You wouldn't have been wrong to come into Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock with some sense of trepidation. With original Guitar Hero developer Harmonix off the project and Tony Hawk creators Neversoft now on board, it would be fair to wonder if anything that made the wildly popular rhythm game franchise so awesome would be lost in the shuffle. The good news is that Guitar Hero III is Guitar Hero through and through. The core gameplay that fans love hasn't changed outside of some basic tweaks, and the long and varied tracklist is the best 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. Likewise, the extreme difficulty of some of the game's more severe songs might end up turning off newer players. Those issues aside, it's hard to argue with what Guitar Hero III offers from a content perspective, especially if you're a longtime fan of the franchise.
Say hello to the return of the shred.
We won't spend a great deal of time trying to educate you on the ways of Guitar Hero if you've never played one of these games before. 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. 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 The 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. It's easily a much higher ratio of quality over crap than what Guitar Hero II had.
It's worth noting the number of original tracks added into this year's game. 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.
Of note as well is the fact that Guitar Hero II's focus on extreme shredding over simple yet memorable riffs is even more intense in this sequel. 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 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 for the newcomer.
Painful difficulty aside, the game is still lots and lots of fun. The core gameplay hasn't been altered much, 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.
If RedOctane were a band, Guitar Hero III would be that album that they made 'for the fans.'
You progress through Guitar Hero III much as you would any of the previous games. The career mode uses the same tiered-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 who you can divvy up either lead or rhythm guitar/bass duties with. Co-op play hasn't changed much since last year's game, 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 that can come over and spend an afternoon playing, you won't get those songs (at least until someone eventually digs up the "unlock all songs" code for the game). 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, there is a launch-day patch for the Xbox 360 version of the game that adds a co-op quick-play option. However, if your 360 isn't connected to Xbox Live, or you happen to buy any other version of the game, you're out of luck at the moment.