Guitar Hero III Review

Josh Wirfs

Few games have the ability to break through to the mainstream and become a piece of pop culture legend. When Harmonix and Red Octane released Guitar Hero, they did just that. Scores of fans bought the original Guitar Hero on the Playstation 2, with dreams of rocking out in front of thousands of people embedded firmly in their minds as they sat in their rooms shredding their plastic axe in their boxer shorts. Guitar Hero II further cemented the franchise into the highest tier of gaming's most venerable titles, introducing a slew of new features, over 70 songs, and allowing Xbox 360 users to track their scores on Xbox Live's Leaderboards and download new tracks from the marketplace. After Guitar Hero's incredible success, it came as a shock to everyone when Red Octane and Harmonix parted ways, with Harmonix being bought out by MTV. Many fans were more than a little concerned when Neversoft were announced as the developer of the next Guitar Hero game. With a resumé consisting primarily of skateboarding games, many questioned whether Neversoft would be able to deliver an experience as polished, unique, and downright fun as Harmonix had done with the previous entries in the series. With the launch of Guitar Hero III, most of those concerns have been put to rest.

The first thing fans of the series will notice is that almost every one of the 70+ tracks in Guitar Hero III are original master tracks. Gone are the mediocre covers of rock's greatest hits seen in the last three games. The track list is incredible to say the least, with songs by The Killers, AFI, The Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Tenacious D, Guns n' Roses, and (finally) Metallica. Living Colour and The Sex Pistols went so far as to enter the studio and rerecord their hits "Cult of Personality" and "Anarchy in the UK", respectively. Guitar Hero III also features original tracks recorded by Slash of Guns n' Roses and Velvet Revolver fame as well as Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, both of whom are featured as playable characters and bosses in the singleplayer Career. Bret Michaels, lead singer of Poison, also entered the studio and rerecorded the vocals for Talk Dirty to Me and is also featured in the bonus song "Go That Far", which was the title track for his show Rock of Love on VH1. Scrolling down the song list is a veritable who's who of rock's greatest hits, and I doubt anyone could possibly be disappointed by what's offered here.

A bit disappointingly, Guitar Hero III's career mode is exactly what you'd expect if you've played the previous games. You play through setlists of 4 songs, followed by an encore once you've completed those songs. Once you're done, you're treated to a well made animated cutscene before you move on to the next setlist. The cutscenes are great, and actually tell a story unlike the last few games where you just moved from setlist to setlist with no story behind the game whatsoever. There's 8 setlists in total, with 5 songs each, and 3 boss battles. So it will only take roughly 3-4 hours to play through all 8 setlists if you can play through without getting stuck on any songs. While this formula works, primarily due to Guitar Hero's high replayability, it would have been nice to see some changes made once Neversoft took the reigns from Harmonix. Fortunately, co-op is much more indepth than in Guitar Hero II, with an entirely new career path for co-op play. The co-op portion is surprisingly good, with its own animated cutscenes and a few songs that can only be played in co-op such as The Beastie Boys' "Sabotage". Sadly, the co-op career is only available by playing with a friend on the same console. I was hoping the co-op career would be available online, since it's quite hard to find a friend good enough to play through the harder difficulties. You can however play songs co-op over Live, you just can't play through the career.

While Guitar Hero III is in essence almost entirely identical to its predecessors in gameplay terms, a few changes have been made to the formula. The timing window for hitting notes is a little more lenient, and hammer-ons and pull-offs are a bit easier to hit. Another new feature is the inclusion of boss battles in the singleplayer career and over Live against a human opponent. These battles are a mixed bag with fans of the series; many people can't stand them, others love them. Personally, I think the battles are excellent, and provide a good challenge to those of us who've beaten the previous games on the harder difficulties. It's certainly easy to see how they could be daunting to new-comers however, since it takes a considerable level of skill to tackle the bosses on the Hard or Expert difficulties. The battles themselves play out much like a normal song, with you and the opponent shredding it out and launching attacks on each other. While it sounds good in theory, there's certainly flaws with the system. First off, some attacks are just way too effective, particularly the Lefty Flip which will force you to play left-handed which is nearly impossible on the harder difficulties. Other attacks include Amp Overloads that make all of your opponent's notes blink on and off, Whammies which forces you to slam the whammy bar before you can hit anymore notes, Broken Strings that will make one of your opponent's fret buttons useless until he taps on it enough to fix it, and attacks that raise the difficulty or steal your opponent's attack. It can be fun, but the randomness and difficulty of it makes it a bit too tedious sometimes, especially over Live when you know you could've beaten your opponent if he hadn't gotten that accursed Lefty Flip right when you were about to nail him.

