Review by HPHovercraft

Reviewed: 01/06/08

Red Octane has lost the plot.

It's tempting to begin any Guitar Hero review with a loving paean to the first two entries in the series. They really were about as fun as gaming got in the years 2005 and 2006 respectively, largely due to the fact that they were fun casual games with a creative, simple interface and, generally, good music. Anyone could pick up the games and start rocking, and quite a few did just that. There was a bit of a bobble last year with the release of the horribly overpriced Rocks the 80s expansion pack, but advance word on Guitar Hero 3 seemed to indicate that it would be every bit as great as the first two games.

Guitar Hero games are played as follows: you stand in front of your television holding a tiny plastic guitar-shaped controller. As colored dots scroll down the screen, you press the corresponding colored button on your controller while pressing down on the strum bar. Pressing the button simulates fingering the note on a real guitar, hitting the strum bar simulates picking the string to play the note on a real guitar. Do this in time with the raining dots on your screen, you hear notes. Get a note wrong, you hear a frightful skronk. Miss too many notes, you get booed offstage. See? Simple.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way Red Octane came to the conclusion that simple wasn't going to cut it. While previous versions of the game allowed players to progress through career mode by simply playing the songs well, GH3 forces players to endure boss battles. Yes, you read that right - boss battles in a rhythm game, a concept that escapes being the stupidest thing I've ever heard only by virtue of not being a Chuck Norris joke. The intention is plainly for the player to feel as if they are engaging in a spirited guitar duel (i.e., two talented guitarists face off and attempt to outplay each other on the spot). Unfortunately, the actual experience is that of being forced to play a song you've never heard before with no margin for error or ability to improvise. Worse, it is not enough to simply play the song well. In order to win you must cause your opponent to fail by sabotaging him while preventing him from sabotaging you - all while keeping the song going, mind you.

Add the fact that you're not given the option to practice any of the boss battle songs, and you've got a major bottleneck that sucks every last bit of fun out of career mode. And you have to play through career mode if you want to unlock songs for quickplay. In my case, I was forced to resort to starting a new game on Medium difficulty level just to unlock everything so I could actually play the songs I wanted to play on the Expert difficulty level I'm accustomed to. In short, I had to drudge through several hours of unlocking just to reach the point where I could actually play the game - a sign that something's gone very very wrong.

In a perfect rhythm gaming world, there would be none. You would plug in your controller, start up the game, and rock. In earlier games you were assumed to progress from one venue to the next via quick animations - Guitar Hero 3 treats you to a convoluted series of cut scenes detailing the rise and fall of your band. Worse, they're loaded with cliches. Discovery by shady promoter? Check. Meteoric rise followed by accusations of selling out? Check. Pointless appearance of the Devil? Check, check, check.

Visuals are sloppy. Several of the characters (Judy Nails and Johnny Napalm, f'rinstance) have undergone such extreme makeovers that they're unrecognizably cartoony. The audience members are as poorly animated as ever, and at one point you can plainly see Tom Morello put his hand through his guitar like some insane Portal outtake. I don't find this terribly important - GH has never been an achiever in the graphics department - but if you're worried about visuals, you'll probably want to pick up a next-gen version rather than the PS2 one.

This is where Guitar Hero ought to shine, and to a limited extent it does. Most of the songs presented in the game are either the artists' original recordings or very high quality covers.
That said, song selection, barring the occasional inspired choice ('Barracuda', 'My Name is Jonas', 'Black Magic Woman', 'Cliffs of Dover'), is the worst of the series so far, with most entries tending toward the three R's - Repetition, Redundancy, and Repetition. Also, the volume level from one song to the next varies wildly, so you'll constantly be turning your TV's volume up and down if you want to hear what you're playing without forcing your neighbors to hear it too.

Play Time/Replayability
Given that note charts have become so ridiculously complex that even a plain-jane three-chord punk rock anthem like 'Anarchy in the UK' becomes a carpal tunnel-inducing ordeal, I'm finding the replayability to be very low. Many of the songs are so repetitive and uncomfortable to play that the merest thought of revisiting them makes me want to curl up in a fetal ball and cry.

Also, load/save times are unforgivably lengthy. I know full well that the PS2 is an old console, but GH1 and 2 didn't make me wait twenty seconds to save. Why should GH3?

Final Recommendation
All of these problems I could endure cheerfully, if Red Octane had managed to preserve the air of DiY populism from GH1 and 2 that suggested that anyone could rock out and have a good time. Unfortunately GH3 has replaced this good vibe with product placements, a messy and bombastic storyline full of ridiculous cliches, and starhumping celebrity endorsements. I don't want to save up my pennies so I can pretend to be Slash - I want to rock out and have fun.

You know, fun - the thing that games are supposed to be, but Guitar Hero 3 inexplicably isn't. Rent or borrow this one.

Rating:   2.0 - Poor

Product Release: Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (US, 10/28/07)

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