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Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock

Neversoft's best shot misses
The Game:
The Guitar Hero series has been a favorite of mine since the day the original title appeared on the PS2. I would sit for hours on my bed, training my fingers to coordinate with each other to tackle wrist-breaking rockers like "Bark At The Moon." Guitar Hero II, with its improved playing mechanics and superior set list, had me locked away in my room for months. And the 360 version made me fall in love with it all over again. In fact, I never really stopped playing, picking up the game all the way up to the release of the inevitable sequel, Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock.

Now, between sequels II and III, a major shift occurred. Co-developers Harmonix (who wrote the code and recorded the music) and Red Octane (who created the game's revolutionary guitar controller) parted ways. Harmonix, who took all the gaming code away with them, struck out on their own to create Rock Band, which expands on the Guitar Hero premise in just about every way possible. Red Octane, who retained the rights to the Guitar Hero brand name, buddied up with partner Activision to continue the series. Activision in turn handed the project over to Neversoft, developers of the mass selling Tony Hawk games.

At this point you might be saying to yourself, "Wait a minute, the Tony Hawk games have nothing to do with music, except for the awful songs that litter their soundtracks." And you would be oh so right. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock is a noticeable step down in quality from the past two games, and I attribute this directly to the developers at Neversoft. Now, not everything is their fault. When Harmonix left, they took all the gaming code with them, forcing Neversoft to start from scratch. So it's admirable that this game at least looks and feels like Guitar Hero. On the other hand, even Neversoft's best impression still feels like an imitation instead of the real deal.

Red Octane has shown tremendous growth with their guitar controllers, making improvements with every iteration. Sadly, this trend seems to have taken a step backwards for the PS3 version, a Les Paul designed to look like Slash's signature axe. While the build looks and feels the same as the 360, I noticed a serious lack of response from the fret buttons. It was almost like I was playing on an entirely different controller. Songs I could five star on the 360 I was suddenly getting three or four stars on. The strum bar is quieter than before, making it less of a distraction. The guitar comes in two pieces, the head and the fret board, which snap together in a very satisfying way. When assembled, the whole thing is very solid, without ever once feeling like the two pieces are going to separate. I don't know why, but instead of taking advantage of the PS3's built in Bluetooth capabilities, Red Octane made the controller 2.4 GHz wireless, with a USB dongle that you have to attach in order to connect the guitar to the system. While I had no problem with the synchronization process, it does seem a little mystifying.

Again, you might say to yourself, "Well, it's not a great controller, but at least it will let me play my old Guitar Hero games on the PS3!" Unfortunately, you would be wrong. For another unknown reason, the guitar will NOT work with Guitar Hero, Guitar Hero II, or Rock The 80's. This is especially frustrating for people who only own a PS3, as there's currently no way to effectively play those games on the system without an adapter that severely limits the functionality of the older guitar controllers. The Les Paul also comes with a removable faceplate, with several themed plates available for purchase, including Kiss, Alice Cooper, and Smashing Pumpkins.

The inferior controller perfectly matches the gameplay. Gone are the tight controls of Guitar Hero II, replaced with loose note recognition that more often than not works to the player's disadvantage. I often found myself missing notes that I normally would have hit, while at other times the game would register a note I had played several seconds before, throwing off my rhythm. It takes some getting used to, and it never feels natural. On the other hand, hammer-ons and pull-offs have been greatly improved, making them much more satisfying to play. Also, I don't remember any songs in Guitar Hero II that used them for a string of held notes, but they're used here and make it a lot easier to continue to whammy as you play them.

Further proof that Neversoft had no clue what makes these games really work are the inclusion of boss battles. Yes, boss battles. You play against the likes of Tom Morello and Slash in guitar duels. Instead of getting star power, you get attacks that affect the other player, such as a broken string, raising the level of difficulty, or forcing them to use the whammy bar repeatedly for several seconds. While they seem neat in concept, the execution is poor, relying more on dumb luck than actual skill. You could be the world's best player and still lose because you got bad attacks, or be a first timer and win by chance. However, I will say that I had a huge grin on my face when I beat Slash and then got to play "Welcome To The Jungle" with him.

Guitar Hero III thankfully adds online multiplayer, one of the few things the last game lacked. You can play several different modes, including co-op, versus, and face-off. You can engage in ranked or unranked matches against friends or random players. You can even link your gamertag to Guitar Hero's website, where you can track your stats and see how you're doing against the overall community. Unfortunately, things are not all hunky dory. For one thing, you cannot do the Co-op Career mode, which is the only way to get access to several of the game's songs. For this you will have to have a friend come over and either provide a second guitar or hope they have their own (or find someone masochistic enough to play the game with a standard Sixaxis controller). But even that aside, the online is still troublesome. I've never been able to connect to someone else's game on any console. I can only play against other people if I myself create a match. I've also heard complaints about lag causing problems and outright cheating going on. Also, for a while a majority of people couldn't even get the Guitar Hero website to link to their gamer tag. Activision has attempted to address some of these problems, but things seem to be going down or not working properly far too often.

