Reviewed: November 13, 2007
Released: October 28, 2007
I love Guitar Hero…always have and always will, but right now I’m not its biggest fan. You see, Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock has finally arrived. What used to be a PS2 exclusive snuck onto Xbox 360 earlier this year, and now, the third installment, achieves system wide coverage ensuring that anybody who wants to rock the night away can do so regardless of their console.
Harmonix, the original developers of Guitar Hero were snatched up by MTV and put to work on the upcoming Rock Band game – a Guitar Hero clone that adds drums and vocals – so Neversoft, creators of the Tony Hawk franchise and huge fans of Guitar Hero, stepped up to redesign the game from scratch and Budcat Creations stepped up to handle the port back to the PS2. While Neversoft could replicate the look and style of the game, they were challenged with creating all new source code, and in doing so they made a few visual and gameplay changes that you may or may not like.
Guitar Hero III, like all the previous installments, is one of those games that is totally dependent on a specific and unique controller to play it, namely a guitar. Until now, all official Guitar Hero guitars for the PS2 have been wired, but in trying to keep up with the wave of wireless controllers on the other systems this new bundle ships with the Kramer Striker Guitar Controller and frankly, it sucks. Don't ask me why they couldn't have just used the Les Paul from the other systems. They could have used the same mold as the Wii guitar and filled in the remote pocket.
The problem isn't so much the 2.4 GHz dongle, although this does open up all the same lag and precision issues we saw with all those third-party wireless guitars for previous Guitar Hero games. The real issues lie with the actual construction of the guitar. The Kramer still has a detachable neck for easy storage (in your trash can), although there are no interchangeable faceplaces so you'll have to stick with stickers if you want to customize. The fret buttons are simply quite horrible. They feel very cheap and non-responsive creating plenty of missed notes. Skip the bundle and find a "game only" copy and use your old Gibson SG or any of the other reputable third-party guitars.
Neversoft really didn’t need to improve on the existing game design and to their credit they didn’t screw it up by trying. What they did do was offer a new visual style, new HUD, a story mode with artistic cutscenes, and the much-anticipated Co-op Career mode, complete with its own story and exclusive songs. There is also a new Battle mode that has to be experienced to fully appreciate. Sadly, the PS2 has been left behind when it comes to online gameplay, so all your multiplayer will have to be up close and in person.
There are more than 70 music tracks for Guitar Hero III, many from independent bands, and other songs performed by cover bands that can easily be mistaken for the original artist. Guitar Hero III marks the first game where actual artists were used for several key songs. They were either brought into the studio to rerecord the song or, as in the case of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black”, they actually got the 1966 2-track master and remixed it for the game.
Authentic music isn’t the only new feature. Expect to see a few famous rock legends appear in the game, fully mo-capped and animated in game. The Sex Pistols re-entered the studio for the first time in 30 years to re-record “Anarchy in the U.K.” providing Guitar Hero III with an original recording not available anywhere else. They even have unlockable movies where you can watch Slash, Bret Michaels, and Tom Morello performing in the mo-cap suit and an interview with The Sex Pistols.
As with the previous Guitar Hero II game there are two of three possible guitar tracks (Lead, Rhythm, and Bass) for each song, effectively doubling the gameplay right out of the box, although you can only access the non-lead guitar in practice mode or multiplayer.
Of course the first order of business is to unlock that massive song list. You’ll need to create a band and go on tour to unlock the rest of the sets, encore songs, and earn enough money to purchase the vast library of bonus songs in the Guitar Hero Store, along with new guitars, skins, characters, costumes, and some cool behind-the-scenes videos.
Multiplayer modes include the old standbys; Face-off mode where you trade off on parts of the lead track, or Pro Face-off where you each play the full lead track. We tried all these modes but ultimately agreed the Cooperative Career was the most fun and rewarding, plus you get access to songs you can’t play in the solo career. There is also the added challenge in co-op play in that you have to work together to build and initiate Star Power by tipping your guitars at the same time.
Also returning from Guitar Hero II is the Practice mode where you can pick your song, skill level, the guitar track you want to practice, and then go as far as to pick the section of the song (intro, verse, chorus) or just play the whole song. Finally, you get to pick your practice speed, which really saves your bacon when you are trying to learn “Through the Fire and Flames on Expert. Choose from Slowest, Slower, Slow, and Full speed as you gradually increase the flow of notes and master the song.
