This game goes to 11. Too bad our review scale only goes to 10.
Finally, the Guitar Hero series has come to a Nintendo platform. That's a good thing for Wii owners, because Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock is far and away the best game in the series. Here's why.
For starters, the majority of the 70+ music tracks in the game are the original master recordings from a wide variety of artists spanning four decades of rock. Activision managed to wrangle up names like The Rolling Stones, Metallica, Aerosmith, Rage Against the Machine, AFI, The Killers, Muse, and a whole lot more. Going a step further, guitar legends like Slash and Tom Morello lent their talents by recording new material for the game. The power of the Guitar Hero franchise has even reunited the Sex Pistols, who re-recorded Anarchy in the U.K.for the game after it was discovered that the original master had been lost. Activision wasn't messing around when it was putting together the game's set list, and that becomes quite clear as you unlock new music in career mode.
The bonus songs are also quite good, so much that I'm very interested in finding albums from some of the featured bands. I was surprised to see that the selection of extra music also included some pretty damn good international tracks from Spain, Germany, and France. Out of the few dozen bonus tracks, I've fallen in love with about six of them, but I enjoy playing the majority of them. Overall, you're bound to find a lot of favorites in the track list no matter what your personal music preference is.
Neversoft is Activision's go-to developer, and the group has done a fine job in making sure Guitar Hero III kept the ball rolling after previous developer Harmonix moved on to make Rock Band for Electronic Arts. (Vicarious Visions handled the Wii conversion of GHIII.) The big new addition to the series, besides the online play (more on that later), is battle mode. In previous Guitar Hero games, all head-to-head multiplayer modes were played in parallel, with no real direct competition between players. However, battle mode changes the formula by letting players earn attack power-ups by completing specially-denoted sequences in the scrolling note chart. Being able to temporarily disable part or all of your opponent's note chart really spices things up for multiplayer. I think battle mode is great fun, although most games don't last very long if you can hit your opponent with a few well-timed attacks.
Battle mode is such a big addition to the game, in fact, that it's been integrated into career mode. In three of the eight tiers of career mode songs, you'll be challenged to a guitar battle by a boss character, two of those bosses being Slash and Tom Morello. The original music they recorded for the game was specifically for their battle appearances in career. It's freaking awesome to be able to play against those guys with their own music. The opening riff for Slash's battle music gave me a "holy crap, that's awesome!" moment when I first heard it. I didn't care that it took me a few dozen tries to finally beat him on expert difficulty, since I got to hear that sweet opening every time I restarted. It makes me wish that there were more battle encounters during career.
The subject of difficulty brings me to the first big change that Neversoft has made to the Guitar Hero formula. For the expert players out there, the difficulty has been raised a bunch toward the end of the game. It's now to the point where you're going to need to put in some major-league practice just to have a chance at passing some of the songs, let alone get five stars on them. I consider myself pretty damn good at Guitar Hero, yet I've been stonewalled by the last song in expert career tier seven. I have been putting in a lot of practice and have been making headway, but I fear that once I get there, the last group of songs is going to make me cry for my mommy.
The reason for this upshot in difficulty, besides it being the third game in the series and a lot of people have already gotten really good, is that the real music in the game has brought with it a "real" feel of playing the guitar to the songs. A lot of songs will hit you with an unrelenting barrage of three-button chords which will confuse you unless you're totally comfortable with guitar fingering. On the one hand, it makes the entire experience a fantastic one. On the other, it lets you appreciate how good a lot of top guitar players are considering how hard it is to do it on a plastic controller. Just think of how skilled they need to be for the real deal!
For all you Guitar Hero newbies out there, don't think that the entire game has been made harder. Quite the opposite, in fact. The tolerance for hitting hammer-ons and pull-offs has been relaxed to the point where almost anyone can do basic solos with ease. The notes that can be hit without strumming the guitar also have a more obvious look to them, making them easier to pick out in a crowd. It also seems to be a lot easier to hit a series of rapid notes with fast strumming than it did in previous games. Those are welcome changes to make the game more accessible to players looking to move out of the easy and medium difficulty ranges, but the changed note timing comes at a rather annoying price.
