GAME REVIEW: 'Guitar Hero 3' rocks harder, cramps fingers

For those of you who avoid the video game aisle at your local Best Buy like the plague or are just unfamiliar with trends in the gaming industry, allow me to introduce you to "Guitar Hero." Don't think for one second that this is a game about a rock star superhero as the title may suggest; rather, the hugely popular series makes the gamer the guitar hero himself.

Riding on the shirttails of the "Dance Dance Revolution" craze, "Guitar Hero" is designed for the gamer who may not be able to handle fancy footwork but has impeccable hand-eye coordination. My problem is I can neither dance nor do I possess the required coordination to be a guitar hero. However, my chances of nailing a jumpshot were significantly greater than me cutting a rug any time soon. So as my friends had already dived headfirst into the "Guitar Hero" series in 2005 with its release on the Playstation 2 game system, I waited until the second incarnation of the title made its way to the Xbox 360 in April 2007.

I quickly realized I was at a two-year disadvantage compared to my peers, but I was determined to train day and night to compete among their ranks. Unfortunately, I am still unable to get past the second tier of songs in the hard difficulty and can't even fathom completing a track on the expert setting.

To give you an idea of how this game works, the player uses a controller in the shape of a guitar to play notes that appear on the screen. Much like the "Dance Dance Revolution" dance pad with its directional arrows that coordinate with steps that scroll by on screen like the infamous "Star Wars" scrolling introductions, the "Guitar Hero" controller has five colored frets that are used to hit notes. As notes scroll on the screen, the gamer holds the corresponding color and hits a strum bar on the body of the guitar. This action mimics the holding of frets and strumming of strings on an actual guitar. There is also a whammy bar that is used to increase your score on the longer notes, which is indicated by a long line of color that ends when the note should be released.

As complicated as the game controller may sound, the hardest aspect of "Guitar Hero" is finding the rhythm of a song rather than its beat. Once you've gotten used to listening to the rhythm, however, it's only a matter of mastering the finger work and learning how to keep track of where your fingers are on the frets at all times.

I found it best to start with a song I knew. As such, the first song that led to hitting every note (on easy, mind you) was Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box" in "Guitar Hero 2." This inevitably led to a full-scale addiction to the game. My heart pounded as I furiously mastered each track on the easy difficulty (which incorporates three of the five frets). Then it was time to try my hand at medium and four of the frets. Of course it took quite a bit of frustration to learn how to hit that fourth fret with my pinkie, but with enough determination I again started to conquer each tier of the game.

This is where my foray into new difficulties ends.

I've hit that fifth fret maybe a dozen times, most of which were by accident. That first completed tier on the hard difficulty is just a false representation of my "Guitar Hero" skills. It is merely proof that the first tier can be completed by skipping the final fret all together.

Time to separate the guitar heroes from the guitar zeroes

With the release of the latest edition to the "Guitar Hero" series, Neversoft has taken over development duties from Harmonix. Being that Neversoft is the famed developer of the "Tony Hawk" skating series, it was obvious that a few the company's signature design features would be found in "Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock."

If you have grown comfortable with the gameplay in the series, rest assured knowing that most of the changes in "Guitar Hero 3" are cosmetic. From the characters to the cutscenes, everything has moved from cartoon-like to grossly exaggerated. Whereas this would normally be a pretty big setback, given that the nature of the game is pretty exaggerated in itself, the new interface seems fitting and is actually an improvement for the series. Rather than taking the game too seriously, Neversoft takes the cartoon aspects of the game and elaborates them to a point that befits such a game with edgy, "we're cool and we know it" graphics.

Another aspect Neversoft incorporated into the game is the Boss Battle feature. While in the previous release the gamer only had to perform an encore song to progress to the subsequent tier, in "GH3" certain tiers are "protected" by a true guitar legend - including Slash of Guns N' Roses and Velvet Revolver fame, and Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave.

While many "GH" veterans have frowned upon the addition of these battles, I've found they added to the spontaneity of the gameplay. No longer does one go through the basic motions of hitting notes and activating Star Power (a feature that doubles the value of each note), now when facing a boss they must plan their attacks accordingly with the opponent's skill level. This is accomplished by sending attacks such as increased difficulty, double notes, broken strings and a malfunctioning whammy bar to your opponent. The challenge that is introduced is that the bosses can send the same attacks to you. So to win, one must time the attacks so as to cause maximum damage and cause the boss the be booed off stage.

New to those who picked up on the craze with "GH2"'s release on the 360 is the addition of a wireless controller. While this is nothing new for the PS2 guitar heroes, the wireless guitar for the 360 is a welcome addition to a console that prides itself on its wireless connectivity. And just as eloquently as the standard wireless controllers interact with the system, the guitar provides a relatively seamless transition from "GH2"'s X-plorer controller. I mention that it is a relatively seamless transition only because the worry of ripping the cord out of the console is no longer a concern. Now gamers have the freedom to rock out as hard and wildly as they please - a treat for those who enjoy Eric Clapton-style body convulsions during their extended solos.

Extending beyond the PS2 and 360, the "Guitar Hero" series makes its debut on the Wii and Playstation 3 consoles. While there is very little difference between the 360 and PS3 versions of the game, greater differences lie with the Wii. Much of the graphics and gameplay elements remain relatively unchanged, but the controller provides a whole new experience. Slipping into a compartment on the back of the guitar, the Wiimote serves as a port to which the guitar can connect. The guitar acts as an extension on the controller like the well-known nunchuck extension. Because of this, the Wiimote retains its signature functions such as vibrations and local sound. The features are incorporated in the game during Star Power (the guitar actually vibrates when Star Power is activated) and missed notes (a startling clank sound emits from the Wiimote when you hit a wrong chord).

Although the surprise features of the Wii guitar are subtle, they tease the possibilities of future "Guitar Hero" guitars for the other consoles.

Common across all of the platforms are the new setlists. While it is certainly dependent on your musical tastes whether you like the new sets of songs in "GH3," there is no doubt that the developers have incorporated a wide range of rock styles. With tracks such as Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Pride and Joy," Dead Kennedys' "Holiday in Cambodia" and The Killers' "When You Were Young," the flavors represented are wide and varying through each setlist tier.

For a brief moment in time, I out shredded Slash, Tom Morello and Lou. Curious who Lou is? You'll have to play "Guitar Hero 3" to find out, 4 out of 5