Guitar Hero 3 makes good on the promise of its predecessors with an unparalleled soundtrack and top notch presentation
Despite putting the tiny plastic guitar in the hands of developers Neversoft, best known for the dozens of Tony Hawk games they've created, nothing is lost in the translation. This is Guitar Hero. Actually, that's not fair, this is the Guitar Hero that you've been waiting for ever since strapping that mini-Gibson SG and tearing through "I Love Rock And Roll" two years ago. With Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, Neversoft makes good on the promise of being a virtual guitar god by upping the quality of track list far beyond anything seen in Guitar Hero to date, cleaning up the presentation so that it looks like a game designed for the next-gen, and (finally) allowing you to shred with, or against, the entire planet via Xbox Live.
The basic mechanics haven't changed at all. You pick a song, you pick the difficulty, and simply to get to rockin'. As the song plays, different colored circles careen towards you in time with the guitar track. Using your Les Paul-shaped guitar controller, you hold down the correct colored button, or buttons, with one hand and click the big black strum bar with your other. As you keep going, the notes come faster and faster, and you're required to navigate more complicated patterns of notes. Can't keep up with that? There are star-shaped notes, that will fill up your Star Power meter when hit. If you get that meter high enough, you can tilt the neck of your guitar to the heavens, shout "By The Power of Grayskull!" and activate your star power. Everything turns electric, your score doubles, and you'll find your rock meter back in the green...provided you keep hitting the notes.
Though this is still good ol' Guitar Hero, there are a few tweaks that will take experienced players a bit of time to get used to, but they're certainly for the good. First, GH3 is much more forgiving on the timing of your button presses. Anyone who had difficulty keeping up with the fast notes will find them much easier to hit this time around; the window for hitting notes has been expanded drastically. Also, hammer-ons, notes that don't require you to strum, still work the same way as before, but their placement in the song is very, very different. In Guitar Hero 1 and 2, the hammer-ons were determined by the game. Basically, if a series of notes were close enough together, the game marked them as hammer-ons regardless of whether or not the actual guitarist strummed the notes. Neversoft did away with that in GH3. Every hammer-on is hand-placed by the developer, who worked under the guideline of "if the guitarist strummed it, you strum it." Notice the word "guideline." There are still some sections with a ton of hammer-ons, but for the most part you'll be strumming a lot more. Though it's a jarring change at first, eventually you'll grow to appreciate how much more authentic the game is to the real experience of playing songs like "Black Magic Woman."
Don't be fooled by the generous timing, this game is hard. Really, really, really hard. Guitar Hero 2 focused on blistering solos and crazy end wankery, where the notes seemed to just fly in all directions with little discernible pattern. GH3 tones that down a bit, though songs like "Cult of Personality" still have insane solos, to focus on chord-heavy tracks with memorable riffs. Some fans worried that the songs would not be as fun to play, as they are more repetitive than previous entries. That turns out to be a moot point, because the riff patterns are much more complicated than in previous games. The Who's "The Seeker" is in the middle of the setlist, but it's chord transitions are closer to the later tracks in Guitar Hero 2. By the time that you make it to "3's and 7's" and "Before I Forget," you'll be required to make extremely quick and difficult three-finger chord transitions over and over again. It's enough to cramp your hand up after one playthrough, but you'll be so hooked on trying to master the riff that you'll punish yourself "just one more time" for the next hour.
The biggest new feature is "battle mode." Rather than trying to outplay your opponent, you actively try to sabotage him/her. When you hit a series of star-shaped notes, you gain an attack instead of Star Power. Now, when you flip your guitar up, your opponent will be handicapped with one of a handful of maladies, including double-notes, increased difficulty, a broken string, or the dreaded "lefty flip." The point is to screw your opponent so bad that they fail the song. This is not as much fun as it sounds. Most matches tend to be extremely brief, as many of the attacks are too difficult to recover from, especially on the Expert difficulty. Also, Guitar Hero is a game of skill, where you're primarily competing against yourself rather than the opponent. Think about if you were playing golf, and could randomly switch out your opponent's ball with one that will hook far to the left every time it's hit. Sure, it would help you win, but it's not as satisfying as simply beating him with your own superior skill.
Most people think that the presentation of this game isn't that important, since you're just focused on the flurry of notes coming at you. They have a point, but the presentation makes a big difference in keeping you engaged. Neversoft understood this, and completely made over just about every facet of the presentation. The biggest improvement is in the load times. The load times are so tiny that you probably won't be able have time to read the snarky comments on the now loading screen before you're onto the rocking. Also, if you can tear your eyes away from the scrolling notes, you'll notice that the drummer is hitting the right drums, the bassist is grooving through the bass track correctly, and the bass-mouthed singer is lip-syncing to the song. These little touches add that much more authenticity to the rock and roll experience that Guitar Hero is known for. There are a few framerate hiccups, especially when activating star power. It's a minor gripe, because you get used to it, but it's hard to imagine that this game is really pushing the Xbox 360 hardware. It's a surprising blemish, especially since everything else was so well done.
