The Guitar Hero franchise is now undeniably a household name, the success of the first two titles is well deserved; Activision creating addictive party games that can be enjoyed by both casual gamers and hardcore score heroes alike. Sure Konami's Guitar Freaks may have been around the arcades first, but Guitar Hero brought the fun to home consoles. Now, however, the playing field has changed. EA and MTV's Rock Band is also due out shortly, being crafted by the original GH developers Harmonix and promising not only guitar play but drums and a vocal mic, to boot. Obviously this means that just adding a few new songs and incrementing the number after 'Guitar Hero' isn't going cut it anymore, so for Guitar Hero 3 Activision have brought on a crew who are no stranger to making improvements on an existing concept – Tony Hawk's Pro Skater developer, Neversoft.
Let's start with the familiar. In Guitar Hero 3: Legends of Rock, you play rock songs on a plastic guitar-shaped controller. There're five fret buttons, a strum bar and tremolo arm. As the notes of the song scroll up, hold down the corresponding fret button while you strum – the whammy can then be used on any sustained notes for extra flair. It's karaoke for your hands.
So what's new? Well for a start, the success of the series has meant more artists have been persuaded to contribute their master tracks, so unlike the previous games, the original versions actually outweigh the cover songs this time. Some highlights include Iron Maiden's “Number of the Beast
”, Queens of the Stone-Age's “3s and 7s
” and Metallica's “One
”. The song selection once again offers a great array of guitar driven songs both classic and contemporary. While I wouldn't say there's something for absolutely everybody, it doesn't get much better for a lounge-room rock out.
Without bragging (Guitar Hero 2 virtuoso youtube vids are more than enough to keep this reviewer in his place) I'm not too shabby at these games, having completed expert modes on both previews with plenty of five stars efforts. So I can say with confidence that some of Guitar Hero 3's later career mode tracks exceed the difficulty of those in the previous games. This is countered somewhat by the hammer-ons and pull-offs (sequential notes you can play without the need to strum each time) being much more forgiving in their timing. Even so, there're a few tracks that are going to take a whole lot of dedication if you want to master – Slayer's “Raining Blood
”, I'm looking at you. Similarly again, the game's most difficult single track is fortunately not required to complete career mode, the power metal epic “Through the Fire and Flames
” by Dragon Force is rewarded as a bonus track once career is done – check your fretting hand at the door. Of course, they don't expect everyone to play the game on expert and casual strummers will find the lower difficulty levels more than accommodating. All of the game's songs can be unlocked by playing through on easy so you won't be missing out on anything if you're only a part-time shredder.
The Xbox 360 version, of course, features an assortment of achievements that can be earned over career, coop play and online multiplayer. If you're a casual player hoping to boost your gamer-score, you may want to look elsewhere as these are quite possibly the most difficult awards to obtain in any Xbox 360 game to-date.
As a reference, once we had completed career mode on hard and had otherwise spent a good 12 or so hours playing the game, the Gamer Points tally was barely over 100 out of the possible 1000. The big points have been saved for the huge note streaks and expert five star campaigns - definitely only for the truly dedicated hardcore Guitar Heroes. It's a shame Xbox Live doesn't yet have a facility to really show-off the select achievements you're most proud of because this game has a few that would be well-worthy.
New to career play are the boss battles, which are essentially the game's new multiplayer 'battle mode' against a computer controlled opponent. Impressively, Activision have signed on acclaimed axe-men Slash of Guns n' Roses fame and Rage Against The Machine's Tom Morello whose digital likenesses you'll duke it out against in some instrumentals they composed exclusively for the game. Kind of like Tetris' various battle modes, the object is to collect power-ups by hitting specially marked notes which you can stock-pile and use against your adversary when appropriate by activating the guitar's tilt sensor (or by “Rocking Out”). While it's nice to see them adding something different to the game, it's really not as enjoyable as just playing the songs. Fortunately you don't need to beat them to progress in career as failing a few times offers the option of wussing out; skipping you forward to the next song.
Speaking of multiplayer, that's one area where Guitar Hero 3 really dials it up to 11 – on the Xbox 360 version at least. In addition to the online highscore leaderboards, Xbox Live subscribers can now actually play against each other over the tubes and it works surprisingly well. As with most other Xbox Live games, the matchmaking process can be a bit trying, with frequent join failures and waiting screens (perhaps an unavoidable symptom of being 10,000km away from the bulk of our competitors) but once you're actually in the game – even if you're broadband connection isn't the greatest – the actual player Vs player gameplay is incredibly fluid. Obviously given latency and general Internet flakiness you're not going to be seeing every note your opponent hits in real time, but the netcode appears to do a pretty good job of keeping things in sync enough to tell when they've hit a star-power run or a 50/100/200 note streak, etc. And as you're really paying most attention to the notes on your screen, they're the only real things you need to be glancing at anyway.
The Face-Off and Pro Face-Off modes are back from GH2, along with the new Battle Mode described above and yes, even Cooperative play is available online. Depending on the song, you get the choice of lead and bass or lead and rhythm, then you play together with common note streaks and a combined score. Cooperative can be a lot of fun, especially since you can independently choose your difficulty levels. There're even two extra tracks that can only be unlocked via coop play.
Texture-wise the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 offerings are all looking pretty stellar. If you think you don't really need hot graphics at all in a game like this (and you're probably right), here you go anyway. Those who've seen the difference between the PlayStation 2 and Xbox 360 versions of Guitar Hero II will know that the extra crispiness makes things a little easier on the eyes. This time around new developer, Neversoft, have spent more time on the stage sets and characters, with nicer textures and higher poly models to really make things stand out. The character animations though do leave a bit to be desired – the drummer in particular looks pretty off – but if you're playing, why the hell are you looking at the drummer anyway? One other thing that bears mention here is a slight frame-rate issue when engaging star-power during a note heavy section, things tend to briefly chug. Hardly a game breaking issue but surely irritating for those chasing the really big scores and hopefully something that will be addressed in a future patch update.
Understandably, however, the Wii and PS2 versions are a completely different kettle of 3D-rendered fish and really don't look much better, if at all, than Guitar Hero 1 and 2. They also don't feature the online play of the PS3 and Xbox 360 offerings or the downloadable content – the first bundles of which are actually already available now from Xbox Live with the PlayStation Network soon to follow.
The controller itself has had an upgrade. The Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii versions are modeled on Gibson's famed Les Paul shape and PS2, a Kramer Striker – all are also now wireless. On the Wii, you actually slot the Wii Remote into a pocket on the guitar's face. The fret button action feels a lot smoother and the glossy removable face-plate is pretty tidy but the best feature is the detachable neck, allowing the controller to fit neatly in a bag so you don't have to look like a complete nerd when transporting your game in public. While The Xbox 360 and Wii guitars both interface directly with the console's existing wireless control system, the PS3 and PS2 require USB dongles – unfortunately meaning the controller cannot be used to turn the console on and off. Not a huge issue but worth pointing out for the sake of comparison.
All in all, Guitar Hero 3 is a worthy addition to the franchise that offers much more than just new songs and a number iteration. The gameplay still offers that winning combination of both casual accessibility and hardcore challenges that made the series what it is and the addition of online play adds a whole new dimension. Even though it's still guitars only, it really does look like it has the goods to go up against EA's Rock Band and considering the opponent isn't due to land on our shores until the new year, GH3 has the Aussie holiday season all to itself. If you have more than one console to choose from, the Xbox 360 version is definitely the lead-pick but the PS3 really is no slouch either. Wii and PS2 aren't the best to look at and PS2 has no online play to speak of, but if you just want more songs for a great party game, they're definitely all still worth the pennies.