One thing that's blatantly clear from the start is that Guitar Hero III is much harder than the other games in the series. By much harder, I mean bone-crushingly difficult. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since it would be a bit of a let down if you could beat the game on Expert without breaking a sweat, but the difficulty is just plain absurd on some songs. Expect to spend days, if not weeks, trying to beat some of these tracks. Most of the career songs are fairly easy, with the exception of Slayer's "Raining Blood" and Metallica's "One", but some of the Bonus songs are just shy of impossible. Particularly Dragonforce's "Through Fire and Flames", which by the end of playing, your fingers will likely be bleeding if you can even manage to keep up with the furious fretwork. Five starring everything on Hard or Expert is certainly a remarkable feat, because many of the songs in the last two tiers are filled with parts that are insanely hard to nail. Once you do beat all the songs, expect the final boss battle to keep you stuck for quite some time. It took me several days to beat the final boss on Hard, after breezing through the rest of the career without failing any songs.

Although Guitar Hero's never been known for its graphical prowess, and truthfully the graphics have never really mattered much, Guitar Hero III is noticeably prettier than Guitar Hero II. This entry actually looks next-gen, with bright and vivid graphics and a return to the series' familiar hard rockin' art style. Most of the characters from the last game have made a return, and they look substantially better than before. The venues look outstanding as well, ranging from a stage set up at someone's backyard party, to a pyrotechnic feast for the eyes in a Japanese venue with Godzilla duking it out in the background. They're good enough to distract you from playing in fact, and I've personally missed a few easy parts in songs because I was distracted by what was going on in the background. One thing you'll certainly notice as you check out Guitar Hero's spiffy new duds is the blatant and excessive advertising in nearly every part of the game. I understand why some advertising may be necessary due to the high licensing costs of the game's soundtrack, but this is by far the most prominent use of in-game advertising I've ever seen. During one of the encores, I nearly died laughing when dancers came out from backstage to the tune of Axe Body Spray's "Bom-Chicka-Wah-Wah", a phrase also printed across their shirts. You can also buy guitars with Axe's logo printed across them in the store. It's so bad that there's even advertising for gum on the song selection screen. Such is the downside of living in a capitalistic society I suppose.

Perhaps one of the biggest things Guitar Hero fans for the Xbox 360 were looking forward to is the new wireless Gibson guitar. First off, this guitar is just plain awesome. Its shape is a little less awkward than the X-plorer, and the fret buttons are shaped a little differently and a bit more comfortable than before. The sleek black look of it is pretty sweet as well, and to top it off, the faceplate can be changed so you can put on a custom faceplate (sold separately) rather than decorating it with stickers like the X-plorer. My biggest concern about the new wireless Gibson was by far the battery life. Being bigger and a bit more intricate than your standard controller, I expected the batteries to be dying constantly. Fortunately, battery life isn't even an issue. After playing through all four difficulties, several playthroughs of the co-op career, and over 80 matches online, I've had to change the batteries only once. It's not all rainbows and sunshine though. Right out of the box, I noticed something seriously wrong with my controller. The frets cut out sometimes, ruining held chords and sometimes not registering at all. In fact, when I bought Guitar Hero III, someone else at the store was returning their guitar because of the same problem. While I'm not positive on what the cause of this might be, I believe it may have something to do with the detachable neck. For some odd reason, Red Octane designed the Gibson with a neck that can be detached for easier storage. Why this storage thing was even a problem to begin with is beyond me, but even when the neck is locked into place it's loose in its base. Some research into this issue online has brought up a lot of similar reports of frets cutting out or not working altogether. It's a shame really, and I hope Red Octane comes up with a solution, because the Gibson is otherwise an amazing improvement over the X-plorer, in terms of both looks and feel. Until then, the issue's become so annoying that I've just gone back to using the X-plorer.

By far the best new feature in Guitar Hero III is the inclusion of online multiplayer. Finally, you can face off against other living room rockstars all over the world over Xbox Live. Truthfully, I wasn't expecting much from this after the lackluster online support Guitar Hero II had, but Neversoft definitely picked up the slack in the one area where Harmonix was lacking. The online functionality in Guitar Hero III is simply put, phenomenal. You can go head-to-head with other players in three different game modes, or play co-op with a friend. As I mentioned before, you can play the Battle mode that you play in against the bosses in the singleplayer career. Face-Off mode lets you play songs against your opponent, with each player tackling alternating parts of the song. There's also Pro Face-Off, which has both players shredding through the entire song, with the highest score winning that song. When searching for or creating a match, you have the option to select what difficulty you want to play in. This does a great job of placing players of similar skill together, however there's certainly a huge skill gap between players in most matches. Due to Guitar Hero's inherently varying skill level between different songs, you'll sometimes be put in matches where your opponent is great on the lower tiers in that difficulty, but can barely pass the harder ones. The host of a match can choose whether the game will be the best of 1, 3, 5, or 7 songs, with both players picking half the songs you'll play. If there's a tie the game will randomly choose one player to pick the tiebreaker song. The system works astonishingly well, and kudos go out to Neversoft for implementing the best online functionality I could even think of for Guitar Hero. The only thing lacking here is the ability to play through the co-op career online, but that feature may be introduced via DLC at a later date.

