is there � aside from taunting your opponent after you�ve destroyed him, of course. For some reason, there�s no integration with the PS3 XMB friends list, so you can�t invite people into games with you (apparently, this isn�t an issue on the 360). Your only option is to create a game and then tell the friend you want to play to search for it. This is hard, because you can only search in ways: the game mode, the number of songs in the set, and the difficulty level. You are then presented with a list of all the people who have created games, and you have to just scroll up and down until you find your friend�s game. The back of the Blu-ray Disc case claims that the game is compatible with Bluetooth headsets, but there�s nothing in the manual or the options menu about it, and according to IGN�s Head-to-Head feature on the new-gen versions of the game, the game actually doesn�t have any voice support. Go figure � the 360 version is the only one that actually has full voice support, *sigh*. The online play itself works well � lag would be unacceptable in this kind of game, and it�s nonexistent. On that topic, I�ve noticed a few instances of a slight frame rate hiccup during the offline game when activating Star Power, but it isn�t bad enough to affect the gameplay.

All in all, Guitar Hero III may not be as good as we were hoping, but it�s still an awesome game that gets the job done � and by that, I mean making people feel like rock stars, of course. And isn�t that what video games are about, anyway � living vicariously? Escapism? In that respect, Guitar Hero III succeeds admirably, though it will certainly face some serious competition in three weeks from Rock Band. Also, the nature of the downloadable content remains to be seen; hopefully, it won�t be as bad as the highway robbery of the Guitar Hero II tracks on Xbox 360. Still, the game itself erases any fears of the developer transition, and with that, I�m going to go back to the game and rock out with my cock out.

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About Samit Sarkarone of us since 7:56 PM on 12.14.2006

Senior Reporter, Polygon at Vox Media

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