Guitar Hero III marks the debut of Activision and RedOctane's wildly popular rock-and-roll rhythm game on the PC, and in most ways, it's a solid one. This is a direct port of the Xbox 360 version of the game, complete with an included wired X-plorer model Xbox 360 controller. The core gameplay remains lots of fun, and the track list is long and varied, offering quite possibly the best setlist of any game in the series to date. If there are any chinks in the armor of this sequel, it's that some of the newer mode additions and a few odd design decisions do more to get in the way of the fun than anything else, and the extreme difficulty of some of the game's more severe songs might end up turning off newer players. And PC owners will have their own unique quirks to deal with, such as puzzlingly high system requirements, sluggish performance, and an online mode that's rather finicky about whether it wants to work or not.
We won't spend a great deal of time trying to educate you on the ways of Guitar Hero. The quick-and-dirty explanation is that you have a guitar controller with five fret buttons and a strummer. Notes appear on the screen, you hit the matching buttons, and rock is made. PC owners can also play with the keyboard if that somehow tickles their fancy, but that's not much fun.
In Guitar Hero III, you'll be making the rock with one of the best soundtracks to be found in any rhythm game. The soundtrack spans multiple eras and genres. Classic rock is represented with songs such as Santana's "Black Magic Woman," the Rolling Stones' "Paint it Black," and ZZ Top's "La Grange." Alternative rock from the '90s is present in a big way with tracks such as Smashing Pumpkins' "Cherub Rock," Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Suck My Kiss," and Pearl Jam's "Evenflow" on hand. Classic punk fans will dig being able to play the Dead Kennedys' "Holiday in Cambodia," Social Distortion's "Story of My Life," and the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the UK." Modern rock hits such as Bloc Party's "Helicopter," The Killers' "When You Were Young," and Queens of the Stone Age's "3's and 7's" are also available. And for all the metalheads, you get major classics such as Slayer's "Raining Blood," Iron Maiden's "Number of the Beast," and Metallica's "One." It's an all-around fantastic list with only a few blemishes here and there.
Well over half of the songs in Guitar Hero III are the original songs by the artists, as opposed to covers created for the purposes of the game. A couple of bands, including the Sex Pistols and early-'90s funk-metal outfit Living Colour, actually went into the studio and rerecorded their songs for the game, which is pretty cool. The one downside to having so many master tracks in this game is that it does make the songs that are still covers stick out all the more. It doesn't help that the general quality of the covers has also been downgraded a good bit since the last sequel. The woman covering Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" doesn't really sound anything like the '80s songstress; the version of Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" in the game features a uniformly unimpressive Ozzy Osbourne impersonator; and the entire cover of "Holiday in Cambodia" has been pretty badly butchered with some weird structuring changes, badly edited lyrics, and a guy who sounds more like someone trying to parody Jello Biafra than anyone remotely authentic. Of course, the guitar parts in these covers don't suffer much and in fact do a fine job of emulating the real-life songs. It's just the surrounding pieces that rob the tracks of authenticity.
Also of note is the high level of difficulty. The easy and medium difficulties are as good a starting point as they've ever been (though even they are a smidge more difficult than in previous installments), but the curve definitely takes a steep incline when you bump up to hard and expert. The jump in expertise required for each setting is far greater than ever before, and at times it comes across as just too much. As awesome as songs like "One" and "Raining Blood" are, they're so intense that it's unlikely that anyone who didn't get all the way through expert in Guitar Hero II will have a blessed clue what to do with these songs. And then there's that pesky song from extreme power metal group DragonForce, "Through the Fire and Flames." It sounds a little bit like a Dungeons & Dragons dork singing over a tape of the Contra soundtrack that's been thrown in a blender and set to "liquefy," and it is so excruciatingly, arthritis-inflictingly difficult that you'll be thanking your lucky stars it's a bonus song and not something you're required to complete to advance.
