VIDEO: The trailer for Guitar Hero 3
The first two installments of the enormously popular Guitar Hero franchise were designed and developed by Harmonix, a Cambridge-based company famous for employing a horde of musicians. The third GH game, following a pair of corporate mergers, has been designed by Neversoft, a company with no apparent musical connection. (Its previous claim to fame was the Tony Hawk skateboarding games.) Since Harmonix has been widely credited with elevating GH to a level that transcends video-gaming and captures the actual experience of playing music, GH fans had to wonder whether the experience would feel different when designed by different people.
Guitar Hero 3 is out now, and it too is an addictive, engrossing experience. The bad news is that it’s plagued by a host of obnoxious details — seemingly insignificant things that keep it from attaining the next level of greatness. The basic gameplay is the same; you’re still strumming along with notes as they descend the screen. The hammer-ons and pull-offs in the faster sections are now exponentially easier to carry off — which would seem to make the game less challenging, except that the notes you can hit in this manner now appear less frequently. It can be a touch disorienting to those who’ve put hours into Guitar Hero — you’ll find yourself expecting notes to be hammer-on-able, only to discover that they must be picked normally. Also, on the tougher difficulty levels, the placement of the three-note chords seems arbitrary. At times, it’s as if they’d been placed to maximize effort rather than to re-create the song. That said, after a few plays, you’ll find yourself adjusting. The soundtrack is solid if not spectacular, with the hits (“One,” “Cult of Personality,” “Number of the Beast”) papering over the misses (tracks by Matchbook Romance, Priestess, and Disturbed).
If Neversoft had simply tweaked the gameplay and just touted all the new songs and left it at that, there wouldn’t be a problem. But the company has made some poor choices in trying to put its stamp on the presentation. The characters and stages have been given makeovers, all of which are cartoonish, hyper-sexualized, or both. Almost every level now includes cage dancers, pole dancers, or some other variety of dancer. Once the each song starts, this shameless pandering does fade into the background. What’s tougher to ignore is the new design of the male lead singer, who’s been transformed into a hulking Neanderthal with a Jay Leno chin, a sloping brow, and deep-set eyes.
Neversoft has also added a battle mode, in which you compete for the highest score with the help of new power-ups that impair your opponent’s performance by doubling up notes, or disabling one of his fret buttons. One real-life combatant will usually find himself buried in the red pretty early on; playing the song without the interference is infinitely better. But this competition is mandatory in single-player career mode, where you have to “battle” against Tom Morello, Slash, and the Devil. Slash and Morello are, I assume, the “Legends of Rock.” Someone should have changed that subtitle once it became clear there would only be two such “legends” providing their names, likenesses, and guitar slinging.
Maybe none of this matters. In a few weeks, Harmonix, EA, and MTV will release Rock Band, which adds vocals and drums to the mix. The guitar component will play mostly the same, but the new dimension of the other instruments will mean longer replay value. It will be the bigger hit at parties. And Harmonix’s open-ended downloadable content plan ensures that the dynamically evolving soundtrack will always be better than any other such game’s. Guitar Hero 3 is fun on its own merits, but it’s about to be rendered obsolete.