Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock is the third full iteration — fourth if you count the stand-alone but not sequentially named Guitar Hero Encore: Rock the 80s for PlayStation 2 — of a game franchise that very likely shouldn't have, by a roll of the game industry dice, ever seen the light of day. Although born and exalted to stardom on Sony's venerable PS2, the title is also the first version in the series for PlayStation 3, while a graphically enhanced and slightly expanded version of Guitar Hero II was released for Xbox 360. On their faces, Guitar Hero and its sequels are those sorts of games, wildly unique, upon which a publisher takes a chance and to which the gaming public avidly responds, making someone somewhere look like a fearless and insightful marketing genius.
However, Guitar Hero was created by Harmonix, a specialized development studio already claiming critical and commercial success with PlayStation 2 musical games FreQuency and sequel Amplitude. If you cut out the specific control mechanism, forget the difference in music genres for included songs and nix a few other things, the main difference between Guitar Hero and its developer's earlier works was the addition of a special controller for playing the game, a unique type of console controller modeled after real electric guitars. Farther back in time, surely someone did indeed take a risk with one of Harmonix's crazy ideas for a video game, but by the age of Guitar Hero, the developer was a proven quantity in music-oriented games for consoles. Guitar Hero merely cemented Harmonix's reputation as an innovative, important developer in the games industry.
But Guitar Hero III, the progeny of Harmonix's invention, is no longer a Harmonix game. Publisher Red Octane oversaw developer Neversoft in creating Guitar Hero III, and much has been made of bitter rifts and creative differences. Of course, there are always bitter rifts and differences in these creative relationships, but the change in developers has much more to do with the rather pedestrian acquisitions of some companies by other companies. Basically, Harmonix and former publisher Red Octane wound up on opposites sides of the money fence, and thus their relationship dissolved.
As the fourth game in an enormously successful series, Guitar Hero III is likewise a success, maintaining the now-familiar, game-suitable, on-screen musical notation system — a system refined from FreQuency's — and other core elements of gameplay, while adding some additional features and altering existing elements. Although obviously the product of a different developer that was charged with expanding upon the work of the originating developer, the result is far from hackneyed or inelegant, not nearly as obvious and surely not as painful, as, say, the difference between the Call of Duty 2 and Call of Duty 3 military shooter console titles. Neversoft has done a capable job of updating Harmonix's work while branding the game with its own character. The core concept remains unchanged: At varying levels of difficulty, you play along with guitar-centric musical tracks using a guitar controller, enhancing the experience's realism.
Guitar Hero III — sold for PlayStation 3 in a bundle with a wireless guitar controller inspired by a famous Les Paul model — includes more than 70 new tracks, all-time classic guitar rock hits, cover versions of major hits and original material from less well-known, some nearly anonymous, newer bands — this latter bunch more typically discovered for "sale" in the game's "store." Virtual cash earned during gameplay can be handed over for single tracks that you can then play in the usual Guitar Hero manner.
Here, immediately, is a notable difference between Guitar Hero III and its predecessors: Even on the easy difficulty setting, you can earn money to purchase everything from new guitars, in-game characters (based on real-life famous rock guitarists), and costumery and accessories to the aforementioned extra playable tracks. This is a welcome change in the game's central design. In previous versions of the title, cash could only be earned playing career mode on the medium difficulty setting and above; the step up in complexity between easy and medium difficulty settings is not insignificant. You can still unlock all of the songs in easy mode, providing all of the standard included tracks for any wannabe rock gods who'll practice a bit.
The new title does, over previous Guitar Hero titles, noticeably increase the difficulty of songs in the early portions of career mode, really something you'd expect, even desire, from the fourth game in a series. However, PlayStation 3 is a special case, as although Guitar Hero attained such great heights of popularity on PlayStation 2, PS3 is a different animal: Guitar Hero III is the first ever Guitar Hero title for this console, and as such, may be perceived by gamers not so much as a progression in a franchise but rather as a whole new franchise. In something of a trade-off, Neversoft has reduced by one the number of songs you must successfully complete in each set to move along to the next set.
