The first time I ever played a guitar-based rhythm game was Konami's Guitar Freaks game – it was part of their Bemani series, which included Dance Dance Revolution. Guitar Freaks is the reason why we have Guitar Hero today, and people need not forget that much – it is the pioneer of this sub-genre. Guitar Hero has now seen a number of entries into its series, and the games are so popular that for nearly 10 months straight, Guitar Hero II was a top 10 seller. So here we are, Guitar Hero III is here, and its most notable improvement is the fact that it utilizes a wireless guitar controller now. On top of that, it's still a terrific rhythm game…provided that you don't actually play guitar.
It seems unusual to say, but people who can actually play a real guitar will not enjoy Guitar Hero III very much. Normally, you'd expect quite the opposite; I mean, guitar players enjoy a videogame with a guitar, right? Well, probably not. You see, I play my fair share, and it's extremely hard for me to play a decent game of GH – largely because I want to play each song properly, across six strings and 24 frets. I get easily disoriented with what I'm doing, because in my mind, I'm trying to play a real guitar. But I forced myself to put aside my proper playing state, and submerge myself into GHIII's simplicity.
I came away having a good bit of fun, if only until I got really disoriented from the moving fretboard that displays your notes. If you aren't aware of the concept behind Guitar Hero III, it goes a little like this: you have a guitar, and there are five buttons on it to use. There is a moving strum which simulates the picking, and a whammy bar for tremolos/vibratos. As opposed to just timing a button press, like Dance Dance Revolution, you have to pick and press the corresponding button simultaneously in order to pull it off. Solid precision will land you power-ups that will help you boost your score, and then some. Once you get the hang of the game, it becomes pretty enjoyable, and if you have a friend nearby, it's even more enjoyable. And if you don't have a friend, take it online, which allows for the use of a headset, too. Multiplayer doesn't just have both of you playing the same notes, some songs will let you choose between rhythm and lead, while others guitar or bass.
Guitar Hero III features a standard set of gameplay modes. You'll have to play the Career mode in order to unlock the game's songs, as well the boss characters. There's also a co-op option for the Career mode, and that's certainly a plus. Then there are the Quickplay, Multiplayer, and Training modes. Nothing new or different, but that doesn't change the fact GHIII is extremely addictive once you start playing it.
Though there are some problems with the design of the game and its controller. For starters, spreading the notes across five buttons is a poor decision – largely because you're alienating the horde of people who have very poor control over their pinky. On top of that, button placement often makes it hard to tell what you're pressing on. Where as on a real guitar you memorize the layout largely based on the thickness of each fret, you can't do that in Guitar Hero because each fret is the same in size.
If anything, the guitar should've been designed with a more authenticity in mind; at the very least split the button layout into two rows of four buttons. The reason for that is because few guitar players go across five frets to play a note, because that same note would be a string below, playable by moving the index finger downward. This would also make holding "chords" in the game much more realistic. Again, this is just my opinion as a guitar player, because I hope that strides are made with the next wave of guitar controllers.
And before I finish ranting, I have to urge gamers not to play Guitar Hero III for extended periods of time, because the downward scrolling motion of the fretboard as it displays your notes can become extremely nauseating and cause disorientation. I don't understand why Neversoft didn't offer a toggle to turn off the moving fretboard, while leaving the notes displayed, or at least alter the way that the notes scroll on the screen.
What really seals the deal for me with Guitar Hero III is that its soundtrack is absolutely phenomenal. A large majority of these songs I love, and can actually play on a guitar, so I've got a sort-of bond to some of them. I love playing "Bulls on Parade" (Rage Against the Machine) and I especially love "Before I Forget" (Slipknot). The list of some of my personal favorite, kick-ass songs starts with
"Sabotage" by the Beastie Boys
"Mississippi Queens" by Mountain
"School's Out" by Alice Cooper
"Bulls on Parade" by Rage Against the Machine
"Reptilia" by The Strokes
"When You Were Young" by The Killers
"Paint It Black" by The Rolling Stones
"Paranoid" by Black Sabbath
Anarchy in the U.K" by The Sex Pistols
"My Name is Jonas" by Weezer
"Even Flow" by Pearl Jam
"Holiday in Cambodia" by The Dead Kennedys
"Welcome to the Jungle" by Guns N' Roses
"Cherub Rock" by the Smashing Pumpkins
"The Metal" by Tenacious D
"Before I Forget" by Slipknot
"3s and 7s" by Queens of the Stone Age
"Knights of Cydonia" by Muse
"The Number of the Beast" by Iron Maiden
"One" by Metallica.
That list makes up for less than half of the songs on Guitar Hero III's tracklisting – and I'm almost certain that fans of rock across all generations will love the rest of it, too. Oh, and in case you're wondering, yes most of those are the actual recordings and not covers – with the exception of a few.
There isn't much more to say about Guitar Hero III. I can't really go into detail with the visuals, seeing as how it's just a virtual fretboard endlessly scrolling, with notes laid out for you to play. The same gritty art-style remains for GHIII, highly reminiscent of a Gorillaz production. In the background, you'll see a band playing, with an audience in front of them. The focus clearly isn't on visuals, but some scenery is still there for you to enjoy. And weirdly enough, guys like Tom Morello, Slash and Bret Michaels actually had their guitar playing motion captured.
Guitar Hero III is a fine game, and the series is precisely what the industry needs. No matter which version you go with, you'll find an addictive experience all around. If online is a concern of yours, get the PlayStation 3 version, otherwise the PlayStation 2 version is nearly identical. Unlike other games, what primarily drives Guitar Hero's appeal is just how fantastic its track selection, and Guitar Hero III is no exception; it may very well have one of the best soundtracks ever. On top of that, the new wireless guitar really makes playing the game a lot more enjoyable.