Guitar Hero: Metallica (Xbox 360)
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360. Experiences may change on different consoles but those minor differences were beneath the notice of our critic. The PS2 and Wii versions have additional songs.
There's a major bit of heavy metal blasphemy at the core of Guitar Hero: Metallica. The notion that one mere mortal could simultaneously handle the fretwork of both James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett is straight-up ridiculous. But we're talking fantasy, right? Partly. I think there's a good argument for being a little disappointed that Guitar Hero: Metallica didn't figure out a way to cram five separate instruments into the game. At the very least, Guitar Hero: Metallica does figure out a way to simulate Lars Ulrich's drumming style by accommodating a second foot pedal (free to those who preordered at GameStop).
But if we're going to fantasize about the perfect Metallica game, there's a lot more to be disappointed about. It's a bummer that former band members Jason Newsted, Cliff Burton and Dave Mustaine didn't make it onstage. The inclusion of acts like the Foo Fighters and Machine Head (bands with only tangential relationships to Metallica) are real head-scratchers, too.
But step back from all those nitpicks and the legend of Metallica looms large. The band is a f***ing beast. It's the kind of group that games like Guitar Hero were created for. Guitar Hero: Metallica, the best in the series since Guitar Hero II, rips through the band's catalog with a fierceness.
Take the game's bad-ass opening. The whole sordid affair begins the same way every Metallica concert has for the last 20 years -- with the swelling Spaghetti Western strains of Ennio Morricone's "The Ecstasy of the Gold." James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett and Robert Trujillo strut towards the stage in slow-motion. The angelic singers kick in. You can practically picture Tuco Ramirez running through that graveyard in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." Sparks rain from the rigging as the quartet makes their way to the altar of metal. We see Hetfield's boots as he struts across the polished concrete of the Los Angeles Forum. Trujillo sneers. Hetfield scowls. Ulrich smirks. The stage explodes -- pyrotechnics. Then, finally, the title screen: Guitar Hero: F***ing Metallica. A knell sounds, signaling the start of "For Whom the Bell Tolls," a thrash classic from the band's '84 album "Ride The Lightning." It's the perfect choice to christen this voyage into metal. The tune is an ass-kicker, but it's also lean -- no solo, just epic riffage. The encore is "Unforgiven," Hetfield's Black Album riff on "Cat's in the Cradle" -- not exactly a face-melter, but a good opportunity for James to clear his pipes.
It's after this first show that the game proper starts. Players form a garage band hand-picked by Metallica to follow them on tour. In a series of animated sequences produced by Titmouse (the same folks who make "Metalocalypse"), we see their struggles as they fend off poseur bands and shifty promoters.
Now comes the weakest part of the game. When Metallica is onstage, the entire shebang is straight fire -- pure molten awesomeness. The motion capture and animation for the four band members is spectacular. But when Neversoft's new Guitar Hero vibe pushes past the curtains (which happens any time you're playing a song that isn't by Metallica), the notes instantly sour. The stock characters, shitty devolutions of the archetypes Harmonix created, are pretty lame. They look like those ugly puppets from that British show "Spitting Image." The user-created rockers aren't much better. And is there some law that characters in Guitar Hero games aren't allowed to smile?
Luckily, Metallica hogs the stage. Guitar Hero: Metallica features a massive 31 tracks from the band. And only a scant few come from the band's latter, mostly regrettable albums. In fact, Guitar Hero: Metallica does a decent job of rehabilitating the pop-friendly entries from the self-titled Black Album. Playing "Sad But True," I was transported back to 1991 and finally recalled my mindset at the time. The Black Album wasn't seen as a fatal departure then. It was merely an experiment. Metallica had already crafted the bleakest, most unrelenting record of their lives, the near-perfect "?And Justice For All."
I've always argued that music games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero have the power to make you love songs you'd usually hate, appreciate bands you'd rather boo. It's the way they get you physically involved with the music. Those gems force you to keep time. The mic in your hand requires that you read, digest, and sing along. And that's what's so admirable about a handful of the non-Metallica tracks that make the playlist. Acts like Mercyful Fate and the Michael Schenker Group are nothing but footnotes in heavy metal history. But these artists had massive influence on Metallica, and it's pretty cool that Guitar Hero: Metallica aims to expose a new generation to their music.
I think this is where my core complaint about Guitar Hero: Metallica comes from. I want more. As a recovering Metallica fan (I was the dude in high school who had a clean Metallica T-shirt for every day of the week), I found myself craving a slightly better attention to detail. I love the inclusion of artist Pushead in the game's menus. I nearly fainted at the recreations of classic Metallica venues like the Donington Park and the Hammersmith Apollo. But I feel like the edges fray a bit. Some of the game's uses of classic Metallica imagery are pretty weak -- the handwritten "You Rock" message at the end of every song has all the impact of a wet noodle.
Many songs feature a sort of commentary track. They're called "Metallifacts." These segments allow you to kick back and watch the band perform a song, while bits of trivia flash across the bottom of the screen. Nearly all of the songs by Metallica feature these tidbits, and a handful of other songs do as well. I found these most interesting, because they shed light on the reasoning behind the band's cover of "Turn The Page" by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet (turns out Lars heard it on the radio while driving home across the Golden Gate Bridge, and thought 'this song would be right up Hetfield's alley'). These enlightening moments make the odd, unexplained Alice in Chains track all the more befuddling. It's not that I dislike the band. It's a miracle, actually, that there's really only one band that I actively hate that made the cut. Maybe it's just me being greedy, but I want to hear what Metallica has to say about all the bands that on the playlist. I think I have a very good reason for these demands.
When I was 13, Metallica was my gateway into heavy music. I'd listened to Van Halen before. I'd heard Black Sabbath once or twice on the radio. But I'd never heard anything quite like Metallica. I fell instantly in love. And I immediately began scouring Metallica articles for their influences. This path of inquiry led me in many fantastic directions. Through Metallica I learned about Iron Maiden, Primus, Faith No More and many, many more of my favorite bands. I learned to love their rivals Anthrax and Slayer. I found affection for bands tangentially related like Megadeth and Testament. I can see Guitar Hero: Metallica doing the same thing for a teenager today. That's why I see every missed opportunity as a sin of omission.
So maybe Guitar Hero: Metallica isn't perfect. It certainly has its flaws, most of those inherited from Guitar Hero World Tour. But damn if this isn't a workable blueprint for band-focused games to come. Guitar Hero: Metallica pays loud homage to one of the best heavy metal bands to walk God's green earth. It's hella hard, sometimes sloppy, but its heart is in the right place -- down in the pit.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.