The Career and Co-op Career modes are where you will need to spend much of your time, at least until you unlock everything and earn enough bank to buy the rest. There are fewer sets in this year’s game (6 versus 8) and when you meet the requirements to end each set the crowd will demand an encore. You are free to decline, but you’ll miss a lot of extra cash and several of the best songs in the game. Plus, earning five stars on the encore songs unlocks bonus guitars in the store.
Guitar Hero III also introduces the new Battle Mode, a competitive mode between two players that puts a twist on the Pro Face-off mode introduced in Guitar Hero II by replacing Star Power notes with Attack Notes. Two players will face each other, trying to complete a song while successfully playing these battle sequences to earn attacks that can be used against their opponents. Players will be able to store three attacks at a time and can activate them by tilting their guitars upward, but the attacks are only temporary. If neither player fails the song, they will face each other in a Sudden Death segment.
The attacks include:
The core gameplay is straight from the original Guitar Hero. Colored “notes” stream down the neck of the on-screen guitar and you must hold the corresponding fret and strum as these notes pass through the circle. As the difficulty level rises and you go deeper into the career song selection, there are many more notes, often in chords (2-3 buttons at the same time) and they move a lot faster. By hitting subsequent notes you earn combo multipliers and special star notes build up your Star Power that you can unleash to double your current multipliers and boost your Rock meter in times of need.
One thing I noticed for Guitar Hero III was an abundance of rapid streams of the same colored note or chord of notes. It got really annoying, almost turning the game into an endurance test. The game actually became physically painful at times, plus the notes were often off-beat and even worse, some songs had the Star Power notes only in these lengthy streams, and if you missed just one note in the stream you would never get any Star Power. Several of my favorite songs in the game were ruined with poor note patterns.
Neversoft has chosen to give gamers a slightly larger window of opportunity to hit their notes, but this in no way makes the game too easy since they balance this larger window with the aforementioned note streams as well as demanding multi-color sequences that require fluid hammer-ons and pull-offs. If you haven’t learned these advanced techniques by now you’re going to be in for a tough time.
Guitar Hero III has a cast of 13 rockers. Returning from previous titles are Johnny Napalm, Judy Nails, Axel Steel, Izzy Sparks, Casey Lynch, Lars Ümlaüt, and Xavier Stone. Midori is an original playable character that can be selected; additionally, each system has two additional playable characters that can be unlocked: the Wii and PS2 versions include the characters of Metalhead and Elroy Budvis, while the 360 and PS3 versions include The God of Rock and The Grim Ripper.
In addition, the player can unlock the three boss characters: Tom Morello, Slash, and Lou the Devil, once they have completed their respective boss battles in career mode. While Bret Michaels appears in the game and sings specific songs, he is not a playable character in the game, and is only included in the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game.
As far as locations, Guitar Hero III has some original venues that fit with the theme of a rising rock band. You’ll start off playing at a backyard party then slowly make the tour as a lounge band, play at a prison, go international in Japan, and even test your skills in the fiery pits of Hell…sorta. Here is a complete list of venues:
If you like to study stats, you can now view a massively detailed report card of your previous performance that shows your success rate during all parts of the song. It's impressive that they can do this but I found no real use for the information other than to know where I choked.
Neversoft has taken some creative liberties with the new design. The HUD has been totally tweaked, for the better, with a new note counter that shows your current streak, and the Star Power meter has been replaced with a series of blue lights. Other changes include an overall theme shift that merges with the graffiti-style attitude of their Tony Hawk series.
The cutscenes are all cel-shaded storyboards, almost like a Flash animation, with no speech, just sounds and mime-like motions. It’s pretty amusing watching the exaggerated antics of your band as they gain fame and popularity.
While the game can not hope to compete with the PS3 or 360 in the graphical arena, when kept in the context of other PS2 games Guitar Hero III looks great. Sure the animations are stiff and slightly awkward, but keep in mind you have nothing to compare this game to but itself and the three installments before it, and of all four games, this certainly looks the best. And while the smaller details might be lost on the PS2 you still get some nice lighting, special effects, and cinematic camera angles, including some nice handheld camera shots as well as those new suspended wire-cams that fly in over the crowd and appear to rush the stage. It all blends together to create a perfect night at a club, prison, or concert arena.
The pyrotechnics complete with particle effects and billowing smoke machine vapors is second only to the giant stage props that animate and become part of the show, especially prior to an encore. Star Power erupts with awesome stage antics and thunderous crowd reactions, and there are wide shots of the crowd dancing and waving lighters
Unfortunately, you can't really enjoy the scenery since you’ll have to keep your eyes on the thousands of notes streaming down the neck of your guitar, so you probably won’t get to enjoy the stage show as much as the person sitting next to you waiting for their turn with the guitar, but at least you can pick your guitar and even skin it with fresh designs that you can purchase in the store. As with the previous game, you can change costumes for any of your rockers once you have purchased their alternate outfits.
