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Guitar Hero 2 was a game for which I have nothing but unconditional love, but Guitar Hero 3 is a much more complicated animal. In several ways, I can't stand it, but in several other ways, I need it.

You are familiar with the basic premise, yes? You hold a fake plastic guitar and push five buttons in time with the notes, and your acquaintances who've never actually seen the game proclaim that you're wasting time in which you could be learning a real instrument, ignoring the fact that thousands of kids all over the world are much more likely to form bands because of the positive reinforcement that GH gave them at an early age.

So but the thing that needs to be emphasized here is that GH3 is a product of new management. Harmonix, the studio that made GH1, GH2, and GH 80s, left to invent Rock Band, a four-player game which I'm sure is far more fun than GH3 but which I personally cannot afford. Activision, who had acquired Red Octane, the games' previous publisher, handed the franchise off to a developer named Neversoft, known mostly for its Tony Hawk games. Enjoy the privilege of rebuilding the GH engine from scratch, guys! If you fuck up one tiny detail, millions will scream at you, but no pressure!

The Good:

All the truly essential gameplay mechanics are not only intact but have actually been improved. The board scrolls in at a steeper angle so you can see more of the notes coming. The hammers (the notes you don't need to strum to play) are now designated with a blazing white light that leaps up off the board. (In previous GH games, they lack a black ring around the white dot in the center, but this detail is so subtle that many players never notice.) After you get used to this interface, going back to the Harmonix games is tough.

The Bad:

So, while making the note patterns easier to read, the Neversoft execs paradoxically decided to make the score and multiplier info much harder to read. The board is what you're staring at the whole time; the score is something you only have a split second to glance at between riffs. Instead of fat black-on-white, it's anemic dark green on black. You learn to live with it - you have to - but a decision this stupid suggests to me that the game was not play tested at all.

The Ugly:

The game is fucking ugly. At first I thought it was cool when the camera cut to the drummer before a big fill, but I soon realized these moves were all preprogrammed. More often than not what you're staring at is a close-up of the singer, who, with his beady eyes and underbite, bears an uncanny resemblance to a hammerhead shark. More polygons do not equal better art direction. Hey, what happened to ME? This game is supposed to be about ME!!! If it's not a medium shot of me shredding, at least make it a long shot of me onstage.

Relatedly, there's serious loading problems. You'll experience hangs on every single menu, and if you fail a song and select 'retry', the game needs to load the song again, even if you only made it 1% in. What? Where the hell did the song go, it was just there! Previous GH games never did this. This should have been a warning sign to the people at Neversoft that they were placing far too high a priority on polygons.

Song Selection:

This is more important than all the cosmetic stuff above, of course, and I wish I could say this made that not matter, but boy: bleh. Out of 70 songs, there's about 10 I find interesting enough to play over and over. Here they are:

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Pat Benatar
La Grange - ZZ Top
Welcome to the Jungle - Guns N' Roses
Even Flow - Pearl Jam
Pride and Joy - Stevie Ray Vaughn
Cliffs of Dover - Eric Johnson
Black Magic Woman - Santana
Knights of Cydonia - Muse
Cult of Personality - Living Colour
One - Metallica
Through the Fire and Flames - DragonForce

Now maybe this is just because I played GH2 so much I need a serious challenge to excite me, but I doubt it. More attention seems to have been paid to selecting songs that were "notorious" like Raining Blood, Paint It, Black and School's Out, instead of picking somewhat more obscure pieces that fit the concept better. Additionally, for a game with the subtitle "Legends of Rock", what are so many contemporary bands doing in there stinking it up? The Strokes? The Killers? AFI? Disturbed? SLIPKNOT???? That last one is straight up terrible. Also, get off my lawn.

I should add here that the DragonForce song (which you have to beat the game to unlock, so you might as well set it on Medium early on, because as I'll explain below, NO ONE can beat this game on Hard) is insane. Hear it to believe it insane. Like the final level of the brilliant Portal, it may well take you as long to beat this song as it did the rest of the game combined.

Battle Mode:

Fuck you, Battle Mode. Fuck you till you die of blood loss.

Now, if this had just been an added feature for multiplayer, it'd be harmless. I like the idea of kids throwing their little brothers' note boards into disarray - giving them "trash" like I used to give my friends in Dr. Mario. However, the suits at Activision must have thought this idea was ripe for that increasingly pervasive video game gimmick, the CELEBRITY CAMEO! Which is always a ringing endorsement, as we all know from wearing out our copies of Apocalpyse starring Bruce Willis - which was coincidentally developed by, yes, Neversoft.

So you have to "battle" Tom Morello and Slash and even, at the very end of the game, El Diablo, who calls himself Lou. (One presumes his last name is Cipher.) Problem is, you can't win these battles by simply being better than your opponent. If you make it to the end of the song, you don't get a score or a percentage, you just automatically fail. Rewarding! To succeed, you MUST nail the "Battle Power" sections and then use them all at once to make the other guy fail.

What this means is, even though I'm awesome at playing GH on Expert, this is the only installment I can't beat on Hard, because when Satan inflicts Lefty Flip on me (inverting which button plays which fret) or Double Notes (which would accurately be described as Chords Instead Of Notes) my needle drops into the red. Why wouldn't it? How does that relate to my actual skill level? I could be Duane Allman playing onstage with Jerry Garcia on 7/28/73 in Watkins Glen, NY in front of 600,000 screaming hippies, but if some dipcunt in a three piece suit made it past security and wrenched my guitar upside down, yelling NOT SO HOT NOW ARE YA - yeah, I'd fuck up. So? What does that have to do with rocking? Nothing. Because it is retarded.

That said, if you're a GH addict like me, you need this game, and it will give you countless hours of thrills. Unless of course you have the superior-in-every-way Rock Band.

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