There's also an option to download new songs as Neversoft makes them available. As of my writing this, a few have been released. I myself did not download them, because I won't be spending any more money on this underdeveloped game. Most of the people I've conversed with that did take the time to get the packs said that the song charts were either frustratingly difficult or mind-numbingly boring. Either way, the game is off to a bad start.

The Graphics:
There are many other small changes that make Guitar Hero III a different, and in my opinion lesser, experience than the titles that have come before. The HUD has changed considerably. Star Power used to be a single bar which filled up with electricity. Once it was completely full, you knew you had the maximum amount stored up. Here, we get a series of electric bulbs that slowly get brighter as you rack up more power. It's often hard to determine when you've hit your limit, and for players like me, who prefer to get as much SP as possible, that makes it difficult to tell when you should unleash your fury. On the other side, the score multiplier has become more cumbersome, with weird nodes on its side which are meant to tell you how close you are to the next multiplier, and a streak counter that is far too distracting for its own good.

The character models have all gone through slight changes as well. Several characters have been merged together here and there, and the results are decidedly mixed. I was most annoyed that my favorite character, Judy Nails, was combined with Pandora. While they were both females, they each had their own style and I would have liked my old Judy back. We do get a few new characters, including a Japanese school girl (wearing purple, no less! Be still my beating heart) and the aforementioned real guitarists. While I have to admit that it's a ton of fun to play as Slash, the character animations seem far more generic this time around. Gone are the Star Power signature moves, replaced with lame lightning bolts that shoot out of the guitar. The same goes for the audience, who seem much less responsive than they were in Guitar Hero II. Not only that, but Neversoft was so lazy that many of the audience members are exactly the same. I saw the same person replicated three times, and they were all standing next to each other. Really pathetic.

That being said, the character models are highly detailed (although I don't know who approved the look of the singer, who is utterly grotesque) and several of the new venues are pretty darn cool, although at times it seems like instead of throwing in a unique prop, they just added some dancing girls in tight shirts. While this is okay, it felt wholly inappropriate to see them gyrating while you play "Bulls On Parade" with Tom Morello, considering the song's serious political message. One or two of the play areas also feel recycled from Guitar Hero II, with a new can of paint splashed on it. On the other hand, there are some priceless sections, such as the "Live at Budokan" stage.

Guitar Hero II used amusing imagery of buses and planes crossing a map to chart your progress. Guitar Hero III makes use of fully animated sequences to show your band's rise to fame. Some may enjoy them, but I found them to be too brief and insubstantial to really make me feel like I was conquering the world of rock. On the whole, most of Guitar Hero III's visual style left me feeling the same way. On a technical level, they're fine. But aesthetically, they are a step down.

The Sound:
Guitar Hero III doesn't have as many immediate classics as II, although it's certainly got some big guns. One of the big draws of the game is that many of the tracks are "Master Tracks," otherwise known as the original recordings. So for those of you who couldn't stand the vocalist on the cover of "The Trooper" in II, have no fear, we get to hear Bruce Dickinson's larynx shredding vocals on "The Number of the Beast." And sometimes, that makes all the difference. To play songs like Metallica's "One" or Weezer's "My Name Is Jonas" in their original incarnations adds a whole new level to the game. Unfortunately, it seems Harmonix also took all of their musical talent away with them, as the covers are easily the worst of the series. While songs like The Scorpions' "Rock You Like A Hurricane" sound like decent approximations of the originals, tracks like The Who's "The Seeker" or Kiss' "Rock and Roll All Nite" are immediately noticeable for their lack of authenticity. And the choices of covers versus master tracks is often frustrating. While I understand that it's easier to get studio recordings of brand new material, I really could have lived with a cover of a Slipknot song. "School's Out," however, really should have been a master track.

The actual fidelity of all the songs are beyond dispute. Each one has a fantastic surround mix that throws you right into the middle, making sure you feel the power of rock. I just wish Neversoft had taken more care in replicating the sound of the various covers that litter the game.

The Conclusion:
Harmonix and Red Octane made such an amazing team that any company following in their footsteps had some mighty big expectations to meet. Sadly, Neversoft finds themselves unable to find that perfect balance with Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, cutting corners in places that really affect the feel of the game. That's not to say the whole thing is a bust, though. The songs that use master tracks take the series to a whole new level. Sadly, the Les Paul guitar controller does not work as well as it does on the 360, requiring an external dongle to work. It also does not work with previous Guitar Hero games, so fans of the other entries will have to keep waiting if they want to play them on the PS3. Considering that Rock Band is right around the corner, and will be providing a vastly superior gaming experience, and combined with the controller problems on the PS3, I can't in good faith suggest that someone spend $100 on this half-baked cash-in of a game. Rent It.