After giving your fingers a little time to rest, the Guitar Hero brand is back again to dish out the pain in Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. With developer Neversoft taking over for the now MTV-owned Harmonix, many fans feared this new studio would break their favorite rhythm game. Fear not. While some things have clearly changed, the fun factor is alive and well.
For those unacquainted with Guitar Hero, the basic idea is that you play the guitar for your in-game band via a 5-button guitar controller. As notes come down the screen, you press the appropriate button on the fret board while simultaneously hitting the strum bar with your other hand. Think Dance Dance Revolution for your fingers and you're getting close.
Not seeing any need to uproot a system that is working just fine, Neversoft essentially gave Guitar Hero a super-flashy makeover while adding a few new touches. This new Hero has all five game modes from the past with the addition of a standalone co-op career and of course the new battle mode.
While the existing modes all rock just as hard as ever, both of Neversoft's new modes suffer issues. In the co-op career you and a friend must work together to beat songs and progress through the game. You even unlock a handful of songs which can't be played solo until being beaten in the co-op career. But what if you don't have a friend and another guitar? You can't play the co-op career online, despite being able to do so with individual songs. Thus your options for playing those select tracks are: cheat, deal with it, or buy another guitar and/or friend.
Battle Mode is a neat idea that doesn't really translate well into the game, at least not into single player. In this mode you hit note sections to gain attacks such as a broken string or double notes to launch at your opponent in the hope of screwing them up. Unfortunately the attacks are stupidly unbalanced and instead of a battle you get 30 second button-mashing fests in which the first person to get a lefty flip wins. It makes an amusing change of pace when playing against another person, but when you have to rely on luck to beat bosses in the solo career, the fun is gone and frustration sets in.
In terms of actual gameplay, things have changed only slightly. The difficulty spectrum seems to have been widened. The easiest songs are very, very easy and some of the hardest songs will probably make you want to throw your guitar through the TV. The hammer-on and pull-off system is a bit easier thanks to a slightly more forgiving timing window for hitting notes. The trade-off here is that there are a lot more chords and switches (three-finger chords being the norm on expert) to make the songs themselves more difficult.
Legends of Rock looks better than Guitar Hero 2 no matter what system you play it on, but Xbox 360 and PS3 versions have a whole extra layer of shiny. Too much shiny, actually. And whoever decided it was OK to ship a rhythm game with framerate issues needs to be punched in the head. There is so much lighting, flashing, spinning and other needless garbage happening in the background, especially during star power, I get a noticeable framerate dip at least once or twice a session. Not cool.
The song selection is the largest we have seen in a Guitar Hero yet with more than 70 tracks plus downloadable content. Over two-thirds of the songs are also master recordings this time around instead of covers, which really helps the rock factor. How "good" the list is depends on your musical tastes. Being a more casual music fan, GHIII's song offering is my favorite yet. Your mileage may vary.
But for a game subtitled "Legends of Rock", you would think there would be a little bit more to be had in the "legends" department. Don't get me wrong, both Slash and Tom Morello have made some of my favorite tunes ever, but just two? And no, Lou the Devil and the God of Rock don't count.
The best part about Legends of Rock isn't even in the game itself; it is the new wireless Les Paul guitar. The best feeling axe I've laid my fingers on; it feels more substantial than past guitars and the freedom of wireless makes rocking out a lot more fun. The Wii version even has rumble and "doink" sound effects thanks to integration the Wii Remote. Along with a brand new sticker selection, detachable faceplates also allow you a whole new level of customization for your new best friend.
It may seem like I'm unfairly focusing on Guitar Hero III's negatives, but most of the positives are what we've seen before and got us hooked on the franchise in the first place. Legends of Rock is still an addictingly great game that has and will continue to suck away hours of my life, it just feels unpolished. Neversoft successfully brought the Guitar Hero name into their house and made it work, now it is time to see if they can freshen up a presentation that is slowly growing stale and truly evolve the series.
Stupid oversights such as the framerate hitches, no online co-op career, the luck-based guitar battles and a bucket-full of smaller annoyances (such as my expert high scores for downloaded songs randomly disappearing and an overactive auto-save) keep this from being the knock-out title it could have been. But we still get a massive jam-fest that is an absolute blast to play alone or with friends.