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Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (Xbox 360) artwork

Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (Xbox 360) review

""It's the soundtrack, stupid" is the only mantra that matters when you're developing a rhythm game. Before you even think of introducing new play modes, updating the graphics and presentation, or adding online play, you have to pick the right songs. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock does this better than any rhythm game ever has. "

"It's the soundtrack, stupid" is the only mantra that matters when you're developing a rhythm game. Before you even think of introducing new play modes, updating the graphics and presentation, or adding online play, you have to pick the right songs. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock does this better than any rhythm game ever has.

Everyone has different tastes in music, meaning that you can always argue about how the soundtrack could be better. While fun, that sort of nitpicking has less validity this time around. Before you can even say, "why isn't Led Zeppelin in there," you're countered with the first inclusions by legendary bands like The Who, The Sex Pistols, Santana, and Metallica. Even the returning rock masters bring their best stuff, skipping the semi-obscure songs from Guitar Hero 2, like "Last Child," "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'," and "Strutter." Instead, you can now play legitimate hits like "Same Old Song And Dance," "Paint It Black," and "I Wanna Rock And Roll All Nite." Even the newer tracks, which may not be classics yet, are a ton of fun to play, and represent some pretty popular bands like The Killers and Bloc Party.

Upping the ante even further, about half of the 40-plus licensed tracks are recordings by the original artists. This includes just about everything from 1990 on, as well as a smattering of the older tracks. Though it may not seem like a big deal at first, after all we've been playing covers all along, playing the original version of "Bulls On Parade" just rocks harder and feels much more authentic. As for the covers, some of them do stand out like a sore thumb, but just as many are incredibly well done. You might be surprised when you see "as made famous by" pop up, because you were sure that it was the original recording.

Sadly, the bonus songs could no longer include the wacky tracks by Made in Mexico, the sloppy rock of Vagiant, or all-around fun of Honest Bob and The Factory To Dealer Incentives, because most of the bonus bands from Guitar Hero 1 and 2 belong to Harmonix, who has gone on to make Rock Band. The new developers, Neversoft, took a different approach and included a dozen or so bands from Europe, as well as some indie bands from the States. This turns out to be a good move, as the bonus tracks still manage mix up the soundtrack quite well. It's nice to hear singers scream in German and French for a change. Neversoft also continued the tradition of adding in some ridiculously difficult tracks to the bonus setlist, including the most frightening song ever put into a Guitar Hero game. "Through The Fire and Flames" by Dragonforce is a seven-plus minute, 3722 note terror. It should keep the elite players busy for awhile.

The rest of the game is, well, Guitar Hero. Neversoft really didn't take any risks with this game, because they know that the formula works. Sure, they took care of the standard sequel stuff (cleaning up the presentation, adding online play, and tossing in a throw-away battle feature), but this was a safe, if well done, effort.

The basic mechanics haven't changed at all. You pick a song, you pick the difficulty, and simply to get to rockin'. As the song plays, different colored circles careen towards you in time with the guitar track. Using your Gibson Les Paul-shaped guitar controller, you hold down the correct colored button, or buttons, with one hand and click the big black strum bar with your other. As you keep going, the notes come faster and faster, and you're required to navigate more complicated patterns of notes. Can't keep up with that? There are star-shaped notes that will fill up your Star Power meter when hit. If you get that meter high enough, you can tilt the neck of your guitar to the heavens, shout "By The Power of Grayskull!" and activate your star power. Everything turns electric, your score doubles, and you'll find your rock meter back in the green...provided you keep hitting the notes.

Though this is still good ol' Guitar Hero, there are a few tweaks that will take experienced players a bit of time to get used to, but they're certainly for the good. First, GH3 is much more forgiving on the timing of your button presses. Anyone who had difficulty keeping up with the fast notes will find them much easier to hit this time around; the window for hitting notes has been expanded drastically. Also, hammer-ons, notes that don't require you to strum, still work the same way as before, but their placement in the song is very, very different. In Guitar Hero 1 and 2, the hammer-ons were determined by the game. Basically, if a series of notes were close enough together, the game marked them as hammer-ons regardless of whether or not the actual guitarist strummed the notes. Neversoft did away with that in GH3. Every hammer-on is hand-placed by the developer, who worked under the guideline of "if the guitarist strummed it, you strum it." Notice the word "guideline." There are still some sections with a ton of hammer-ons, but for the most part you'll be strumming a lot more. Though it's a jarring change at first, eventually you'll grow to appreciate how much more authentic the game is to the real experience of playing songs like "Black Magic Woman."

