Rock Band may be wowing the eager music-gaming public with its fancy array of instrument controllers and promise of full downloadable albums, but don't count out Guitar Hero just yet. The venerable rhythm-action rocker's third installment, Legends of Rock, is due out at the end of the month. We had a chance recently to go hands-on with nearly finished builds of the game on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii. We also got a chance to play all these versions with the nice new Les Paul guitar controllers for each platform, which you can read a detailed report on from GameSpot Hardware. All around, despite the change in developer (from Harmonix to Neversoft) and the looming competition from Rock Band, we're more excited than ever to get our hands on the final version of the game after getting to play it for an afternoon.
A lot of that excitement simply comes down to Guitar Hero III's towering set list, which is packed full of some of rock's biggest classics. The lineup of bands in this game is staggering: the Rolling Stones, Smashing Pumpkins, the Beastie Boys, Weezer, Kiss, Alice Cooper, Foghat, Cream, the Who, Sonic Youth, Aerosmith, Guns 'n Roses, Metallica...do we need to go on? This is arguably the best list of music we've ever seen in a rhythm game. Because these sorts of games live and die by their music, that's certainly good news for Legends of Rock's potential popularity. No doubt it's that popularity and the cultural cachet the Guitar Hero name has garnered during the past two years that's allowed RedOctane to secure the mammoth content it has to offer.
If you were worried about Guitar Hero losing its unique feel with a different developer at the reins, stop worrying. The game is now polished up and just about ready to ship. But we really couldn't find any discernible difference in the core gameplay or feel between Legends of Rock and its Harmonix-made predecessors. Sure, some of the new heads-up display elements will take some getting used to--they look markedly different from the star power and combo meters of the previous games. But this is definitely still Guitar Hero, from the timing of the gameplay and the grungy menu artwork to the loading-screen band humor.
One of the big new additions to Legends of Rock is the two-player battle mode, so we spent some time investigating it. Battle mode is the most directly competitive multiplayer yet in a Guitar Hero game and felt a bit to us like Mario Kart because it focuses on wacky power-ups that you'll collect as you play by completing sequences of notes in the same way you gain star power. Some of the power-ups we used (or had used against us) included a broken string, which forces you to hammer on a particular button repeatedly before you can actually start playing notes again; a whammy block, where you have to wiggle the whammy bar quickly to resume playing; amp overload, which makes all the notes on your board start flashing randomly; lefty flip, which reverses the buttons on your board (and is darn near impossible to compensate for); and difficulty up, which temporarily raises your difficulty level by one. The game's hectic boss battles against such guitar greats as Slash and Tom Morello also play out with this battle mode setup.
Legends of Rock is the first Guitar Hero to support online play, which was available at Activision's press event. Unfortunately, the demo stations were only networked with other machines in the same room, so we couldn't gauge what the lag might be like in a real-world Internet scenario. The multiplayer setup on the Xbox 360 and PS3 look similar to the kind of matchmaking you see in a lot of shooters. You can search for quick matches just to get playing fast, or you can set up a custom search that will filter for game modes and so on. Of course, leaderboards will also be a central part of the online experience. The Wii multiplayer looked similar to the other consoles, although you'll have to rely on friend codes in that version.
The PS3 and 360 games were just about indistinguishable from a graphical perspective. Both of them also look suitably next generation. The Wii game didn't look half bad, either, though it will obviously only run in 480p and the level of detail was much reduced from the other two games. Still, anyone who played a lot of Guitar Hero on the PlayStation 2 should be fine with the look of the Wii version. Neversoft has gone pretty crazy with the new and unlockable characters. Past games had dudes like the "grim ripper" tearing it up onstage, and during our demo of the new game, we saw a ludicrously candy-colored Japanese schoolgirl with purple hair named Midori, as well as a tin-can robot axe man who was tearing it up with a guitar that looked like a giant raygun.
It's nice to see that RedOctane hasn't rested on its laurels and simply ridden the popularity of Guitar Hero all the way to the bank. Au contraire, Legends of Rock is looking like a proper sequel in every sense. Make sure to check out the GameSpot Hardware report on the new guitar controllers, as well as GameSpot News' interview with RedOctane cofounder Charles Huang, for even more information on the present and future of Guitar Hero.