One of the few advantages of coming back from holiday was the thought of Guitar Hero 3 waiting for us, which was released while we were away. While the slowly diminishing but still ever-present jetlag has meant that I’m not exactly on top form in the evenings yet, I feel that now we’ve had enough of a play of it to be able to pass judgement, and unfortunately it’s not the judgement I’d hoped for. Let’s not deny it, it’s still a very fun game. However, it’s definitely below the standard of the last 2 games, not by a huge margin but when you’ve played GH1&2 a lot, it definitely gnaws at you. I’ll expand for a minute as to why that is.
Firstly, let’s get the aesthetics out the way. Guitar Hero has never been about the graphics, but it’s disappointing that the third installment actually looks markedly worse than the previous 2 games, at least on the PS2. I can partly chalk that up to the assumption that they wrote a new engine for the 360 and PS3 and didn’t bother to make it look good on PS2. However, basic things like jerkier animation and less interesting effects (like the missing ‘fire sparks’ coming from the guitar when you’re rocking particularly hard) just strike me that they didn’t put that much effort into it. They could have just used all the same graphics and animations from the previous game and it would have looked better than this. But as I say, graphics in the end don’t matter in this game, it’s just a little puzzling.
Now on to the more important aspects. Let’s not beat about the bush - the boss battles are the stupidest idea ever. I don’t know anyone who preferred the ‘battle’ modes of GH1&2 over the regular play modes, and to force you to go through a stage where the only way to win is to make your opponent fail, rather than it having anything to do with how you play, is frankly a piss-poor design decision, and at odds with the core enjoyment of the game. It’s like they didn’t realise that the reason you play GH is to play songs, not play some kind of ‘powerup tennis’ game. Add to the fact that the songs you play in these sections are often weak - especially the Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine, a band I usually quite like) track, which is so awful and just downright unpleasant to play and listen to that I just can’t understand its inclusion - it’s just someone arseing about on a guitar making discordant wailing and shrieking noises for 3 minutes while you try to Simple Simon your way through it, with your ears stuffed full of cotton if you have any sense. I can only assume that Tom offered to write the track for the game, and the developers jumped on the idea (understandably), and then when he produced something that was unmitigated shite they felt they couldn’t offend him and toss it on the dungpile where it belonged. The only saving grace of the boss battles is that there are only 3 of them, but that’s still 3 too damn many.
The rest of the tracklist is better, but there’s a nagging problem. There are many tracks that are great to listen to, but really not much fun to play. Case in point - When You Were Young by the Killers; good song, but a large portion of the time you’re just playing incredibly repetetive regular beat sequences. Barracuda and Sabotage suffer from the same problem. There are in fact quite a few songs like that, and somehow it sucks the joy out of playing in many cases. There are some fun songs to play too; I like ‘Cult of Personality’, ‘Black Magic Woman’ (a great co-op song because the bass is interesting) and a number of others, but I can’t shake the feeling that this setlist feels less varied than in previous games, in terms of the play experience. It seems like Neversoft know how to get the surface detail right, and are determined to be ‘hardcore’ with it, but along the way they’ve lost something of the soul and inner joy of Guitar Hero. It’s a gut feeling as much as anything, I just find myself being less immersed and grinning less when playing this one, it feels at times just like button bashing in time to the music rather than that being a simple abstraction that tapped an inner guitar fantasy and carried you along with it, as I’d got with previous versions.
Finally a couple of more trivial things - why did they remove the individual stats for each player when in co-op mode? Maybe they didn’t want to make people ‘feel bad’ at being the weaker player? Stupid decision. And they have also made it really hard to tell who screwed up while playing in co-op mode too, now that the entire screen shakes when one of you makes a mistake. In GH1&2, only the fretboard that you control shakes when you screw up, so you know it was you. Now, when the screen shakes you’re not sure who it is, which can make it hard to know whether you have to correct or not - this is particularly true in those long repetetive note sequence sections, that as I mentioned above crop up a little too much in GH3. Altogether it just muddies the play experience and it just distracts from the fluidity.
Overall I’m still enjoying it, but the series has clearly peaked before this version. Neversoft tried very hard to be worthy, but they’re just not - it seems like Harmonix really did have a ‘je ne sais quoi’ when they were in charge, some sense of the optimal way to combine gaming and music that Neversoft just don’t quite grasp at a fundamental enough level. I’m looking forward to Rock Band when it finally makes it over to the UK.