Don't be fooled by the generous timing, this game is hard. Really, really, really hard. Guitar Hero 2 focused on blistering solos and crazy end wankery, where the notes seemed to just fly in all directions with little discernible pattern. GH3 tones that down a bit, though songs like "Cult of Personality" still have insane solos, to focus on chord-heavy tracks with memorable riffs. Some fans worried that the songs would be too repetitive, due to the repeating riffs. That turns out to be a moot point, because the patterns are much more complicated than in previous games. The Who's "The Seeker" is in the middle of the setlist, but it's chord transitions are closer to the later tracks in Guitar Hero 2. By the time that you make it to "3's and 7's" and "Before I Forget," you'll be required to make extremely quick and difficult three-finger chord transitions over and over again. It's enough to cramp your hand up after one playthrough.

Notice that the word "fun" hasn't been used so far. The obsession with perfecting your skills at the 70-odds tracks is certainly still there, as is the desire to "just play one more song," which winds up actually being another hour or so. However, there are far fewer moments where you catch yourself just having fun and playing because you want to. It's a function of how difficult this game makes each song. It's less about having a good time, and more about proving how good you are at this game. Want to impress your friends? Play "Raining Blood" on Expert. Want to have fun with your friends? Get Rock Band.

Neversoft made much ado about "battle mode," their big new idea for the Guitar Hero series. Rather than trying to outplay your opponent, you actively try to sabotage him/her. When you hit a series of star-shaped notes, you gain an attack instead of Star Power. Now, when you flip your guitar up, your opponent will be handicapped with one of a handful of maladies, including double-notes, increased difficulty, a broken string, or the dreaded "lefty flip." The point is to screw your opponent so bad that they fail the song. Sound like fun? It's not. Most matches tend to be extremely brief, as many of the attacks are too difficult to recover from, especially on the Expert difficulty. Also, Guitar Hero is a game of skill, where you're primarily competing against yourself rather than the opponent. Think about if you were playing golf, and could randomly switch out your opponent's ball with one that will hook far to the left every time it's hit. Sure, it would help you win, but it's not as satisfying as simply beating him with your own superior skill.

Most people think that the presentation of this game isn't that important, since you're just focused on the flurry of notes coming at you. There's some truth in that, but the presentation makes a big difference in keeping you engaged. Neversoft understood this, and completely made over just about every facet of the presentation. The biggest improvement is in the load times. The load times are so tiny that you probably won't be able have time to read the snarky comments on the now loading screen before you're onto the rocking. Also, if you can tear your eyes away from the scrolling notes, you'll notice that the drummer is hitting the right drums, the bassist is grooving through the bass track correctly, and the bass-mouthed singer is lip-syncing along with the song. These little touches add that much more authenticity to the rock and roll experience that Guitar Hero is known for. There are a few framerate hiccups, especially when activating star power. It's a minor gripe, because you get used to it, but it's hard to imagine that this game is really pushing the Xbox 360 hardware. It's a surprising blemish, especially since everything else was so well done.

The last major addition to Guitar Hero III is the "better late than never" online mode. Have no fear, online play works great, but setting up matches is far more difficult than it should be. Halo 2 came out three years ago. How do companies continue to ignore its matchmaking model today? All you need to do is set up a lobby, get some friends together, and start matching them up randomly until they want to stop. Instead, you have to set up a private match, then invite an individual to game. That whole process can take a minute or more, depending on how many times they need to switch their guitar model and character's color scheme. Then you get to play between 1 and 7 songs with them. If you want to play more than that, you have to go through the same process all over again. If you're into playing random people, you can jump into a quick match and play whatever mode that user has set up. You can filter that to avoid battle or co-op, if you want.

When you tally up all of its virtues, there is no denying that Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock fulfills the promise of fake rock stardom made by its predecessors. Though Neversoft left the core mechanics well enough alone, they threw on a new coat of paint, tweaked a few gameplay issues, and added enough new features to justify buying a whole new game. History will tell us whether Harmonix will reclaim the rock game crown with Rock Band, but they first have to beat the 800-pound gorilla, Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock.

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Community review by skrutop (February 28, 2008)

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