Despite all of the improvements to the presentation, the tracklist makes-or-breaks a music game. GH3 has the single most impressive tracklist of any Guitar Hero game to date. Everyone has different tastes in music, meaning that you can always argue about how the soundtrack could be better. That sort of nitpicking may be fun, but it has less validity this time around. Before you can even say, "why isn't Led Zeppelin in there," you're countered with inclusions of top hits by The Who, The Sex Pistols, Santana, and Metallica. Oh, and they went ahead and threw in some original compositions from Slash and Rage Against The Machine's Tom Morello for good measure. You can see how much more respected Guitar Hero is as a franchise now, as the developers were able to skip the semi-obscure songs like "Last Child," "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'," and "Strutter." Instead, you can now play legitimate hits like "Same Old Song And Dance," "Paint It Black," and "I Wanna Rock And Roll All Nite." Some of the newer tracks that aren't out-and-out hits, and they haven't had the time to become classics, but you won't really care because they're a ton of fun to play.
Upping the ante even further, about half of the 40-plus licensed tracks are recordings by the original artists. This includes just about everything from 1990 on, as well as a smattering of the older tracks. Though it may not seem like a big deal at first, after all we've been playing covers all along, playing the original version of "Bulls On Parade" just rocks harder. It feels so much more authentic. However, not everything is an original recording, and you might think that the covers now stand out like a sore thumb. While that is true for a few of the stinkers, most of the cover versions are the best of any Guitar Hero game. You might be surprised when you see "as made famous by" pop up, because you were sure that it was the original recording.
Sadly, the bonus songs could no longer include the wacky tracks by Made in Mexico, the sloppy rock of Vagiant, or all-around fun of Honest Bob and The Factory To Dealer Incentives, because most of the bonus bands from Guitar Hero 1 and 2 belong to Harmonix. Neversoft took a different approach and included a dozen or so bands from Europe, as well as some indie bands from the States. The change is a welcome one, as the bonus tracks still manage mix it up quite well. It's nice to hear singers scream in German and French for a change. Neversoft also continued the tradition of adding in some ridiculously difficult tracks to the bonus setlist, including the most frightening song ever put into a Guitar Hero game. "Through The Fire and Flames" by Dragonforce is a seven-plus minute, 3722 note terror. It should keep the elite players busy for awhile.
The "better late than never" addition of online play will also help to keep GH3 fresh over the long-term. For anyone who worried about lag, rest your fears. Lag is not an issue. Playing along with a friend, or foe, you'll see every note that they hit and every Star Power phrase that they miss, as well as an up-to-date score, note streak, and multiplier. Or do you? If you can tear your eyes away from the flurry of notes coming at you during Slayer's "Raining Blood," you might catch your opponent's score skipping up a few thousand points, as well as their multiplier resetting, well after they've stopped playing a section. This reveals that, though there is some lag, the game compensates for it and doesn't screw up what you're doing. This is a very minor problem if you're neck and neck with your opponent during a pro-face off session, but it's more of a problem during battle mode. Typically, you want to time your attacks to screw up your opponent when they're hitting a section that will give them an attack. Because of lag, you'll attack them late, causing them to retaliate by smacking your side of the screen during a blistering solo.
Playing online works great, but setting up matches is painstakingly difficult. Halo 2 came out three years ago. How do companies continue to ignore its matchmaking model today? All you need to do is set up a lobby, get some friends together, and start matching them up randomly until they want to stop. Instead, you have to set up a private match, then invite an individual to game. That whole process can take a minute or more, depending on how many times they need to switch their guitar model and character's color scheme. Then you get to play between 1 and 7 songs with them. If you want to play more than that, you have to go through the same process all over again. If you're into playing random people, you can jump into a quick match and play whatever mode that user has set up. You can filter that to avoid battle or co-op, if you want.
When you tally up all of its virtues, there is no denying that Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock stands heads-and-shoulders above its predecessors. It's the perfect example of how to improve an already amazing game. They left the core mechanics well enough alone, but threw on a new coat of paint, tweaked a few gameplay issues, and added enough new features to justify buying a whole new game. Harmonix is waiting in the wings to attempt a coup for the rock game crown, but for now Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock reigns supreme.