Fleshing out the online functionality to an even greater extent, Neversoft has provided even further online support through the website. Players can link their game to their registered online account, where they can see where they stand against players from all over the world. Your profile on the site will show you what character and guitar you use the most, what songs you've played recently, your overall career score, and other bits of information about your play habits. Everything you do in the game will garner you Groupies, which are essentially points that add up when you play, and start to diminish if you stop playing for a few days. There's even some semblance of a clan system provided through the website in the form of user-created Tour Groups. Signing on with a Tour Group will give you access to different online tournaments, your own forums, and other features which have yet to be announced. On top of leaderboards for different songs and such, Tour Groups are also given their own leaderboards, so you can see where your group stands with other groups on the site. It's great to see so much effort put in to making the online support so indepth, after it took Harmonix months to even bring out a downloadable song pack, a feature they said they'd support extensively on the 360 yet for the most part, failed miserably.

Neversoft clearly took some notes after Harmonix's shoddy attempts to support downloadable track packs. Within two weeks of the game hitting the shelves, they've already released two song packs with three songs in each. The track packs are outstanding, with six brand new songs in total by Velvet Revolver and the Foo Fighters. Unfortunately, they didn't take notes on the biggest gripe fans had about Guitar Hero II's track packs: the cost. Each track pack costs 500 Microsoft Points, which adds up to $6.25. So you're essentially paying a little over two dollars for each song. While it may not seem like that much, it definitely adds up over time. Fortunately, they recently released a track pack containing the three songs you play against the bosses in the singleplayer career for free, which may be a good sign. Hopefully the price for track packs will be lowered at some point, but I'm certainly not expecting anything.

Guitar Hero III's achievements are, in a word, brutal. While there's some good ones in the mix, such as beating certain songs while fulfilling objectives like scoring 200,000 points on Cult of Personality without using star power, the list is populated just as much by complete duds. After playing the game for more hours than I feel comfortable admitting, I've scored less than 200 points out of the available 1000. There's the normal achievements, like beating each difficulty and 5 starring every song in the setlist, but then there's some achievements that just make no sense. Did we really need three different achievements for playing with the standard Xbox controller after we spent all that money on those plastic guitars? Do we really need two different achievements for beating Through Fire and Flames on Expert, when most people can't even beat it on Hard? Why do we have to play through the entire career with Lefty Flip on to score 10 measly points? The achievement list is pretty absurd, and 95% of people who play the game most likely will never get the full 1000 points. Even if you can 100% Raining Blood on Expert, you better hope you've got a friend who's that good too if you want to get the full 1000, because many of the achievements are given for playing through the co-op career, which can't be played online. While I can certainly appreciate a touch achievement list, this list may in fact be the most difficult to complete of any 360 title.

Naturally, Guitar Hero III has the greatest soundtrack out there. With some of the greatest hits from the biggest bands out there from every genre, this soundtrack has as much place on your iPod as it does on your 360. No matter what your musical tastes are, there's certain to be songs here that you just can't stop playing. Nearly all of these songs are the original master tracks as well, bidding farewell to the often shoddy covers of the previous games in the series.

Graphics have never been the driving force behind Guitar Hero's success, but in this entry, they're pretty remarkable. While not a technical masterpiece, the graphics are more than adequate and the art direction is perfectly fitting. The characters, venues, and guitars look outstanding, with a cartoonish yet realistic look to them. Everything is bursting with color and life, while still maintaining that hard rock art style we've grown so fond of.

The gameplay is incredibly simple, while at the same time one of the most complex titles out there. It's easy to pick up and play, but hard to master. Once you do master it though, expect to blow people's minds when you shred it out to Dragonforce or Metallica on Expert. That's the driving force behind Guitar Hero's get good enough to master the hardest songs on the roughest difficulties. Sadly, this latest entry in the franchise has made it nearly impossible to do that due to a brutal difficulty level on even the easier songs.

Neversoft had a huge weight to carry when they picked up the reigns from Harmonix. How do you not only replicate, but improve, one of the greatest franchises ever made? Somehow they pulled it off, delivering an experience even better than before. They seem to have listened to major fan requests, delivering a phenomenal singleplayer experience, as well as some of the most fleshed out online functionality out there.

While a tough achievment list is always nice, this one's nearly impossible to obtain completely. Some of the achievements are great, while others are just ridiculous. No one wants to play through the career on Hard or Expert with a normal Xbox controller after dropping all that cash on their guitars, Neversoft. Denoting so many points to the co-op career while making it unavailable to play online was a poor choice as well.

Guitar Hero's premise has always been simple, yet incredibly complex. Play through some of the greatest songs ever recorded, hit star power for the big multipliers, collect points, move on to the next song. It's as simple as that, but for some reason, Guitar Hero is one of the most addictive and flat out fun games out there. Guitar Hero III improved on all of the previous game's flaws, while adding a slew of new features that are perfectly executed. While the difficulty level can be a bit daunting, with enough practice, anyone can beat the game on Expert. Guitar Hero III still caters to the casual crowd, with the easier difficulties still providing enough challenge to make it fun, yet simple enough not to make it overbearing. Best of all, Guitar Hero is finally an online affair, allowing players to go head-to-head for the first time ever. If you're a fan of the series, you won't be disappointed by what Neversoft's delivered here. If you haven't played Guitar Hero yet, this entry is a great way to get started.

Game navigation