By any estimate, Guitar Hero has been nothing short of a phenomenon since it appeared on the PlayStation 2 game console in 2005. While not an original concept (it owes much to Konami’s Japanese game GuitarFreaks), it’s generated sequels and copycats. Now, for the first time, it’s playable on Macs (and Windows PCs) thanks to the efforts of Aspyr Media.
Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock is the latest installment of the game; unfortunately, it’s the first to be made without the help of original franchise developer Harmonix (which has moved on to EA’s hugely popular Rock Band game). Guitar Hero III is an evolution of the same gameplay that you’ll find in the original Guitar Hero and its sequel, Guitar Hero II, with a few important changes.
If you’ve never played Guitar Hero, here’s the deal: You’re a guitar player in a rock ‘n roll band, with dreams of making it big. The secret to your success is, of course, playing well. Play well enough and you’ll attract endorsement deals from equipment makers, talent agents, managers, and you’ll be able to play bigger venues. You can use the money you get from playing these gigs to buy new outfits, add new songs to your repertoire and get new equipment.
Playing Guitar Hero III isn’t so much about playing the guitar as it is about matching sequences of flashing lights on a special controller that looks like a guitar. If you’ve ever played Dance Dance Revolution, Rez, or similar games, you’ll have an understanding of the basic gameplay mechanics. If not, probably the closest analogy I can draw is the old Milton Bradley electronic game Simon, where you have to repeat a sequence of flashing colored lights.
A guitar neck appears on screen, with notes flowing down it in one of five string positions; sometimes, chords will occupy two or more strings. Holding down the same-colored button on the guitar neck and strumming a strum-bar on the guitar’s body will cause your on-screen rocker to play that note. Do it in time with what’s happening on the screen, and you’ll get points. Fail to do so, and not only will you not get points, but your Rock meter will drop, your on-screen musician will play off key or miss notes all together, and the fans will notice and begin to boo. Too many missed notes and too much booing, and the band to stop playing all together. The game is sophisticated enough to simulate “hammer-ons” and “pull-offs,” too – handy when you play songs with lots of notes closely grouped together.
Occasionally you’ll see groups of notes that look like stars. If you play those notes successfully you’ll ratchet up your “Star Power,” which you can activate by lifting the guitar’s neck upward sharply. On screen, you’ll see your Guitar Hero begin to do tricks and hijinks that win applause and hoots from the crowd. It also doubles any point multiplier you may have garnered from playing a long streak of notes without missing a beat. That lasts temporarily, but it’s a good way to boost your score—and win the crowd back, if they’re getting restless after a lame performance.
Multiple difficulty levels keep you busy for a while—Easy will test your skills with the first three buttons on the neck; Medium moves it up to four buttons; Hard gets into five-button territory (impossible to play without moving your hand up and down the neck); and Expert, which dramatically increases the number of notes you have to play.
Your musical catalog consists entirely of cover songs—some are reproductions, others are the original tracks— spanning rock ‘n roll history over the past 40 years. You’ll get to play everything from punk rock anthems like “Anarchy in the UK” by the Sex Pistols to modern alt-rock hits like “Even Flow” by Pearl Jam, from “Paint It Black” by the Rolling Stones” to “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys. All told, there are 71 playable songs. More than 40 of them are “main setlist” songs that you can play through the game’s single-player mode; another half-dozen or so are playable in the game’s co-op career mode. The rest are “bonus tracks” that you unlock by buying them in a record store, using the money you’ve earned from playing your gigs.
This game is very pricey by Mac standards—$80—and the reason, according to Aspyr, is the USB-based guitar controller. Fortunately, it’s the exact same model of X-Plorer guitar that you’ll find inside the Xbox 360 version of Guitar Hero III, so you can use this on your Xbox 360 if you have a console too. (I tried it out with the demo, it works great.) The controller is well-built and designed to take lots of abuse from players without breaking.
The basic Career mode offered in Guitar Hero III is the same style of game that Guitar Hero fans have gotten used to. What’s new in Career mode in this go-round are “boss battles,” where you have to compete against boss characters (including Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave’s Tom Morello and Slash of Guns ‘n’ Roses/Velvet Revolver fame). There’s also a storyline of sorts employed here—a first for the series, in which players ultimately discover after a botched performance that they’ve sold their souls to the Devil and have to play to win them back (and thus become “Guitar Legends” in the process).
Two players can participate in a co-op career mode, playing on the same computer; one plays lead guitar and the other plays bass or rhythm guitar. If you don’t have a second guitar controller handy, you can also use the keyboard,though that takes the fun away from it for me.
There’s also a Battle Mode—similar to the Pro Face-Off mode in Guitar Hero II—where you compete against another player using Battle Power, which effectively replaces Star Power, and lets you jinx your opponent with equipment failures or other problems.
Guitar Hero III features a cast of characters to choose from when you first set out to become a legend. You can be a wiry punk rocker (Johnny Napalm), a heavily-mascaraed rock goddess (Judy Nails), a J-pop princess (Midori) and several other characters, including some unlockable extras that you’ll gain access to as you play well.
Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock suffered on its first release and felt rushed out the door to get to stores in time for Christmas. I noticed that it was “laggy” in spots, even on machines that met the game’s prodigious system requirements (a 2GHz Intel-based Mac with discrete graphics processor is the minimum system requirement). And in this game, lag equals failure—timing is everything. Fortunately, Aspyr made up for that with a 1.1 release that’s ironed out those performance issues.
What’s left is a fabulous game that’s a real one of a kind gem on the Macintosh, and one that’s sure to please the whole family. For some added fun, figure out a way to hook up your Mac to the TV so the entire family can watch you rock out (and participate themselves if they want). If you don’t have a console at home, Guitar Hero III is a must-have for Mac gamers looking for something different, fun and engrossing.
The bottom line
Guitar Hero III isn’t without its faults—the game’s original release was laggy, it’s pricey, and its system requirements are extraordinary—but it’s a one-of-a-kind game on the Mac that’s loads of fun.
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