Up until E3 a few years ago, I'd never heard of Guitar Hero. Yet, only a short time later, it's a household name and a staple among gamers' top lists. With Harmonix off producing Rock Band and taking the code behind Guitar Hero with it, one wasn't quite sure what to expect with a new developer. In an impressive feat, Neversoft has managed to not only pull together the classic feel and style of the Guitar Hero franchise from the ground up, but has also managed to bring along a few new innovations of their own.
If anyone out there is still unfamiliar with the concept, you are provided with a guitar shaped controller and a virtual fretboard on screen consisting of five "strings". Coloured notes move towards you, and the purpose of the game is to hold down the appropriate buttons and strum the note using the guitar. To make it a bit more challenging, you'll be required to strum chords (more then one colour held down at a time), and can perform in more advanced techniques such as hammer-on's and pull-offs. For such a simple concept, it's an amazingly addictive game that'll have you challenging both yourself and friends for hours.
Guitar Hero 3 ships with a wireless Les Paul guitar controller, by far the best one released for the franchise. Given the hardware problems in the 360 release of Guitar Hero 2, this one is a definite upgrade. Not only does it look stylish, it feels solid and is quite light. Having a detachable neck, it's designed to fold up quite nicely, and has support for additional faceplates (if it's something that interests you). For its wireless support, the Guitar uses a wireless receiver plugged into one of the USB ports on the console (instead of using the native wireless offered on either the 360 or the PS3), and, unfortunately this causes a few issues on the PlayStation 3. Mainly, you can't turn on the console with the guitar controller as you can with any other PS3 controller, a disappointment but by no means a game breaker. It uses standard double AA batteries for power, and I found the battery life to be quite superb.
From the moment you start the game, everything feels like Guitar Hero, including the menus, the familiar sounds, and the style. Guitar Hero 3 offers up the classic fare in terms of modes; notable additions are a career co-op mode and online multiplayer. This time around, the game takes you back to a time in classic rock, featuring a solid soundtrack with the likes of the Rolling Stones ("Paint it Black"), Smashing Pumpkins ("Cherub Rock"), KISS ("Rock and Roll All Nite"), Alice Cooper ("School's Out"), and Metallica ("One"), with forty tracks in the main set list. This release also contains the highest number of original recordings of any previous Guitar Hero game, and the sound quality of the tracks is outstanding. While I personally prefer the soundtrack in Guitar Hero 2, it's really open to debate and comes down to personal preference. What I was pleasantly surprised with in the latest release is the outstanding roster of bonus tracks, twenty-five in total offering a wide variety of styles and flavor to fit nearly anyone's tastes. My only real complaint here is that you can only unlock six of the songs by completing the co-op career mode, which isn't playable online. While this may work for groups of friends who tend to play the game as a group, those who prefer to rock in the peace of their own home will be missing out on some of the action.
Gameplay wise, it feels much like Guitar Hero 2, the main differences being that the timing of strumming seems a little more forgiving, and that notes with the ability to hammer-on or pull-off are more clearly marked with a glowing white top. In terms of difficulty, I've found that this one is easier to step into then previous iterations, but much more difficult to master. The easy and medium levels are fairly straightforward, but the difficulty is really ramped up for hard and expert, even more so then previous games in the series. If you manage to beat "Through the Fire and Flames" on expert, you really need to re-evaluate your life's priorities. That one makes "Jordan" from Guitar Hero II look like "Polly Wolly Doodle."
While the third iteration in the franchise doesn't bring a whole lot of innovation to the table, the addition of battle mode is certainly one of the more enjoyable modes. You can compete against a friend locally or online, the goal is essentially to make your opponent fail the song by launching attacks against them at key moments. Replacing star power is battle sequences, and by successfully completing these sequences you'll be awarded with an attack. You can store three of these at once, and they are launched at your opponent by raising the guitar as you would to initiate star power. Although they only last a few moments, they can be quite devastating, and range from a "broken string" where the player cannot hit any notes on a fret, amp overload where all of the notes blink, double notes, and difficulty up. Through the single player campaigns, you'll also face off against AI boss battles, featuring Slash, Tom Morello, and Lou, the final boss in the game. These boss battles add an interesting element to the single player and help vary the gameplay. Here's to wishing there were a few more.
The other major addition to this release mostly relate to multiplayer. The addition of a co-operative career mode is a nice feature, especially for those who commonly rock out with friends. As a first to the franchise, the addition of online multiplayer over Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network is another nice feature - it's too bad you can't complete the co-op career mode online. The basic co-operative and competitive modes are playable online, and all-in-all performance seems quite adequate for the online component.
The visuals have been cranked up to a new level, environments are highly detailed and the character models are the best we've seen to date. An added touch, the vocalist's mouth and facial expressions now synch up with the words of the song, so when the camera zooms in close it makes you feel like they're actually performing the song. Two vocalist characters are used, depending on the gender of the performer of the actual tune, adding another nice touch. Unfortunately, the lead male vocalist is butt ugly in every sense of the phrase; fortunately you should have your eyes on the fretboard most of the time.
I really only have a few specific gripes about the game. As I've already mentioned the inability to unlock all of the songs without completing the co-op campaign, the only other issue I really have with it is the excessive amount of in-game advertising. Some product placement and branding I can understand (given that we're an online magazine, advertising is what we survive on), but the sheer amount of advertising present in Guitar Hero 3 beyond an unacceptable level. Dynamic in-game billboards, Axe-branded guitars in the store, the product placement is far from subtle and overwhelming at times.
While it doesn't bring any major innovation to the franchise, Guitar Hero 3 is a solid successor and an excellent first outing of the franchise by Neversoft. The new bundles are worth picking up, although Xbox 360 players are free to use the X-plorer guitars from Guitar Hero 2 if they please. For fans of the franchise, and especially those who have a bloodthirsty taste for classic rock, Guitar Hero 3 is a definite purchase. For others, the battle mode, online modes, and solid track list make this one worth picking up.