It is somehow fitting that the Guitar Hero series should follow the trajectory of the countless rock bands who achieve too much success too soon. The original game was a labor of love, produced on the cheap by unknowns who had no idea how the public would receive it. Next came the blockbuster sequel that shook the world. Then, money and fame got in the way. The publishing behemoth Activision bought the property and sacked its creators, Harmonix, dishing off development duty to its own studio, Neversoft. The result was Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, a bloated but slickly produced monster that retained just enough of the original’s inherent appeal to convince fans that their beloved series hadn’t gone over a cliff.
|Guitar Hero: Aerosmith | For Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, and Nintendo Wii | Rated T for Teen | Developed by Neversoft | Published by Activision
Now comes Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, an undercooked cash-in proving, once and for all, that Guitar Hero is on life support. Strumming along to popular songs on a plastic guitar remains enjoyable, but the gameplay has gotten worse on Neversoft’s watch. Harmonix demanded precision timing, particularly during hammer-ons and pull-offs. Under Neversoft, these actions feel mushier and more forgiving. Yet it also seems that Neversoft has artificially amped up the difficulty level, thanks to the way the company has constructed note charts — Guitar Hero: Aerosmith feels less like playing a guitar and more like playing a video game. At least the sudden, brutal spike in difficulty that marred Guitar Hero III is gone. Indeed, there’s barely any progression at all — the final tier of songs is scarcely more challenging than the first.
Reaching those last songs doesn’t take long. Although it costs as much as any other game in the series, with only 30 playable songs (plus a handful of bonus tracks), Guitar Hero: Aerosmith feels more like an expansion pack than a stand-alone. Given the success that Harmonix has had releasing downloadable content for Rock Band to be purchased à la carte, you wonder why the makers of Guitar Hero didn’t go that route. Guitar Hero III owners probably would have clamored to download songs like “Dream On” at a couple of bucks a pop. But buying a whole new game? That’s dicier.
The biggest problem is right there in the name. I’m not just talking about having to behold the terrifying visage of Video Steven Tyler. More than half of the tracks here are by Aerosmith. Even if you like the band (and I don’t), the focus on their catalogue undercuts one of Guitar Hero’s core strengths: its diversity of musical styles. Forget about transitioning from blues to wanky prog to punishing metal riffs. And the non-Aerosmith bands are those who allegedly inspired or opened for them. Yes, the Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary” and Run-DMC’s “King of Rock” are welcome additions, and “Cat Scratch Fever” is up there with the best of anything in the series. But the paucity of non-Aerosmith tracks makes the song selection feel even slighter.
Guitar Hero: Aerosmith is evidence that this series is starving for a change. Let’s hope that will come this fall with the release of Guitar Hero World Tour, which will offer drums, vocals, and an enticing create-a-song feature. If we’re lucky, Neversoft may even drop the loathsome — and mandatory — “battle mode” that’s been plaguing the franchise. But don’t bet on it. I’m saddened to see what Guitar Hero has become. It used to be about the music, man!