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Xbox 360 Review: Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock

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Bad things can happen when a video game franchise switches developers (see Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2). So when Activision purchased Red Octane and gave Guitar Hero III to Neversoft (makers of the Tony Hawk series) for development, many fans found cause for alarm. Sure, Guitar Hero is relatively simplistic in concept and there’s not much to screw up, but why mess with a formula that has already proven itself?

With Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, Neversoft has proven (for better or for worse) that they are more than capable of sticking to the formula crafted by Harmonix in the first two games.

From head to toe, Guitar Hero III reeks of rock and roll. It possesses the same karaoke-invoking, leather pants-toting, Mohawk-inducing spirit of its predecessors while at the same time tossing in a few new tricks of its own.

If you loved Guitar Hero and/or Guitar Hero II, you will love number three – it rocks in all the same ways.

The cornerstone of the Guitar Hero franchise has always been the track list. If the songs are not fun to play, the game won’t be either. Guitar Hero III ships with 71 total songs, 51 of which are master recordings. The 46 songs that make up the campaign set list are a definite improvement from Guitar Hero II’s offering in terms of both selection and sound (recording) quality.

As a whole, the songs create an almost entirely seamless learning curve that allows newcomers a chance to get acquainted with the mechanics of the game while, at the same time, giving veteran shredders more than an ample challenge.

The genres of rock represented in Guitar Hero III are varied and work well next to each other in the single-player set lists. From punk to grunge, metal to classic, all different generations and styles of rock and roll are well represented. Especially noteworthy tracks include “The Seeker” by The Who, “My Name Is Jonas” by Weezer, “Cult of Personality” by Living Colour, and “Lay Down” by Priestess.

With all the variations of rock that have been embraced by the Guitar Hero games, it’s not difficult to see how streamlining the music and giving the tracks a cohesive feel is a difficult task. One of the ways Neversoft has given Legends of Rock a feeling of interconnectivity is through stage/track juxtaposition.

When jamming through the solo career, players will strum their way through eight venues. Each stage holds five to six songs apiece. Many of the songs have been paired with certain stages for specific reasons – there’s just something right about playing Kiss’ “Rock and Roll All Nite” at a late-night high school yard party as the cops pull up, or Guns n Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” for a crowd of inmates at a maximum security prison.

The stage/track interconnectivity is a fun little bonus that gives the single-player campaign a little more spice than the previous games had.

Another fun addition to career mode are the boss battles. Before the encore song in three of the play lists, players must go mano-a-mano in a rock-off with musicians of such lethal cunning. Slash from Guns n Roses makes an appearance, as does Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine.

To defeat these bosses, players must make them fail their half of a song before the tune ends. To accomplish this, players throw “attacks” at the boss characters by hitting every “Battle Gem” note in a lick and obtaining “Battle Power.” With adequate Battle Power the player can tilt their guitar (much like using Star Power) and create all kinds of havoc for their guitar-wilding foe.

There are eight attacks in total. Two of the most fatal are “Double Notes” (which turns every one-button note into a two-note chord and every two into a three-button ordeal) and “Whammy Bar” (which mutes the guitar buttons until the player mashes down on the whammy bar for a certain period of time).

These battles are a great change of pace from the normal finish-five-songs-and-move-on approach that past Guitar Hero games have utilized. What’s more, this Battle Mode has been added as a multiplayer option, so two players (on or offline) can wail on one another until the noise police come a knockin’.

A word of caution here: once in a rare while, when a player uses Star Power or a Battle Mode attack, the game has a noticeable drop in frame rate. In a game that is based on rhythm, any disruption in the flow of a song is aggravating.

On the multiplayer side of things, Guitar Hero III has reached a new level of depth by adding the Cooperative Campaign mode. Reorganized set lists, a story unique from the single-player career, and exclusive encore songs await those who wish to tackle the blissful horrors (“Raining Blood” anyone?) of Guitar Hero III as a duo. Co-op Career is definitely a step up from the basic pick-and-play approach to multiplayer Guitar Hero II implemented.

In terms of replay value (as if you actually needed more reasons to strap on your glorified air guitar), the addition of online face-off (both pro and not) and cooperative modes should give Guitar Hero III impressive longevity.

For being the series’ first full-fledged attempt at online play, Guitar Hero III holds up very well. However, it’s definitely in need of a few patches.

For one thing, finding an online match feels cumbersome – chances are you’re going to run into a few “failed to connect” messages before weaving your way into an online session.

Also, the decision not to include the Cooperative Campaign mode as an online option is a bit disappointing as playing in tandem with a friend is one of the most preferred methods of rocking out.

Neversoft did not reinvent the wheel with Guitar Hero III, and they really didn’t have to. That said, however, the developer switch is not entirely unnoticeable.

For one thing, the art direction of the avatars has been taken in a strange direction. The original cast of playable characters has been made to look more cartoonish (especially 70’s psychedelic music man Xavier Stone), which directly clashes with the realistically rendered Slash and Morello character models.

Further, the bassist and drummer look absolutely ridiculous. They have little to no movement, and what movement they do make appears stiff and phony – as though every joint in their respective bodies have ceased to function properly. It’s a little strange that Goth rocker Judy Nails has breast and bra strap animation while the drummer looks as if he was modeled after a wind-up monkey toy. Sure, the drummer and bassist are not as prominent as the lead singer and guitarist, but they’re still on stage and (unfortunately) noticeable.

Another problem with the game’s design is the amount of product placement strewn throughout the various campaign stages. The game’s story revolves around a band struggling to deal with (and eventually rejecting) the brand name cash opportunities that come with fame and fortune, and yet the game has a music video stage totally dedicated to a car company and random energy drink cans lying around many of the venues.

Overall, Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock is good game with a fun factor that’s turned all the way up to 11, and at the end of the day that’s what Guitar Hero games are supposed to be – fun. Never mind the art direction, the product placement (annoying as it may be), or the online snafus, Guitar Hero is all about strapping on that guitar and transforming into a rock star for an hour or so, and on level the series’ third installment is a total success.

Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Lyrics, Mild Suggestive Themes. This game can also be found on: PS2, PS3, Wii.

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