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 really much fun anyway.
Get used to severe hand pain.
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: 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 for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii versions of the game. Guitar Hero has never been online before, and the ability to go online and take on the top axe grinders in the world is a huge bonus. Online options include all the offline gameplay modes. Ranked matches let you play face-off, pro face-off, and battle modes, and player matches let you do all of that plus the co-op songs. Sadly, you can't do the co-op career mode online, but at least your friends can strap on a bass and play online. There are some key differences between the three online versions of the game. The PlayStation 3 version doesn't include any manner of friends-list support, which means you can play only against random players online. The Wii version lets you play both random players and friends, though the friend options are limited to game-specific friend codes. The Xbox 360 version probably has the greatest ease of use online, with all the standard Xbox Live accoutrements, as well as easy access to downloadable songs (though, depending on your opinion of the Guitar Hero II pricing of said songs, that might be a blessing or a curse). The PS3 version should also include downloadable songs through the PlayStation Network store; unfortunately, the Wii version isn't set up for any kind of content downloads. The good news about all three versions is that they perform wonderfully online. Lag never got in the way of the gameplay experience in any matches we played.
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. Xbox 360 owners may not necessarily want a bundle if they already own the Guitar Hero II guitar, but III comes with a new wireless guitar that features a detachable neck, a much better whammy bar, better strap design, and more responsive buttons. If you weren't satisfied with the GH II guitar, this is a good upgrade and potentially worth the $100 asking price for the bundle. PS3 and Wii owners have never had a GH game before, so you will need to buy a bundle to play with the guitar. The PS3 version costs the same as the 360 one, and the guitar is functionally identical as well, save for a small dongle that has to be plugged into the PS3's USB port to make the wireless action work. The Wii version costs $90, and has the most unique guitar of all of the available versions, in that it features a connector for the Wii Remote. The remote fits snugly into a port on the back of the guitar, and the remote essentially takes over as the guitar's tilt sensor. It also does a few unique things, such as buzzing slightly when you engage star power, and playing all the missed note sounds through the Wii Remote speaker. PS2 owners also get a bundle, though unless you really, really want a wireless guitar, there's not much reason to go that route here. The new guitar's buttons aren't much better than the previous PS2 guitars, and the sync process for the wireless controller is kind of clunky. It's a nice-looking guitar, but it's not quite worth paying $90 for.
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 PS2 and Wii versions look about on par with one another, and look maybe slightly better than the last couple of PS2 Guitar Hero games. The Xbox 360 and PS3 versions are considerably better-looking, even over Guitar Hero II on the 360. However, the one thing that does get in the way with these versions is occasional bouts of frame-rate slowdown, specifically when engaging star power while lots of notes are onscreen. This chugging is really distracting and can occasionally throw you off while you're playing. Rhythm games, perhaps more than any other genre, really need to not slow down, and it's disappointing that this one does.
These are the characters you remember, but they look a bit different now.
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, a few visual issues, some overly restrictive design decisions, weak new modes, and a major upping of the difficulty level 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 track list 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. Once you start playing, you'll be hooked for hours at a time, both online and off. It might ultimately just be more Guitar Hero, but that's hardly a bad thing--in fact, it's a great thing.