Show of hands: Has anyone not heard of Guitar Hero at this point?
You, sir, in the back row clutching the Ratt cassette—you're the only one? All right, pal, here's your recap: Guitar Hero is the most popular music-based game ever made. It comes with a plastic guitar controller, with which players noodle along to the sounds of every band from the Ramones to the Strokes. For this, they earn points and adoration from a virtual crowd of lighter-waving goofballs—and sometimes from actual goofballs: Guitar Hero has supplanted Golden Tee as the barroom pastime of choice.
The fact that game geeks and soccer moms alike threw down $90 for Guitar Hero's sequel proved the game remains as popular as horny groupies and free beer. And now, as predictable as a Kiss reunion, Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rockis upon us. But is it worth yet another 90 bucks? For what you would've spent on all three games—plus the Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s expansion—you could've bought an actual Fender Strat by now, written a million-dollar single and dated Winona Ryder.
GH III, however,turns out to be much more than just a new set list—it's easily the best entry in the franchise. Your toughest decision may be whether to buy now or hold out for the $160 Rock Band game, which boasts drums, guitar, bass and a microphone. Until the major labels come calling, you'll be hard-pressed to afford both.
The first thing you'll notice about GH III is there's not a cruddy song to be found here—unlike its predecessor, which burdened us with the yawn rock of Matthew Sweet, among others.
Cooler yet: The bulk of the 71 songs—including tracks from Weezer, Iron Maiden, Metallica and Pearl Jam—are by the actual artists this time, not cover bands. In a brilliant make-good for GH II's sucktastic Zack de la Rocha impersonator, GH III offers both "Bulls on Parade" performed by Rage Against the Machine and guitarist Tom Morello as a playable character.
The cameos are fun, but they also serve the gameplay: To unlock rockers such as Slash from Guns N' Roses, you first have to outshred them in the incredibly cool Guitar Battle mode. A welcome twist on standard head-to-head action, Guitar Battle lets you collect devious power-ups as you play: Collect one, and a thrust of your guitar causes your opponent to fumble notes. It's hard enough to play Slayer's "Reign in Blood" on Expert, but these virtual banana peels make it nerve-shattering.
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It's also in Battle mode that GH III outshines the last game's epic "Free Bird" finale. This time, you'll battle Satan himself for your very soul, to a punked-up version of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." Think Crossroads starring Ralph Macchio, without all the bothersome Ralph Macchio.
And speaking of soul-selling, one of the only complaints here is the whorish product placement, which effortlessly goes to 11. The Dead Kennedys and Sex Pistols (who re-recorded "Anarchy in the U.K." for this game) would sooner cut off their bollocks than play on a Pontiac-sponsored, Red Bull-littered stage.
Guitar Hero sequels continue to succeed because they listen to their fans—a Cooperative Career Mode, online head-to-head play, interchangeable faceplates and the so-difficult-it's-laughable fan-favorite song "Through the Fire and Flames" by Dragonforce all debut here. Soon, Rock Band might make the inevitable Guitar Hero IV as irrelevant as, say, Foreigner's 4. But the third time, at least, is a charm.
Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock by Activision for the Wii, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 2. Bundle, $89.99; game, $59.99. ESRB Rating: T (for Teen). Score: 9 (out of 10).