Hey all. Here's one that I've been playing for the past 2 weeks. It is Guitar Hero III for the PS2.
Now before I get into this, I'll tell you this right now, even though I've been playing the PS2 version (admittedly the weakest of the platforms it is available for) I am pretty familiar with the other versions out there due to the fact that I work in the Activision QA department. Whilst there are definitely pros and cons to each individual version, there are definite, objective things that I can critique that apply accross all versions. I haven't written a review in a while, so bear with me.
I'll open with this: If you haven't heard of Guitar Hero, you've probably been living underneath a rock (a very, big, heavy, soundproof rock) for the last 2 years. When the original Guitar Hero was released back in November of 2005 by Red Octane, it did so with little fanfare. But just like many smash hits from the Holiday shopping season, word of mouth spread fast and Red Octane found themselves sitting on a franchise so hot that they were having trouble handling by themselves. The simple, yet addictive game was lauded by many as one of the most innovative genre-forming titles to date (never mind the fact that Guitar Freaks was part of Konami's Bemini arcade line-up since 1999--that's another story) and caught many in the industry by suprise. One such industry giant, Activision, was so infatuated with the franchise that they just had to have it. As such, they acquired Red Octane early in 2006 and all future Guitar Hero licenses as a result.
So it came to be that the Guitar Hero 2 would be released with the full marketing machine of Activision and a legion of cult followers from the original title behind it. What came to pass was probably the single most profitable title ever released (so much so that it contributed to Activision beating EA in revenue for the first half of FY'07, a feat which had not been done in 10 years by anybody) in the industry. With that Red Octane rejoiced and Activision rejoiced also. Everyone was happy except for Harmonix, the developers of GH and GH2, who was promptly bought up by MTV games. Harmonix would then go on to develope Rock Band (a monstrously expensive game package that currently clocks in at $250 in pre-order on next gen systems) to be released by EA.
Now that we have the littany of Guitar Hero History out of the way, it brings us to our current day and Guitar Hero III. Whilest Harmonix was no longer under the auspices of Red Octane or Activision, there was no possible way that Activision was going to let this Christmas season pass without trying to reproduce the same magic that GH2 had afforded them last year. With that they handed the reigns of the GH to Neversoft (creator of the Tony Hawk Series and developer A list game developer) who were more than happy to take the project. In this, lies the sole greatest difference between GHIII to GH2. Let me explain:
Upon starting up GHIII, one will notice a very different visual presentation from the previous games. The character designs have been completely re-done from the originals and sport a shiny new, modern, "teen appeal" motif. In that, they look edgier, darker, grungier, harder, and many times sluttier than before. While I'm not one to bemoan the inclusion of breast-bounce physics in any
game, it became obvious where the focus of character design was with Neversoft.
While it is sometimes a welcome addition for change in a characters physical look, this is a rhythm and music game first. Most players will be focused on the fret board on screen to a degree that they won't notice the on-screen characters as often during gameplay. When given the chance to watch the on-screen characters, the camera placement doesn't leave too much to actually appreciate. When a character does come into focus, it becomes obvious that they lack in actual "character." Most of this is due to the lack of animation given to any single character. Many of the animations are shared between characters, making certain animation choices look out of place. As a result, your on-screen character is not much more a static prop on stage (they don't move from place to place mid-song like a live musician ever), giving the band an appearance eerily familiar to Munch's Make Believe Band
from your local Chuck E. Cheese.
Compounding this is the newfound infatuation with the showing the auspicious mug of the Lead Singer on screen. Now I know Bret Michaels
did the mo-cap for the lead singer, but the lead singer is nothing but an over-sized headed, horse-jawed characture whose face lacks almost any semblance of animation aside from mouth movement and lip-sync (which isn't completely perfect on top of that). So, instead of being graced by Mr. Michaels likeness on screen during gameplay (except for certain songs), you end up staring eye-to-eye with a soulless hand puppet that seems more interested in eating your soul than singing your favorite track.
