Crispy Gamer

Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (PC)

You'd have to try really hard to mess up Guitar Hero III, but the folks porting Guitar Hero III to the PC have done their level best. The core game is still great, even on a relatively small computer monitor instead of your television. The developers at Neversoft, taking over the series from creator Harmonix, do a (mostly) good job of introducing subtle improvements since Guitar Hero II, adding a few new features and working with an exciting song list, often with the participation of the original artists. But they also miss the point just a teensy bit. For better and worse, it's all part of Guitar Hero growing up. Too bad the series' transition to the PC isn't so smooth.

If you've been living in a cave, it's time to move out and tap into the phenomenon of Guitar Hero. No one -- and we mean no one -- has any business not playing a Guitar Hero. This isn't just a rhythm game set to popular music and featuring a guitar controller. It's an ode to rock, a paean to pop, a love letter to your favorite bands and a tribute to the interactive power of music. By pressing buttons and strumming the guitar controller in time with a scrolling series of notes, you enable the guitar track on the song. The illusion that follows is that you're the one playing. Of course, you probably knew this already and you just want to know what the deal is with this PC version. Fair enough.

Fans of the previous Guitar Heroes will note subtle improvements, like brightly lit notes for tricky hammer-ons and pull-offs. These alternate ways to hit a note separate the rock gods from the almost-famous, and they're much more user-friendly this time. Using your Star Power bonus doesn?t jerk the fret board, which is something that happens only when you mess up a note. The "hit detection," if you will, seems a bit more forgiving this time around. Guitar Hero III doesn't want you to fail. It's on your side. If you get stuck, it even lets you skip the silly boss battles built into the campaign. The graphics are splashier and the character models are a lot more detailed, complete with some slightly creepy lip syncing to the songs. It's weird to hear recognizable voices coming from the grotesque caricature of Steven Tyler who stands in for all the lead male singers.

One step backward is Guitar Hero III's trashy stripper aesthetic. The new Judy Nails struts around, breast implants leading the way, more porn star than punker. During one encore, a pair of, umm, "exotic dancers" prance out onto stage and writhe while you play the song. They tag along when you play at the prison, where they dance inside cages. You'll also notice the currency for the online metagame is "groupies." Classy. Guitar Hero has, until now, been an un-cynical and affectionate game, conveniently overlooking the seedier side of rock. Neversoft seems not to have gotten that memo.

The loading screen comments are another sign of this. Whereas Harmonix treated you to humorous and insightful comments about band culture, Neversoft can't quite achieve the tone. During the loading screens, they're trying too hard to be funny, insulting you, or selling something (Guitar Hero III has its share of in-game ads, including ones from noted hard-rocking car makers Pontiac). Furthermore, the presence of Poison's Bret Michaels (looking slightly confused as to whether he's a member of an 80s hair band or the Village People), Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello (looking like some random auto mechanic who stumbled into the game), and Guns N' Roses' Slash (looking like Slash) snaps Guitar Hero out of its idealized world of fantasy rock into something a little less perfect and universal. This is what selling out looks like.

The upside of selling out is that there are fewer sound-alikes and more artists lending their original vocals, or even remixing their songs specifically for the game. As with the previous Guitar Heroes, you get a carefully calculated collection of old, new, obscure and popular. For many of the artists who've participated in the series, it seems like they've finally contributed the choice songs they've been sitting on all this while: ?Welcome to the Jungle? from Guns N' Roses, ?Paint It Black? from The Rolling Stones, ?La Grange? from ZZ Top, ?Black Magic Woman? from Santana, ?Cherub Rock? from Smashing Pumpkins, and ?Even Flow? from Pearl Jam. New musicians who've finally seen the Guitar Hero light include the Beastie Boys, Muse, Sonic Youth and Tenacious D. Welcome, guys. It's about time.

It's arguably the best song list of any Guitar Hero yet. There are very few songs that seem to have been added for cheese-value. Pat Benatar's ?Hit Me with Your Best Shot? seems to be the main example, no offense to the hardcore Pat Benatar fans. By the way, kudos to Guitar Hero III for not wussing out and bleeping the "N" word out of the Dead Kennedys' ?Holiday in Cambodia? remix. But why change the phrase "kiss ass" to "kiss up??

One of the most significant problems with the PC version is that none of the other versions' downloadable content is available. For whatever reasons (Too difficult to set up a separate billing infrastructure? Too vulnerable to casual piracy or hacking? No financial incentive for Aspyr?), there are no plans to support downloadable content in the future, despite the fact that it's still a significant part of the interface. Every time you choose a song, this effectively taunts you with the fact that you're playing a lesser version of Guitar Hero III. Equally sloppy is the lack of mouse support for navigating the menus. When was the last time you booted up a PC game and your mouse was locked out? Probably the last time you played a sloppy console port.

The game ships with an Xbox guitar controller, which Windows recognizes as soon as you plug it into a USB port. There's full support for online multiplayer, although without built-in voice support or any sort of chat interface, it's a strangely impersonal experience. Far better are the local multiplayer matches, although you'll need a second guitar unless one of you is willing to struggle with the half-hearted attempt to support keyboard-and-mouse guitaring. It's as awkward as it sounds. One of the most exciting new features is a battle mode that lets two players collect "griefing" power-ups to mess each other up. It's nice to have a mode that's actually interactive beyond two people simply playing in parallel. Also, the cooperative mode now has its own campaign, which unlocks songs in the cooperative mode in a different order than the single-player campaign.

Where the franchise goes from here remains to be seen, particularly now that it's got some competition from EA's Rock Band. But in the meantime, this is exactly the wrong way to introduce the game to PC players. The Guitar Hero experience is still one worth having, but it's disappointing to see PC rockers treated like an afterthought.

This review was based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.