VIDEO: The trailer for Guitar Hero: Metallica
At long last, it seems that Guitar Hero has reached a state of equilibrium. The series has seen triumphs (the first two games) and tragedies (On Tour and Aerosmith), but for the most part it's been bumping along ever since Neversoft took the development reins from Harmonix. The proper sequels have benefitted from expanded budgets and top-shelf tracklists, but the gameplay has suffered thanks to such gratuitous additions as "boss battles." Now we have Guitar Hero: Metallica, which does away with the extraneous bits and delivers solid rock-and-roll gameplay with a stellar collection of songs. It may be the best in the series since Guitar Hero II.
Assembling a music game is like cooking dinner: you don't need to do anything fancy as long as you start with good-quality ingredients. More than half of Metallica's songs are drawn from the band's catalogue — a tribute to their unparalleled output, from Kill 'Em All through the Black Album. You've got the frenzied fretwork of "Seek and Destroy" and "One"; you've got soulful ballads like "Nothing Else Matters" and "Unforgiven." And you're not limited to contending with Kirk Hammett's blistering guitar solos — you can also attempt Cliff Burton's face-melting bass parts, or try to make sense of James Hetfield's voice dropping two octaves between Master of Puppets and . . . And Justice for All.
But the game also offers a broad selection of tunes from rockers of all styles and eras, from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Slayer to Mastodon. Past Guitar Hero incarnations have included some questionable numbers on the strength of their popularity outside the game. That's not the case here. These are meaty songs with epic guitar solos, tricky time signatures, equal parts crooning and screeching. There's barely a dud to be found.
Guitar Hero: Metallica also tidies up a few areas where the series had been faltering. The boss battles are gone, I'm glad to report, but there's still an optional battle of the bands if that kind of thing is your speed. The difficulty, which seemed artificially amplified in previous Neversoft efforts, works better here, thanks in large part to the addition of a new "Expert+" level that makes full use of Lars Ulrich's double-kick drum parts. (By the way, don't even attempt this.) As with last summer's Aerosmith edition, though, the difficulty progression in the campaign mode is a little wonky. The focus is on doling out Metallica songs in equal measure as you proceed, and so the non-Metallica tracks seem shoehorned in wherever they'll fit. Not that that's the end of the world.
Even better, Metallica supports the Rock Band peripherals. I played on the Rock Band drum kit, which has one less input than its Guitar Hero counterpart. No problem. Metallica displays a truncated note chart for those with the RB peripheral while also admonishing you to get the official Guitar Hero kit for the best experience. Support for the Rock Band guitar seemed a little iffier — on more than one occasion, sustained notes cut off and I was fairly certain I hadn't let go of the fret button. But the old X-plorer guitar from Guitar Hero II fit the bill just fine.
Neversoft's instincts can still let the side down. Metallica encourages point-whoring drum fills during extended quiet parts of many songs, sacrificing fidelity to the source material on the altar of the high score. And a feature in which notes appear to be connected by strings — indicating that you can use the guitar's slide function — is more confusing than anything. That's all to say that the gap in quality between Guitar Hero and Rock Band remains. But it's never seemed smaller than it does right now.
Read Mitch Krpata's blog at insultswordfighting.blogspot.com.