It must be a little intimidating for a developer to take the reigns of an established franchise like Guitar Hero, the cultural phenomenon that it’s become, and attempt to meet the expectations of its fans with a new installment. With the original development team, Harmonix, off creating an entirely new music rhythm franchise in Rock Band, that’s exactly the position Neversoft was put in. Best known for their work on the Tony Hawk franchise, Neversoft trades in their skateboard for a guitar as they take the stage for Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock.
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. That’s the approach Neversoft has taken with Guitar Hero III, leaving the core gameplay mechanics in tact and making only minor adjustments to the third installment in the series (fourth, if you count Guitar Hero Encore). The usual game modes are present: Practice, Quick Play and Career, though the later does feature a couple of new twists. After every few sets in the Career Mode, you’ll get to face off against guitar icons Tom Morello and Slash, not to mention a fiery finale with a special guest. The goal of these boss battles isn’t to outscore your opponent but rather to make them fail by the end of the song. To help you achieve this goal, the Star Power meter is replaced with Battle Attacks. Gained by nailing Battle Notes during the song and activated by raising your guitar as you would Star Power, the Battle Attacks are designed to disrupt your opponent by for example, causing their fret board to shake and blur, temporarily increasing their level of difficulty, or breaking one of their strings, forcing them to rapidly tap one of the buttons until it’s fixed. Similarly, your opponent can unleash Battle Attacks on you in an attempt to make you fail. It’s an interesting twist to be sure, but with only three boss battles in total, two against real-life guitarists, it feels like a last minute addition that’s not fully realized.
The other twist to the Career Mode is the fact there are two different Career Modes, solo and co-op. In the co-op Career Mode, one guitarist plays lead guitar while the other plays bass or rhythm. The co-op Career Mode is a little shorter than the solo Career Mode, with only six sets of songs and no boss battles, but the encore songs in those sets are different than those found in the solo Career Mode, which certainly adds incentive to jam through the co-op Career Mode with a friend. The one disappointing aspect of the co-op Career mode is that it’s only available locally and not online, which is a pretty big omission.
The soundtrack for Legends of Rock features 71 songs in total, 46 from the main setlist and 25 bonus tracks that you can unlock alongside new character, guitars and guitar skins. The soundtrack features some great rock anthems, such as “Rock and Roll All Nite” by Kiss, “School’s Out” by Alice Cooper, and “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses. Guitar Hero fans will get their first taste of Metallica with their single “One,” as well as songs from Tenacious D, Queens of the Stone Age, Weezer, The Rolling Stones, ZZ Top, Blue Oyster Cult, Iron Maiden and Stevie Ray Vaughn, just to name a few. There’s something for everyone in Legends of Rock, though I still find the soundtrack from Guitar Hero II to be the series’ most balanced. I will say this much about the soundtrack in Guitar Hero III: there are far more master recordings in this installment and the final set of songs are some of the series’ most challenging to date, especially on the hard and expert difficulty settings. To top it off, downloadable song packs are already available online, further extending the game’s replay value…for a fee.
Arguably the biggest improvement in Guitar Hero III is the visuals. Almost every facet of the game is superior in that regard. The character models look better than ever (including their lip synching), the venues are more colorful and richly detailed, the menu and stat screens have a sharper look to them, and the interface is easier to digest. There’s even cutscenes in the Career Mode between song sets, telling the story of the rise of your new band. It all adds up to be the best looking Guitar Hero title to date. The only issue with the graphics is that sometimes when you activate Star Power, the game will hiccup slightly. Not enough to throw you off rhythm mind you, but enough to notice it.
When you jump online you’ve got a few choices. You can play through a series of songs co-operatively, as lead and bass/rhythm guitarists, or you can duel in Face-Off, Pro Face-Off and Battle Mode. The later mode, which is new to the franchise, is identical to the boss battles in the Career Mode, where you use Battle Attacks to disrupt your opponent and get them to fail the song. Again, the lack of online support for the co-op Career Mode is disappointing. There is full leaderboard support so you can compare your best Career and single song scores with other players around the world. And just so your score doesn’t look too bad next to those expert players, you can filter for skill level and only compare with players of your skill level. Glad to see that option is in there.
Neversoft played it pretty safe with Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. It doesn’t break new ground and it didn’t need to. The existing formula has made the franchise a huge success. They did add a local co-op Career Mode, boss battles to the solo Career Mode, and a multiplayer Battle Mode. They also focused on improving the look and feel of the game with tremendous results. I would love to have seen online support for the co-op Career Mode and the boss battles feel a little tacked on, but those are minor gripes in yet another standout performance. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of pressure the upcoming Rock Band can put on this axe legend but until then, Guitar Hero fans are encouraged to rock on!