Neversoft also introduces what are tantamount to bonus tracks, big-name band bonus tracks, as encores playable after successful completion of the required number of songs in a set. Sometimes you'll merely be offered the opportunity to play an encore, the encore song being the bonus track; at other times, you'll fight it out in musical combat by going into the new battle mode with an in-game representation of a talented real-life guitarist. Winning the battle unlocks the battle song or another bonus song. That is, winning unlocks the battle song save in one contentious case, a cover version of The Charlie Daniels Band's hard-edged fiddling classic, "The Devil Went Down To Georgia." At present, this track, even after successfully completing the associated battle, is only playable by repeating the battle.
Guitar Hero III's new battle mode is based on the familiar "star power" point-multiplier system, but instead of nailing power-building licks, you pick up battle notes you can toss over to your opponent — battle notes break guitar strings, reverse note order, compel the use of the whammy bar to hit notes, etc. — with the expected lift of the guitar controller's neck. The new battle mode is an innovative feature and often fun, but tying any unlocked song solely to a battle was a mistake, possible licensing issues or no.
An online multiplayer feature has been introduced for online competition or co-op play, including guitar wars in battle mode. Of course, as you'd expect, this extends the life of the game, but Guitar Hero III is a game you'll try once and walk away or return to for years. The online multiplayer features are welcome but hardly required for casual or even maniacal Guitar Hero fans.
Guitar Hero III for PlayStation 3 comes at a unique time on a couple of points. Former Guitar Hero developer Harmonix has created a title called Rock Band, generating the usual competitive comparisons as music-game followers attempt division into two camps. Really, it's a disservice to gamers providing any kind of checklist-ticking buying advice between the two games. Although based on entirely the same core gameplay mechanics and keyed to virtually identical gaming experiences, Rock Band and Guitar Hero III are absolutely, positively vastly different games. In this game sub-genre, pick up that guitar controller, and you're either instantly addicted or wholly ambivalent — there's really no middle ground; I know someone in particular who loathes all video games but loves Guitar Hero. Considering this, neither game is overall better or more suited to particular players than the other; indeed, they are a type of gateway drug for one another. It's impossible to reasonably dictate that one should be purchased over the other one for these reasons. Matters of finance may prevent music gamers from owning both, but there's no other good reason they shouldn't.
The second unique challenge to the PlayStation 3 version of Guitar Hero III is rather more unfortunate. There are no previous Guitar Hero titles for the console; ergo, there are no existing compatible guitar controllers. No matter what you owned for PlayStation 2, you must buy a new guitar controller for Guitar Hero III. And if Guitar Hero III is your introduction to the franchise, even though the legacy game software itself should play on PS2-compatible PlayStation 3 consoles, the new controller won't work with those old games. It almost seems as if someone has intentionally exerted extra effort in abandoning PlayStation 3 support for Harmonix-developed PS2 Guitar Hero titles. That's probably because someone obviously has put a lot of thought into making the new PS3 wireless guitar incompatible with its ancestor games.
A console peripheral manufacturer called Pelican makes a PS2-controller-to-USB adapter, featuring a special Guitar Hero mode. The adapter is intended to allow play, Pelican admits imperfect play — some controller features are inoperable with the adapter — of older titles on the new console. The adapter does allow hobbled use of the PlayStation 2 Guitar Hero III guitar controller with the PS3 version of Guitar Hero III, most suitably as a secondary controller for offline multiplayer co-op and competitive play. Alas, it doesn't work very well, and it's only even somewhat functional with that Guitar Hero III controller packed in the PS2 bundle. If you've bought into the PlayStation 3 version of Guitar Hero III, it's a rare circumstance in which you'll pick up a PS2 bundle of the same game. Matters of business alliances and ownership are always complicated, yet this doesn't excuse Red Octane's obligation to pursue interoperability for the platform and audience that made their brand a household name among music-loving gamers. This they did not do, and for this, they should be admonished.
Guitar Hero III is a great game — at least as good as its notable predecessors. In the title's PlayStation 3 version, however, the deal comes with a caveat: For a seamless, uncomplicated experience, you can't bring your old Guitar Hero gear with you. Should you be new to one of the finest franchises in contemporary console gaming, you can never go back and play the older titles without investing in a rather costly, essentially duplicate, controller and perhaps even the PS2 itself, if you didn't keep yours or never owned one in the first place. Grudgingly, I issue Guitar Hero III a high mark for achieving yet more excellence in an excellent franchise, but with the adamant declaration for Red Octane that in future game releases, callous disregard for existing loyal customers will be perceived egregious and intolerable.
More articles about Guitar Hero III