Flawed Guitar Hero III still a must for musical masters

Steve Vai-wannabes and air guitar enthusiasts have reason to reunite once again: the wildly popular Guitar Hero franchise got its third entry into home video game consoles this week with the release of Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (technically, Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the '80s came third, but who's counting).

Putting a fresh perspective on things are the creators of the Tony Hawk game franchise, Activision. Like a beloved lead guitarist who left to join the rival band, Harmonix, responsible for the earlier entries in the Guitar Hero series, fled the franchise to focus on the more ambitious Rock Band.

Activision may be rookies to the music genre of gaming, but their first crack at fret-mashing mayhem is, for the most part, a success. The game features arguably the best set list to date and boasts the best new feature, the co-op career mode, which allows two players to go through the career as a guitar and bass duo, unlocking separate songs the single-player mode won't allow.

Unfortunately, other innovations aren't as impressive. The boss battles, a good idea in theory, are hardly epic and quite pointless. Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello, in particular, is so pitifully easy to beat it's a wonder he even allowed Activision to use his likeness for the game. Despite this snafu, the extensive track list and revamped two-player modes will make the game very appealing to newcomers and intermediate players.

Gamers who developed their digital chops on volumes one and two of the series might feel differently, however.

In fact, most people who successfully conquered Guitar Hero II on expert may find the career mode a little too easy, thanks in part to a much more forgiving hammer-on system that substantially widens the window in which players have to hit a note. Flying through the first six tiers without failing once should be no problem, and the songs that are challenging are difficult for the wrong reasons.

It seems that instead of selecting later-tier songs that are inherently complex and challenging to play anyway, Activision compensates by making simpler songs overly complicated. Slipknot's "Before I Forget" is the worst of the bunch, trampling the player with a ridiculously unnecessary amount of chord progressions and three-fret combos. If Activision seriously thinks that Slipknot has more complicated guitar parts than Stevie Ray Vaughan, who appears earlier in the game and whose song "Pride and Joy" is much easier and fairer to play, they really need to brush up on their musical knowledge.

Only the final tier boasts some legitimately challenging songs, like Slayer's "Raining Blood" and the final boss battle, an all-but-impossible duel with the devil to a revamped version of The Charlie Daniels Band's "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."

Also, be prepared to join the ugliest band in rock history (yes, even uglier than Blues Traveler). With a singer that looks like the Geico caveman and a bassist that looks like the nephew of Cousin Itt, guitarists will have to work extra hard on stage to earn those groupies off the stage. And let's not get into the drummer, who looks like he's trying to pass a kidney stone and swings his sticks like someone in an epileptic seizure. In short, Activision really dropped the ball in the graphics department, even with the extra technology provided by such high-performance machines as the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

Of course, no one plays the Guitar Hero games for their visuals, and despite all this nitpicking, the game is a lot of fun to play. Metallica's "One" and Living Colour's "Cult of Personality" really draws one into the scenario of shredding on stage, and really, that's all one can ask of a game like this. The note charts are particularly crisp on classic rock standouts like Santana's "Black Magic Woman," the Rolling Stones' "Paint It, Black" and the aforementioned "Pride and Joy."

While the replay value, at least for veterans, may not be as high, the game is still worth the asking price and will not disappoint rabid music and game fans alike.