Guitar Hero III delivers a solid Dolby Pro Logic II sound mix, the best the system can offer, so I won't complain as much as I did when they used this same mix on the PS3. While it certainly doesn't sound as good as a true Dolby Digital mix, within the confines of the console and its competition the game sounds great.
I am not a big fan of the audio treatment of Star Power for this release. The effect is way too much. The song volume increases significantly and everything gets all hollow with exaggerated reverb effects. You can only hear the clapping of the crowd if you happen to hit Star Power during a no-note sequence of the song. It's even more jolting when you go back to normal play. The drop in volume and echo is quite distracting.
Of course what you all really want to know is the song list. While Guitar Hero III offered some amazing new songs it also had the largest selection of songs I had either never heard of or just plain didn’t like. Naturally, music is a subjective issue and tastes will differ, but I know what I like and I didn’t like more than half the music in this game.
Single-Player Career Set List (Songs performed by original artists show in italics)
1. Starting Out Small
2. Your First Real Gig
3. Making the Video
4. European Invasion
5. Bighouse Blues
6. The Hottest Band on Earth
7. Live in Japan
8. Battle for Your Soul
Cooperative Career Set List (Songs performed by original artists show in italics)
1. Getting a Band Together
2. We Just Wanna Be Famous
3. Overnight Success
4. Getting the Band Back Together
5. Jailhouse Rock
6. Battle for Your Souls
Bonus Tracks (all performed by original artists)
Sadly, some songs were required to be censored in order to keep the 'Teen' rating on Guitar Hero III, even on master tracks. These songs include:
It took me about two days of casual gaming to complete all the tracks (including bonus tracks) on Medium, or about 5 hours. I normally settle for nothing less than 5-star rankings on Medium but with the aforementioned repetitious note streams and some other issues I’m happy to get four or even three stars on a few of the songs. I then went through the career on Easy in about 3 hours and got 5-stars on everything, usually on my first attempt. I’m now dabbling with a few songs on the Hard skill level and my few attempts at anything in the first set on Expert were disastrous.
Just in time for this review, I was able to get the entire Co-op career completed on Medium. This took about 3 hours and was easily the most fun I’ve had with the game since it arrived. Having already played the lead guitar on a lot of the songs I was able to explore the alternate bass and rhythm tracks, and some songs were entirely new and exclusive to the co-op career.
Mastering Guitar Hero III will take months, years, possibly never, but at least we have a practice mode to help us learn. Some of the chords and patterns on the Hard level tie my fingers into knots a sailor would be proud of. I can’t imagine casting my eyes on the awesomeness of Expert mode, or even watching somebody else do it, and anybody who does figure it out…well…we all know how that turned out on South Park last week.
So, expect 3-4 hours to unlock the content (on medium) and another 3-4 hours for co-op and endless replay in Battle Mode online or off, and then you have the endless quest of perfecting all the songs on all the skill levels – a feat that could very well take a lifetime. The only downside to the expandability of the PS2 version is the inability to download future content. Still, the core game should provide more than enough music and challenges to justify the sticker price.
Whoever said, “the third time’s a charm” obviously wasn’t talking about Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. While the game has seen several key improvements in game modes and controllers, I found more than half of the songs simply not that much fun to play, and even many of my favorites songs (Welcome to the Jungle, Rock You Like a Hurricane) suffered from poor and repetitive note designs.
Admittedly, musical taste is subjective and for every song I didn’t like there are hundreds who were probably petitioning to get that song included. I’ve never heard of Killswitch Engage but I know at least two people who bought this game just because of that song, and it’s not even in the core set list…it’s a bonus track.
As far as differences between the various systems, aside from a few exclusive characters there were no exclusive tracks. This was definitely a missed opportunity because I guarantee you could have gotten gamers to buy multiple formats if you had certain songs on certain systems. Of all systems, the PS2 is certainly the weakest offering with last-gen graphics and sound and no online support.
Regardless of my opinion (which sort of negates the necessity of this review), Guitar Hero III will be huge. It’s already been out for over a week and is sold out at nearly every store for every format. Neversoft did an admirable job, especially considering they had to take a legendary franchise and rebuild it from scratch. But for a series that I have traditionally given perfect scores and continuous editorial awards, I can’t help but feel a bit let down by some personally distasteful music and poor note designs. But that’s just my opinion…and sales figures are already proving me wrong, so stop reading and go rock out.