Xbox360, PS3, PC, Wii, PS2

This review is based on playing the game on a Playstation 2.

You’re not crazy: that byline does say Devin Faraci. The last time I yapped about games on this site was when I was saying they’re not art; I’m not a big player of video games, and I don’t tend to understand how people spend so much money and time on them. At least I didn’t until I bought Guitar Hero. I’ve logged hundreds of hours on one of the three GH games I own, and now that Guitar Hero III is here, I’m sure I’ll log hundreds more. I’m an unabashed fan of the game, and sometimes use it to get my fingers limbered up for a long day of transcribing. I also sometimes use it just to kill time or to get the indescribable thrill that comes from slowly getting better at a tough song until you hit that golden spot and can play your way through it like it was nothing.

As a huge fan of the series, I’m happy to say that Guitar Hero III is a terrific entry. It has, without a doubt, the best track list of any of the games, and the basic formula of the franchise remains mostly unchanged, which is good news. That said, there are some minor annoyances that take away from what still is the best Guitar Hero yet.

Guitar Hero III was something of an unknown quantity, as developer Harmonix had parted ways with the franchise and are off making their own music game, Rock Band (which will likely be my second ever game review). Neversoft, known for their endless Tony Hawk skating games, picked up the reins. Fans were concerned, moreso when it was announced that the game would have ‘boss battles,’ where you would engage in guitar fights with well-known guitarists. This seemed like a real misreading of the series and why it was popular, and it was the element I most dreaded. That means I was really surprised when I played the first boss battle, against Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, and enjoyed it. The same goes for the battle against Slash from Guns ‘n Roses, and the final battle, against the devil himself, was a real blast, even if it was insanely difficult.

The boss battles see you trading off guitar licks with your opponent. Instead of getting Star Power for hitting certain notes correctly, you get attacks that you can launch at the other guy: you can give them a broken string, you can make their note display shake, you can up their difficulty level (this is also one way to play against a friend if you have two guitars). While this really doesn’t fit in with the Guitar Hero aesthetic, it’s hard to deny that it’s fun. The biggest problem, though, is that while you can hoard attacks before launching them, you can’t seem to choose what you’re sending at your enemy – you just activate the attack and the next one in the queue gets sent over. That means there’s no real strategy, and since the power ups seem to be randomly assigned, it makes these boss battles all about luck.

The boss battles can be tough, unlike the rest of the game. I consider myself a good Guitar Hero player, but I soared through the game on Hard on my first try and got four stars or above on every song, except for Slayer’s Raining Blood, which was the only song I failed the first try. I got it on the second try and earned only three stars (I’m not counting the final boss battle here, which took me a number of tries). That’s just too easy for this game, and represents a serious dumbing down of Guitar Hero’s difficulty – which is ironic, since Guitar Hero II is harder than the first Guitar Hero.

One of the things that makes the game incredibly easy is the new hammer ons and pulls offs; in the first Guitar Hero they were unforgiving, and I still can’t use them regularly. Guitar Hero II made them easier, but kept them challenging. Guitar Hero III has hammer ons and pull offs so easy that I have missed notes on fast sections and the game still counted them. I’m not just talking about the timing of the note being off, I mean that I actually did not hit the proper button and the game still scored me as having hit the note.

On the flip side of the easy hammer ons and pull offs is the strange way they’re programmed. Anyone who has played the first three Guitar Hero games will understand the way HO/POs work, and will often be able to figure out by ear where a HO/PO is happening. Guitar Hero III goes a totally different way; there are HO/POs in this game that would never have been one in the previous games, and there are notes that sound like they should be HO/POs that aren’t. Most annoying is the way that HO/PO strings seem broken up randomly by strummable notes; I have a feeling these new charts represent a more realistic take on hammer ons and pull offs, but I’m not playing Guitar Hero for realism, I’m playing it for the feel. I blew through the game on Hard with four or five stars on almost everything, so this change isn’t a game killer, but it can be frustrating at times.

A lot of that frustration melts away when looking at the game’s excellent track list, which is peppered with master tracks. Even the covers aren’t that bad this time – there’s certainly nothing as terrible as Guitar Hero II’s butchering of Killing In The Name Of, for instance. There are of course bad songs – Slipknot and Disturbed and AFI are in here – but they’re in the minority, and they aren’t all cluttering the last two tiers like in GHII. They do tend to stick together, though, making a couple of tiers much less fun than they should be; next time, try sprinkling this trash around more. Here’s a hint: don’t pile songs recorded in the last couple of years into one tier together, as most of them will be shit.

As of this writing I’m about three tiers into Expert, with none of the songs giving me too much trouble but a couple of three stars taunting me. It’s a bummer, because I still haven’t five starred everything in GHII on Hard, but it looks like I’ll probably have that difficulty killed in a week or two. I’d rather the game give me a tougher time, frankly – if people are no good and want to skip around, they can use Quick Play.

Probably the most annoying aspect of Guitar Hero III is the way that six songs – some of which, like The Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, are tracks I would love to play – are buried in Co-Op Campaign, which means you have to round up a friend to play through a whole campaign with you to unlock them. I don’t know how you play GH, but when I am playing with friends we’re usually playing tracks we like or that are fun; this system means we’ll have to slog through shitty songs (of which, again, there are few) to get to new excellent ones. There is an unlock code that will give you every song, but I shouldn’t have to cheat to enjoy everything this game has to offer. Doubly annoying is that the great final track, a rock version of The Devil Went Down to Georgia, is not available to be played in a two player head to head battle. You can only play it solo against the devil. That’s just stupid.

There are other changes in the game, including a wider variety of novelty guitars, new outfits for the characters and new characters in general. I don’t tend to care about that stuff in a real way (although I do buy everything available in the store!), so I’m not going to go into detail here. I will say that the stage antics of the characters are disappointing – it’s a game where you battle the devil with a guitar for possession of your eternal soul, but the developers seem to have thought that the Star Power moves from the previous games were too unrealistic, so they’ve eliminated them completely. Now when you activate Star Power your character sort of jumps around a little bit. Not that exciting.

I bought GHIII on the PS2 as a stopgap until I pick up a next gen system where the game will have downloadable content. The good news is that the game is so good that I’m only going to feel marginally stupid buying again, but I’ll be really looking forward to playing through it all again.