Regardless, there are enough songs that do require completion that aren't terribly far behind in difficulty level that it might just be enough to scare some people off from finishing expert altogether. There's an old adage along the lines of, "You win more friends with accessible fun than you do by breaking people's fingers with a fake guitar." Or something like that. Whatever. The point is that Guitar Hero III feels decidedly geared toward the hardcore Guitar Hero fan, and less toward the newcomer.
One thing about the PC version of Guitar Hero III that makes it potentially more difficult than its console brethren is the generally slothful performance the game can turn in. The steep minimum system requirements include a 2.8 GHz dual-core processor, a gig of RAM (2 gigs if you're running Vista), and either a Radeon X800 or Geforce 7600 video card to run. On the two systems we tested, which both exceeded these statistics, we still ran into some general sluggishness with the game. The 360 and PS3 versions of Guitar Hero III had some notable frame rate issues, but nothing quite like this. Notes will sometimes seem to be behind the music, and it's not uncommon to see notes just skip on down the fretboard to catch back up. For a rhythm game this is a killer, since precise timing is needed for success. The Vista machine we tested on displayed issues like this only on a very infrequent basis, and with a bit of lag calibration, it mostly ran quite well. However, the XP machine we used (which included a Pentium D 3.40 GHz dual-core processor, a gig of RAM, and a Geforce 7800 GTX video card) became practically unplayable in spots, even with all the graphical effects turned to low and the crowd graphics turned off. If your machine can run it fine, the game plays great, but if you run into these issues, you're going to end up frustrated.
Painful difficulty and performance problems aside, the game is still lots and lots of fun when it works correctly. The core gameplay hasn't been altered much from previous installments, save for a few minor adjustments here and there. Hammer-ons and pull-offs, the techniques used to hit crazy streaks of tightly packed single notes, are now easier than ever before (possibly to offset some of the extreme extremeness of the harder songs), and the notes that can be hammered on or pulled off now glow brightly to signify as such. While playing, you'll notice that the game also keeps track of your note streaks both with a counter and with periodic exclamatory text messages on the screen that notify you when you've hit certain streak milestones. There are also some changes to the way your star-power meter is displayed, as well as your score tracker, though these are mostly just aesthetic changes.
You progress through Guitar Hero III much as you would any of the previous games. The career mode uses the same tier-unlocking system as its predecessors, with encores at the end of each tier. One wrinkle to this year's mode is the addition of animated cutscenes that sketch a minimal story about your band's meteoric rise and eventual fall (literally) into hell. It's not much of a tale, but there are a few moments of amusement here and there. One particularly interesting addition to this year's game is a co-op career mode. This works much like the single-player career mode, but you can play through with a friend whom you can divvy up either lead or rhythm guitar/bass duties with. Co-op play hasn't changed much since Guitar Hero II, but this new career progression is a neat idea.
Unfortunately, it's a neat idea that's overly restrictive in practice. For one thing, there are six songs you can unlock only in co-op career, which means that if you don't have a buddy with a second guitar who can come over and spend an afternoon playing, you won't get those songs. Also, no version of the game ships with a co-op quick-play option. The only way to play cooperatively on a single console is to play in the co-op career mode, and you have to unlock six tiers' worth of songs before you unlock all the available songs. Interestingly enough, the launch-day patch that updated the Xbox 360 version of the game with a co-op quick-play mode hasn't been applied to the PC version--at least, not yet.
Elsewhere in the multiplayer arena, the face-off and pro face-off modes from the previous Guitar Hero games return, and they're still generally excellent. However, the one new addition is anything but. Titled battle mode, this mode replaces the star-power mechanic with Mario Kart-style weapons. If you hit a specific note string, you'll gain a weapon you can launch at your opponent by tilting the guitar. Weapons include broken strings, jacked-up whammy bars, amplifier overloads (which cause notes to appear and disappear randomly), and a reversal of the notes to lefty flip (and vice versa). On paper, this mode seems as if it could be amusing, but in practice it's just dumb. Most of the battle-mode matches we played were over in 30 seconds or less, because one player simply couldn't recover quickly enough to get a weapon and fire back. It's basically a situation where whoever gets a weapon first wins most of the time. Even when matches do go on for a bit longer, they aren't much fun.
