GUITAR HERO III: LEGENDS OF ROCK (2007) – RED OCTANE
NOTE – Although I’ve had the pleasure of playing the Xbox 360 version many times, this review is for the PS2 version of the game.
When I reviewed the original Guitar Hero, I mentioned how its greatest achievement was that it managed to make even the most musically inept player feel like a rock god as they strummed along on a plastic instrument – a major feat that created a thirst not even the excellent soundtrack could fully satiate. A sequel therefore was inevitable, and Guitar Hero II duly obliged; but while II subtly improved the gameplay experience (including the addition of a Training mode), personally I was never won over by the soundtrack. Sure, the likes of ‘Carry On Wayward Son’ & ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ provided the classic riffs and ‘Jordan’ became a legendary test for expert shredders, but overall it never reached the consistent heights that the first game reached. The dilemma that would always rear its ugly head therefore was do I play the better songs on the more unforgiving first game, or enjoy the gameplay but sacrifice the enjoyment on the second?
The solution was simple. Play Guitar Hero III instead, a game which for me marks the apex of the series.
Pretty much everything about III falls into place; the experience is almost exactly the same as the simple gameplay that marked the ‘pick up and play’ nature of I and II – select a song, and press the correct coloured buttons on your guitar peripheral as a series of notes flow along on a screen, earning points for each note hit which add up to an overall score at the end. The better you play, the more cash you’ll earn to spend on new characters, songs, guitars and customisation options. Players can increase or decrease difficulty as they see fit, which will make the note chart more or less complex, and the training mode makes a welcome return from II. Newly introduced to III however was a range of features including the ability to play guitar and bass in a co-operative gameplay mode, an on-screen note counter telling you how big your combo is as you play, and three boss battles were added to Career Mode letting you duel with Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine, Slash from Guns And Roses, and the Devil himself in a high octane finale.
III also marked a point by where the series had become so popular that the developers were able to get original master recordings for several of the songs in-game, rather than relying on (very well produced) cover versions. Although the licenses are missing for some of the songs, having the majority of the soundtrack use the original recordings lend an sense of authenticity and polish to the product – Red Octane even managed to get some bands to re-record their own songs for the game including The Sex Pistols and Broken Colour for ‘Anarchy In The UK’ and ‘Cult Of Personality’ respectively. The songs picked are at least on par with the first game, gradually ramping up from the likes of Pat Benetar and The Who to the heavyweights of rock including Iron Maiden, Slayer and Metallica (who of course would get their own full game, Guitar Hero: Metallica, a few years later).
It is in the latter stages of the game however that some of its faults start to come through. On medium difficulty, the average player can get through the full set-list with relative ease. Once the jump to Hard or Expert has been made though, there is a rather serious spike in difficulty that makes it presence felt at the halfway stage as songs become walls of notes that only the very best can realistically keep up with. It is this change in gameplay that divides much of the hardcore Guitar Hero audience as to whether II or IIII is the better game – from III onwards, it seemed that an increase in difficulty simply meant throwing an obscene amount of notes at the player rather than rewarding those who could execute fewer, more awkwardly placed notes at higher speed. This will only really affect those chasing after perfection at the highest levels though; the casual player will be able to blissfully ignore this by rocking out at the standard difficulty. The only other major problem is very much a hardware issue – the loading times on the PS2 version of the game are horrendously long when compared to the Xbox 360 and PS3.
Following III, the series never really enjoyed the same success again – the sheer speed at which sequels and spin-offs were churned out diluted much of the series’ appeal (with people reluctant to shell out money for essentially the same game with progressively weaker track-lists), while at the same time Rock Band was starting to establish itself as the music game of choice with its focus on full band gameplay. With Guitar Hero: Live set to awaken the series from Activision’s self-imposed hiatus, then it is the quality of III that it will need to be matching if it wants to stand out in the crowd again.