When MTV bought Harmonix, developer of the ultrasuccessful “Guitar Hero” vidgames, Activision’s inhouse team Neversoft was left with the unenviable position task of taking over a beloved series. Though there’s little that will surprise or amaze those familiar with the franchise, the good news is that “Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock” plays just as well as its predecessors and refines an already well-balanced formula by giving the game a bit of story and excellent online play. It remains to be seen how it will stack up against “Rock Band,” Harmonix’s upcoming game for MTV, but for this holiday season at least, “Guitar Hero” will continue to shred the charts.
When Activision bought RedOctane, publisher of the first “Guitar Hero,” for $100 million, but let Harmonix go to MTV for $175 million, it was left with a name and nothing else. Neversoft had little more than a year to re-create the core gameplay mechanics, in which players use a small plastic guitar with five fret buttons and a strum bar to hit notes to their favorite rock songs, which appear onscreen.
“Guitar Hero III” does that with virtually no change. While the graphics certainly look better, the cartoonish art style is very similar to what “Guitar Hero” rockers have come to know.
Beyond that, however, Neversoft has implemented a number of features that make “Guitar Hero III” more than just a collection of new songs for an old game.
Most impressive is the controller, a faux Gibson Les Paul that’s superior to those that came with the first two games, both of which will work with “Legends of Rock.” It’s the first wireless in-box “Guitar Hero” controller, and features a more responsive strum bar and fret buttons that make the game much easier to play.
In previous versions of “Guitar Hero,” players moved seemingly at random from venue to venue. “Guitar Hero III” adds a basic plot that starts the virtual bands off at a backyard bash. Successive levels follow the band as it moves from lounge act to a musicvideo recording session to a massive concert in Japan and eventually on to hell, where, in true rock style, they try to win back their souls from the devil.
Along the way, “Guitar Hero III” adds a convention players are used to in more traditional games: boss battles. In order to continue, players have to vanquish digital doppelgangers of famous rockers like Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Guns N’ Roses’ Slash.
Boss battles also give players the new ability to launch “attacks” meant to fluster opponents by making them reverse notes, or repeatedly tap a button to “repair a broken string.” Though some may enjoy feeling like they’re playing with an icon onstage, the addition of a tired gaming trope detracts a bit from the “Guitar Hero” uniqueness.
A more welcome addition is online play, which is surprisingly smooth and free of lags. “Guitar Hero” has always been a social game, as evidenced by the many bars that have replaced “karaoke night” with “ ‘Guitar Hero’ night.”
True to its name, “Legends of Rock” comes with 71 playable classics, including Kiss’ “Rock and Roll All Nite,” Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” and the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” There are also a few modern entries from groups like Weezer and Tenacious D. An impressive 51 of the songs are master recordings and three were written specifically for the game, including a metal version of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” re-imagined by Steve Ouimette.
Key to the game’s long-term success against “Rock Band,” however, will be how well RedOctane delivers on the promise of a continual stream of new songs that PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 owners will supposedly be able to purchase online.