For reasons I have yet to figure out, there will be times that—especially if you're a hardcore GHI or GHII player like me—you'll miss a note on account of a phantom strum. I've lost track of how many times I was 100% sure I hit a lone note with the same timing of every other note in a series, only to miss it and hear a sour note play from the Wii remote speaker in the guitar. (This is a neat addition, but doesn't make things any better or worse.) It seems like Neversoft has tightened the window in which to hit a regular note by just a tiny bit, but even a little change is going to be noticeable for people who are used to the previous timings. The looser timings for hammer-ons and such only make this change more noticeable. The same phenomenon has happened to me on the PlayStation 2 version, so I'm confident that it isn't the guitar's fault. Though it's not happening to me as much as it did when I first started playing, it's still popping up at the most inopportune times. Still, one or two bad notes out of more than a thousand-plus in a song isn't going to ruin gameplay.
The occasional miss wasn't enough to stop me from trying my luck and playing other Guitar Heroes online, either. The Wi-Fi component of Guitar Hero III is its biggest asset, letting you find someone to play against in all of the game's multiplayer modes. The nice thing about GHIII is that you can login to Nintendo WFC while you play the game in single-player mode, and if one of your online friends wants to play with you, you'll receive a game invitation that lets you know that they are ready to play. Although you'll still need to punch in those ridiculous friend codes for everyone you want to add to your list, at least you can jump into a friends game with relative ease.
Strangers matches let you play against random people. When searching for games, there are options to filter for game types and difficulty levels you want to see. You can create a game yourself if you're having no luck finding one. The different difficulty settings will ensure that you find players that are on the same level as you, making for some very competitive, and very fun, online games. In fact, most of the online games I've played in have come down to the wire. (On one song, I lost on the last note on account of the phantom strum. Grrrrr!)
The only downside to the system is that there is no way to add or otherwise contact the "strangers" you play against, even though their profile name is displayed on the screen as you play them. I desperately want to play against a fellow called Brute Max again because of how close our battles were—he beat me by less than a thousand points on a song—but since Nintendo thinks I'm a little kid that needs to be protected against people I don't know, I'll probably never play against him again. (Unless Brute Max is reading this right now, in which case you can add your friend code to our forums so we can hook up.)
The piece de resistance of Guitar Hero III's online features isn't in the game at all. It's the Guitar Hero community website, which gives you a lot of neat options. For starters, all of the online versions of the game are represented, meaning you can compare your high scores with players on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. You can even create or enter tournaments against those players. (You won't be playing against them directly, but rather competing in parallel to them on the Wii.) Activision is posting a new tournament to the site every week at levels of multiple difficulty, so everyone can play. It's even giving away prizes. Not bad, if you've got the skills to compete.
Even if you don't, you can still have fun with the site. You can create a tour group which lets you keep tabs on the progress of everyone who has joined it via the website. You can create one for your circle of friends, or join one that's already well-established. (NWR Hardcore Wii Gamers Anonymous is recruiting, in case you're looking for a group to join.) The Guitar Hero website adds another level of depth to the online component of the game, and really makes you want to improve in order to beat your friends' achievements.
Guitar Hero III is a fantastic game, with few faults. However, one of the faults it does have is unfathomable for a game of its genre. The Wii version outputs sound in monaural, instead of the advertised Dolby Pro Logic II. You don't even get true stereo sound out of two speakers, just a mirrored mono soundtrack. This is a gross oversight from a technical standpoint, and something that should render the game unplayable. Yet, it doesn't. I'm pretty obsessive about getting a quality audio experience out of my games, but I didn't realize there even was an issue with the audio until I read that other people had found out about it. The sound quality of the master tracks and the fact that the game is so much fun totally hid the truth from me, and even though I know about it now, I'm still having a fantastic time playing online and trying to beat my high scores in career mode.
Legends of Rock is easily one of the must-own Wii games out there. Although the audio issue might give you pause, it doesn't take anything away from the awesomeness of the game. It's so good, you won't care that you don't have two-channel sound. I don't, which I think is a testament to how amazing the Guitar Hero experience is. Of course, once Activision figures out a fix for those already with the game (via patch or recall) and gets the problem resolved in new retail copies, that's when Wii owners can truly start rocking out.