Battle mode actually finds its way into the career mode in the form of boss battles. Activision went out and licensed a pair of notable guitar players, like Guns N' Roses/Velvet Revolver legend Slash, and Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave shredder Tom Morello. At the end of a couple of tiers in the career mode, you go head-to-head against these guys in original guitar tracks that they themselves recorded, during which time-battle mode rules apply. Nevertheless, the same balancing issue pops up. Most of the boss battles can be bested pretty quickly if you get a couple of weapons in a row. The last boss battle has you playing a heavy metal cover of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" against a fairly obvious opponent, and that fight is considerably tougher than the other two, but it's also the last boss of the game, so it would kind of have to be. The boss-battle mechanic just feels tacked on. With only three battles out of eight tiers in the game, and only two of them against real guitarists, it feels like a quickly tossed-together mechanic that, again, just isn't that much fun.
Quite a bit more enjoyable than any battle modes or boss battles is the addition of online play...at least in theory. While the online play worked fine out of the box on the console versions of the game, the PC version gave us a real headache. On one machine we simply couldn't get the game to connect to the servers at all, potentially because of firewall issues (even though other games on our system worked fine online). The second PC let us connect but refused to register our account no matter how many times we tried changing usernames, and how many different ways we tried to enter our registration code. Looking at the official forums for the game, it looks like some users are having similar problems, but others are able to play the game online OK. Also of note is that none of the downloadable songs from the console versions are up for the PC yet. The game supports downloadable content, so it seems like that should come along eventually, provided you can ever log in.
While on the subject of differences between versions, it's worth noting that each version of Guitar Hero III comes with its own guitar bundle, and PC owners are getting the least appealing one of the bunch. The guitar bundle for the game includes the Xbox 360 X-plorer guitar from Guitar Hero II, the wired one with the goofy strap setup. The guitar itself is fine, but considering that every other release of the game got a special guitar bundle with a guitar that has no strap design issues, better button placement, and full wirelessness, you might feel a little bit gypped if you go with this one. At least it's only $80 for the bundle instead of the $90 and $100 that the console versions go for. And if you already own an X-plorer controller from Guitar Hero II, you can cut that price in half if you just go buy the game all by its lonesome.
The change in developers has also resulted in a slight change in visual style in Guitar Hero III. The look of all the various characters and environments has changed noticeably, and everything has been given a more defined and exaggerated look. It might be slightly jarring to those accustomed to the standard Guitar Hero visuals, but once you get used to it, you'll find the game to be pretty sharp looking. The guitarist characters look excellent, and even the secondary band players look more detailed than ever before (though considering how dog-ugly the singer is, maybe he could have stood to have a little less detail). The PC version looks just about as good as the Xbox 360 version of the game, apart from the aforementioned performance problems. This is one case where we could have endured a bit of graphical downscaling if it'd helped the game run better.
It's also disappointing that Activision has finally decided to corporate up the Guitar Hero experience with a fair amount of lame product placement and dynamic in-game advertising. It's one thing to get branded guitars and get Guitar Center to sponsor your in-game shop; it's quite another to have several of the game's environments feature billboards that display ads dynamically, and logos for Pontiac and Axe Body Spray that pop up all over the place. It even goes so far as to have Axe-sponsored guitars you can buy in-game, and Axe-sponsored go-go dancers prancing about the stage while you play. Gross.
An abundance of advertising, some overly restrictive design decisions, weak new modes, a major upping of the difficulty level, and significant performance issues might seem like a lot of potential hindrances for a game to overcome, and yet none of these problems are big enough to rob Guitar Hero III of the same brand of addictive fun that made the previous entries in the franchise so engaging. Certainly the fantastic tracklist goes a long way toward that end, but the gameplay is really what sells it. Sure, the difficulty can be vexing, but the game never loses that sense of "just one more song" addictiveness, even at the height of its challenge level. It's a shame that the PC version can't quite measure up to the level of quality of its console counterparts due to those pesky performance problems, but if you've got a system that can run it, any rock fan is guaranteed to have a good time with this one.