Rockin' me like a hurricane
2007 was arguably one of the best years that gaming ever saw, and it was an especially great one for rhythm games. The fall season of that year had not one, but two, new rhythm games hotly anticipated by critics and audiences worldwide: Guitar Hero III and Rock Band. The two games had an interesting development history which I won't detail here, but it only added to my anticipation of both. This was the gaming equivalent of such classic rock and roll rivalries such as the Beatles vs. the Stones. On one side, we had the game which was trying to capture the hearts of millions with incredible ambition and innovation, and on the other hand, we had the game which tried to win over audiences that relied on refining a tried-and-true formula to new levels of excellence. At least in theory. Although in the long run considered to be the inferior game, at the time GHII offered up a lot of fun if you were willing to pay the premiums of both price and learning curve.
Guitar Hero III was the first game in the series to be developed by Neversoft. Neversoft had previously broke ground in the extreme sports genre by creating the Tony Hawk games, which it would abandon after creating Guitar Hero III, which was their first attempt at a rhythm game. How did they do? Pretty good I'd say.
The most important part of any rhythm game is the soundtarck, and an admirable job was done in picking the songs available for gameplay. There are two parts to the setlist- the main setlist features tracks that average listeners would recognize, such as "Slow Ride" by Foghat, "Rock You Like a Hurricaine" by Scorpions, "Welcome to the Jungle" by Guns N' Roses, and "Pride and Joy" by Stevie Ray Vaughan, the last one being a particular favorite of mine to play in the game. The setlist was also well-liked as the majority of tracks were the original masters rather than the covers as featured in the first two games, a massive achievement in 2007 (though now it's par for the course). In the bonus setlist, all of the songs are done by lesser-known groups that you've probably never heard of. Highlights in here include An Endless Sporadic's shape-shifting "Anything", the catchy "Ruby" from the Kaiser Chiefs, and "Go That Far" from Bret Michaels, which has the dubious honor of having the series's first four-fret chord (in the rhythm part) Most of the songs are great fun to play, with some exceptions. I'm no metal fan, but Slayer's "Raining Blood" contained the deadly combination of being excruciatingly painful to listen to an painfully excruciating to play. I felt a great sigh of relief after passing it: Still, that's part of the beauty of these games: They offer something for listeners of all ages and tastes.
In addition, the game also featured cameos from two well-respected rock guitarists: Slash from Guns N' Roses, and Tom Morello, of Rage Against the Machine. While I've never really listened to either of those bands, just the fact that they were able to get these guys to do mo-cap and record new music specifically for the game was also very impressive.
The gameplay is unchanged from the first two games. You still, strum, hammer-on, and pull off notes on the guitar to follow the prompts given to you on the scrolling highway. Some of the more hardcore players were critical of the increased "timing window" which allowed for much forgiving note-hitting, but there was actually a pretty good reason for it. The songs were HARD. Nothing in the first two games even touched some of the later songs in the main setlist, and that's not even counting the bonus songs, including Dragonforce's fast and furious fantasy power-metal hit, "Through the Fire and Flames". That song was NOTORIOUS amongst the GH community, as most players, (including myself) couldn't even dream of passing it. The difficulty was good though, as it made the game incredibly fun to replay over and over and over again, trying to beat your own or someone else's highscores.
Finally, the game added an online mode, which was great fun, and it had the added bonus of being one of the first online-enabled games to really work well on the Wii. The team that helped bring Neversoft's vision to the under-powered console, Vicarious Visions, really deserves a pat on the back for this feature.
As fun as the core gameplay was, the presentation surrounding it was pretty disappointing. It's like a package that's been scuffled up a bit in the mail, yet the product inside arrived perfectly intact.
To begin with, the graphics were HORRIBLE, both artistically, and technically. The animations were stiff, the drummer in particular looked like one of those animatronic characters you would see at Chuck-E-Cheese's. The singer looked absolutely awful. The community nick-named him "The Chin" because he had hair that covered his eyes and an extremely exaggerated chin. He was UGLY. The guitarists that you got to play as weren't much better looking either. The designers decided to "edgy" them up a bit, and they look dreadful. The venues were unremarkable, with flat lighting and once again, stiff animations, par for the course for this game. Even the font choices were terrible- it was really difficult to read what song you were going to be playing as it started because the font was so bad. The first two games, running on PS2, still looked better than this, even running on an Xbox 360, all due to the poor, poor engine and art-style.
The game also had a horrible story. Basically, your band signs a contract with a mysterious man, who, in a twist I'm sure everyone saw coming, turns out to be the devil, who drags you down to hell for a final guitar showdown ( on, fittingly enough, an awesome metal cover of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia").
Speaking of showdowns, the battle mode was very poorly balanced and based largely on luck. At major points in the story, your guitarist has to battle another guitarist (such as the two famous ones listed above) in a duel. Essentially, battle mode was a Mario-Kart style game where playing certain sequences correctly would net the player powerups, which they could use on the other player in order to hamper their playing and win the battle. Where the problems start to come in are the balancing of the powerups and the fact that you could essentially combine powerups in order to maximize the devastation. One well placed triple-attack would easily win you the battle. While a good idea on paper, they weren't as enjoyable in game. The AI that controlled the guitarists that you battled was arbitrary as to when they would use their powerups or even hit notes at all. Needless to say, this feature was scrapped pretty quickly for subsequent games.
Finally, the Wii version was hated on for all it's missing features, though these problems would be fixed in future installments. First, the game offered no option to download new songs to the system. The more powerful systems, however, did get some DLC, including a pack from a band I greatly admire, Coldplay. I unfortunately, had to miss out on these potentially enjoyable tracks and stick with what was available on the disc. Second, the game was initially shipped without stereo sound, when it was advertised as having such. While this was not a problem for me, as I played on a cruddy tv with a mono speaker, for people who wanted to blast the game through their shiny sound systems in rock and roll fasion, the Wii version only disappointed. Activision, however, was kind enough to allow people to replace their discs for new ones with the stereo sound patched in, although most people think that Activision did that to prevent a lawsuit rather than out of the goodness of their hearts and their loyalty to their customer base. Still, a fine example for other Wii developers to follow.
The Bottom Line
Guitar Hero III, however flawed it was, was a great game in 2007, and even playing through these tracks again today can still be a lot of fun. Compared to newer GH games, it feels a bit limited, but it does have arguably my favorite setlist of any game in the series, which is more than good enough for this particular game. If you see it used, and you have the equipment but not the software, you should pick it up.