Speaking of which, the core each rhythm-and-music game is the songs. At over 70 available tracks (40 through normal gameplay, the rest to be unlocked), the variety of the playable songs is greater than previous GH titles. Many popular songs make their way to the tracklist, in their original, digitally mastered form. Now you know a game is popular if long-defunct bands go out of their way to record a one-off exclusive with a new guitar solos as they did with "Anarchy in the U.K." and "Cult of Personality." Many of the songs that are covered done competently, with the best probably being (in my oppinion) "Black Magic Woman" by, Santana and the worst being "La Grange" by, ZZ Top. The tracklist sports many songs from the 1960's on up to a few contemporary spot holders on modern Top 40 charts. There are songs for many musical tastes.
However, since this is a game, the songs are a media that is played and not just listened to. This brings about a majority of my point of contention with this game. While the majority of the Harmonix development and in-house QA team were musicians themselves, Neversoft (while being a more than competent developer) does not have the same musical pedigree. Sure a song that is a little more obscure to your average gamer may not sound as readily familiar as "Miss Murder" by, AFI or "Cherub Rock" by, Smashing Pumpkins, but there are other tracks that translate into a funner song when being played.
Speaking of gameplay, if you've played the previous iterations of GH, then picking up GHIII is a no-brainer. In fact, a lot of the buffers for note input have been widened. As such a lot of the hammer-ons and pull-offs needed to get through higher difficulty tiers are much friendlier. I like the fact that I finally have an incentive to play the easy difficulty level beyond unlocking a new guitar.
However, some of the choices made to actually increase difficulty seem a little suspect. By and large a lot of the note-mapping choices made for certain songs tend to be more intent on causing hand cramps, instead of replicating the intricacies (given a toy guitar controller) of playing a set of scales and chords on a guitar. Furthermore, if you haven't learned to play while strumming up and down
, you will need to as the number of "constant strumming" songs are plenty. This goes back to the fact that the whole of the Harmonix development team had musical backgrounds, where Neversoft simply picked up with the tools to build another game.
This can be further seen, actually heard
, in the choices made for audio mixing in the game also. While the guitars were overpowering in both GH and GH2, they had to be. Especially in multiplayer mode, one needed to know which track was theirs when playing. While the overall audio mixing is more akin to what you would expect from a CD track, turning up the gain on the guitars and the drums (especially when you're trying to nail a set of notes on a 1/16th beat) would have helped with the playability of the game. While everything is crystal clear, with certain tracks you can't tell if you've missed a note or not because there are so many notes that need to be played in quick succession, and the track mixing isn't loud enough to clue you off right away.
Speaking of multiplayer, I like that there is a new multiplayer career mode. I also like the new Battle Mode which gives you a new spin on versus play. This will help extend the replayability of this game (especially for the on-line enabled Wii, PS3 and XB360 versions) for a long time. While the new modes are welcom additions to the game, there are a few omitions that I find almost unforgiveable. For instance, why is there no Co-op quickplay? Instead of having all the tracks available for co-op that you've unlocked, the game forces you to play through all the tiers in order to play those tracks normally accessible from single player mode. Further, there are 5 tracks that are exclusively unlockable via co-op, so unless you're able to get someone willing to go through co-op career mode with you (on all available tiers of difficulty) you can't access those tracks at all
I mentioned Battle Mode
, right? Well, during versus play, it's very balanced. However, during certain "boss battles" in single player mode it can become an exercise in frustration. You may want to decline out of your boss battles when you first encounter them. If you lose the boss battle and choose not skip play past it (maybe because you've just gotten whopped for the 7th time and you've turned off you console in disgust), you'll find that you'll have to re-play the previous track again on top of the boss battle when you restart. The points for the auto-saving only occur after you get a rating/statistics screen, and if you load straight into another song (this includes the encore songs) it doesn't occur. So keep that in mind.
That all aside, if this is your first foray into Guitar Hero you probably won't notice any of that. In fact, after the first few tracks, if you aren't caught up by how fun it can be by that time you probably won't ever be. ON a scale of 1-10, I give it a solid 8.5
. There is a lot of new stuff added to a an already awesome gameplay engine, but there are also many gameplay features/functions and little details (both in game and out) that take away from the new shiny presentation that Neversoft sprayed onto it. While I like this game a lot, it doesn't have the same compelling hold over me that the previous iterations had. It is what it is, more Guitar Hero with a splash of Battle Mode and online play. While not the most refined cocktail out there, it's still goes down smooth. Just not as memorable.
ON a side note: Where the hell is Eddie Knox?