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Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock


Guitar Hero III may be the last act for the PS2, but what a show it is.
When Activision announced that Neversoft had taken over the development duties for Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, there was a lot of doubt cast upon the future of the popular series. After all, Neversoft is best known for their work with the Tony Hawk series, which is in no way related to the music genre. Would they make sweeping changes, since Harmonix and their original gameplay engine had been acquired by someone else?

Now that Guitar Hero III is out of development and into retail stores everywhere, it turns out that the doubt proved to be false. Neversoft has done a great job of picking up the baton and running with it, delivering a quality experience for the rapidly-aging PlayStation 2 console. This is not to say that the game is perfect, nor does it necessarily eclipse the greatness that the prior two games in the series showed, as there are areas of the game that have taken steps backwards; however, in the areas that count the most—- which are gameplay and the music itself—- Neversoft and Activision score another bonafide chart-topper with Legends of Rock.

Gameplay

Neversoft has done a commendable job of delivering gameplay in Guitar Hero III that is consistent with its predecessors. Guitar controllers are again used here; players can either use older SG guitars or the new wireless Kramer Striker model which comes packaged with certain SKUs of the game. There are four difficulty modes, as has been the standard. Easy difficulty uses only three of the five fret buttons on the guitar, Medium uses four frets, Hard uses all five fret buttons, and Expert is more challenging than ever. The idea is to hit the corresponding fret button on your guitar and strum the strum bar as the appropriate note flies by on your screen. Points are scored for each successful note that you play, and lengthy strings of successful notes build the score multiplier. There are certain notes that look like stars; if you successfully play all of the notes in that phrase, you build your Starpower meter. Starpower can be built up and unleashed when the meter is at least half-full, and it doubles all of your scoring while active. At the end of each song, you’re given a rating between one to five stars, based on your score and accuracy.

It’s harder to describe in words than it is to see in action, but it only takes a few songs in practice to learn the mechanics, plus there’s a decent tutorial for beginners. For Guitar Hero veterans, the Easy mode in Legends of Rock will seem even easier than before. The Medium difficulty doesn’t get terribly challenging until the last two tiers of the Career Mode, which is comparatively a bit easier than the first two games.

Speaking of the Career Mode, in Guitar Hero III, it's essentially the same mode as it’s always been. Players progress through various tiers by completing a set number of songs per tier. Money is earned, based on your performance for each song, and can be spent in the Store to buy new songs, clothes, guitars, and more. There are two notable differences in Guitar Hero III’s Career Mode, however. First, there’s an option to play a Co-Op Career, which allows players to go through a completely different tier path with different setlists and a few different music tracks. The second—- and most intriguing—- difference is the inclusion of boss battles. Boss battles pit your character against guitar legends, such as Tom Morello or Slash, as you face off to see who the better axe-grinder is. In order to win a boss battle, you must drain the opponent’s ROCK meter before the battle song ends by gaining and strategically deploying power-ups, which are gained in a similar manner to gaining Starpower. While the idea is novel, it will take most players a few tries in these boss battles to be successful, and the final boss battle is arguably harder than it should be, even on the Easy difficulty. The mechanics behind these battles are also used in multiplayer modes when players face off against each other. Unfortunately, the PS2 version of Legends of Rock does not include online functionality, so you’ll have to have your friends over to try out this feature.

Aside from the Career Mode, players can also opt to practice songs that they’ve unlocked, play through those songs to set high scores, or play songs with (or against) a friend. There are over 70 total songs in the game, with 25 of those available for purchase in the Store, so there’s plenty of music to keep players busy for hours. Just like Guitar Hero II, Legends of Rock has an option to play through songs cooperatively, with one player taking lead and other playing either rhythm or bass. This co-op mode adds a new dimension to songs that you’ve played to death already, provided that you’ve got a buddy to play with.

With all of the unlockable items that Guitar Hero III has in store, most players will want to play through as many of the difficulty levels and modes as possible in order to earn enough money to buy as much as possible. The music available in the Store has some great tracks from Lacuna Coil and Rise Against, among others. There are some pretty neat videos available, too, interviewing Slash, Tom Morello, the Sex Pistols, and Bret Michaels. Aside from these features, there’s a wealth of guitars, skins, and outfits available for each character—plus a few extra characters that, while not as awesome as in past games, may be worth a look-see.

Sound

The soundtrack assembled for Guitar Hero III is very impressive. There are certainly some tracks that might have you scratching your head (More Blue Oyster Cult? Ugh.), but there are over 50 master tracks here and the range of music is huge. From guitar virtuosos (Eric Johnson) to classic rock (ZZ Top and Heart) to ‘90s rock (Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins) to more current tracks (Disturbed and AFI), Legends of Rock has something to offer just about everyone. Living Colour and the Sex Pistols even re-recorded their tracks for this game, while Bret Michaels provided fresh vocals for the cover of “Talk Dirty to Me”. Unfortunately, a few of the covers are vocally problematic. The vocals for the cover of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Pride and Joy” are way, way off. “Black Sunshine” just doesn’t sound the same without Rob Zombie’s unique vocal style. Despite these minor flaws, the music represented here is one of the best compilations ever assembled.

Graphics

On the PlayStation 2 especially, Guitar Hero III’s visuals are a bit of a disappointment. The characters in the game have been redrawn, and the results are mixed. Axel looks goofier now, which is a letdown since he’s been one of the flagship characters for the series since its inception. Judy, meanwhile, looks better than ever. The animation for all characters is more canned this time, and the crowd reactions are weak. There are some occasionally funny sequences that you probably won’t be able to pay much attention to while playing, such as a random stage diver or some dancing girls, but it’s generally unremarkable. One area of some improvement lies in the short movies that play when advancing from tier to tier. The visual style is seemingly pulled straight from a Gorillaz video, and the humor is subtle and amusing at the same time.

The Final Verdict

It’s worth mentioning that, even if you have bought guitars for Guitar Hero games in the past, the new wireless Kramer Striker controller for the PS2 is certainly worth the extra money if you buy the game and guitar together. Aside from the automatic advantage of being wireless and able to play freely, the fret buttons are quite responsive and the detachable neck makes transporting or storing the guitar easier than ever. The guitar runs on two AA batteries, and it has an auto-sleep mode, just in case you forget to turn it off after a play session.

Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock may not the best game in the series on the PlayStation 2, but if it is the last Guitar Hero game to grace the console, it’s one heck of a final act. Regardless of your guitar-playing experience, Legends of Rock is easily a recommended purchase for the PS2, especially if you haven’t taken the plunge into the next generation yet. Neversoft has demonstrated that the series is in excellent hands and has a bright future going forward on consoles like the Wii, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3.