If Guitar Hero is The Beatles of music games, Harmonix would be John Lennon and RedOctane would be Paul McCartney. After the duo split for good, Harmonix started work on Rock Band, an ambitious game that will surely do well critically but may not be a commercial success. RedOctane, however, soldiered on with the established Guitar Hero series, enlisting Neversoft for developer duties.
Which would make Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock the equivalent of Wings.
But that's where the metaphor ends. Because while Wings totally sucked, Guitar Hero III on the PS2 offers great new songs, a familiar playing experience, and even a few new surprises. And while it's not perfect, it's still Guitar Hero.
It's easy to imagine Neversoft looking at the massive success of Guitar Hero II and deciding that if it's not broke, they won't try to fix it. The core gameplay hasn't changed. Small modifications, such as improved Hammer-Ons and Pull-Offs, make shredding a killer riff easier. The art style has been updated as well, with Neversoft going for a more mature direction. If that's ruining your experience with the game, you've got your priorities screwed up. I'm not saying the lead singer's strange mouth wasn't distracting when trying to 5-star "Barracuda," but it didn't stop me.
The setlist is what makes or breaks a rhythm game, and Guitar Hero III's is an interesting mix. No setlist is perfect, and in particular I would beg Neversoft to never again hire someone to pretend to be the Dead Kennedys, but a few missteps are allowed. The main riff on Blue Oyster Cult's "Cities on Flame With Rock and Roll" is a blast to play, and Smashing Pumpkins' "Cherub Rock" searing chords more than make up for a few dud covers. Since the majority of the songs are master tracks, there aren't a lot of times you'll be stuck listening to pale imitations.
Too bad the bonus songs are so disappointing. What I loved most about the first two games in the series was how they featured independent acts as extra songs you can purchase. Guitar Hero III treats this section as just a place to get more songs. The Kaiser Chiefs have a label, and the Bret Michaels Band doesn't deserve one. Broaden my horizons!
One new feature touted in Guitar Hero III is the boss battles against guitar legends like Slash and Tom Morello. The idea is that this rock superstar is backstage at one of your shows when he suddenly decides to knock you down a peg or two. He plays a riff, then you play a riff. And instead of star power, you build up guitar attacks to screw up your opponent, like breaking strings on his guitar. Sounds interesting, right?
It was boring.
Not easy, mind you, just not engaging. Morello's challenge piece is a collection of his greatest guitar noises for the majority of the song, and while it's cool to listen to, it's not a lot of fun to play. Timing my guitar attacks after successfully playing the special notes was too gimmicky. Tom would make a scratching noise. Then I would make a scratching noise. I hope the sprites in the crowd didn't pay full price for their tickets, because it wasn't much of a show.
Humiliating Tom Morello in the rock arena of my mind was fun and all, and I love the idea that this rock superstar would then offer to play "Bulls On Parade" with my band after I've taken him to school, but I'd already played that song in Co-Op.
Which brings me to the much larger problem with Guitar Hero III: The Co-Op Career. What sounded like a promising and engaging multiplayer experience has created a schism in my living room because we can't change difficulty levels. For reference, our house band -- named The Hawt Bills due to an unfortunately timed discussion about the division of our gas utilities -- was started on the Medium difficulty. If we raise or lower the difficulty, we have to start all over again. And there's no cooperative quickplay mode, though apparently the 360 got this added on launch day.
Which means that, unless you buy the 360 version, your copy of Guitar Hero III is broken. No other patches have been announced or released, and in my case, the PS2 version will never get an update. It's not only a huge difference in the two generations of hardware, but really shows the preference the game's makers have put on Microsoft's console. Suffice it to say, The Hawt Bills are currently on hiatus until Rock Band hits.
In the end, Guitar Hero III is still Guitar Hero, which is a good thing. There are changes to the formula in the boss battles and the redesigned cooperative modes, but the soul of the game is surprisingly intact. If you're ready to rock, the 360 version is the way to go, but the PS2 version is worth a rental at least. Neversoft has made a rhythm game that feels like it deserves the name Guitar Hero. Rock on.