I am very lucky to have a wonderful girlfriend. There's lots of reasons why this is true, but besides being pretty and intelligent, she also appreciates and encourages my geekiness. For my fellow geeks out there, you can understand where I'm coming from. The latest incarnation of her wonderfulness was to give me Guitar Hero 3 for Christmas. Granted, I had to tell her it's what I wanted but after playing the demo in a local Best Buy, I could tell that she was hooked. Of course, I soon felt bad for asking because the Xbox 360 version was nearly sold out this Christmas season. With a little help from me, we managed to find a copy at Overstock.com and it arrived the day before I left to visit family in Vancouver, WA. I packed the guitar in my suitcase, and bought a laptop bag for the express purpose of carrying on my Xbox 360 with me (no way in heck I'm gonna check that baby with all the other luggage).
During my visit to Vantucky, I played GH3 almost every day, and I had plenty of company to do it with. Both my brothers insisted I bring it with me when I would come over to visit, and Cort borrowed a neighbor's guitar from GH2 and we finished the entire career mode together on Medium in just 2 nights. I even had my Dad playing at one point - the guy who told me that rock was the Devil's music when I was a kid was playing a game with said Devil music. Tiger Woods '07 was more his speed, but it was incredible to see the broad appeal of this game to all my family and friends. My friends Brian and Lizzy invited me and bunch of friends to a brunch during my visit and they had packed along Rock Band from their apartment in Seattle. Adding the drums and a singer was kick in the pants and a great way for people to hang out. I got hooked on the coop mode and so when I came back to Boston, I used a gift card from Mom & Dad to go out and buy GH2 with the (older) guitar. Lisa and I played all weekend, and there were times when I had to demand she stop and take a break, even if it was just so I could check the scores of the wild card games.
I gave you all that history so you could see that I've tried them all to give my rather biased opinion on these new music games. This might seem a little scattered because I have so many thoughts on what works and what doesn't.
GH3 does so many things right, so the few things wrong really stick out in my mind, even if most of these nitpicks don't affect gameplay. Having all of the songs be master tracks, as opposed to cover versions, was a brilliant move. It really adds to the feel of the game, and the familiarity with these songs contributes to the fantasy of playing in a rock band. The graphics are great, and I loved the artwork in the game as well as the cutscenes. One of the missteps is the boss battle mode. Having to beat a boss in a challenge that is more or less the ability to memorize a song you've never heard before playing the game, and then hope the right power ups drop to defeat the boss - well, that's an exercise in frustration. I hated this part of the game because it seemed so arbitrary and it broke the fantasy element of the game. It sucks out the fun in a hurry. The coop mode is fantastic, but one oversight is the lack of a career mode for the bass player. Someone actually went through all the trouble of coding up the bass lines, but the only way to learn them is to play them in coop mode. Seems like a missed opportunity to me.
I played GH3 before I tried GH2, and so alot of the criticisms I've read about changes to the next version now puzzle me. I can't understand why someone would complain so much about the newer version which is clearly superior in almost every way. It felt like I'd taken a giant step backwards both in presentation and gameplay. Early complaints about the characters looking "ugly" are silly. The graphics are so much better overall and the animations are superb.
I also found GH2 less forgiving especially when it came to hitting notes early. GH3 is a bit more sloppy on the early side, but I found that GH2 encouraged you to play all the notes late rather than screw up by playing even a tiny bit early. GH3 seems to compensate for this by making the hard and expert arrangements a bit harder. Some Rock Band fans point to this as a flaw (more on this later), but I found that on Hard the arrangements were indeed hard but not unrealistic. I even tried a few songs on Expert and did fine until I got to solos which pretty much require memorization and practice to complete. Being a musician, I enjoyed the challenge as Medium became much too easy very quickly. GH2 graphics were also disappointing and the artwork seemed crude and inconsistent, which GH3 has a rather well-defined art style and just feels more polished. Even the menus seemed easier to navigate than in the old version. Which reminds me, the absence of coop career mode in GH2 was just a plain oversight that I'm glad they included in GH3.
Rock Band was fun for different reasons. Overall, I found the guitar parts MUCH easier than GH3. Even on the hard setting, I could get through a song on the first try without any trouble, and could score well even on the solos. I play a little bit of drums IRL, but even I had trouble getting used to the drum pads, but I'm sure I could play well with a little practice. I found the bass/snare patterns to be inconsistent, but perhaps that was because I was only playing on Medium so it's "simplified". My leg got sore fast! The buttons are poorly placed because I paused the game several times accidentally much to the chagrin of everyone playing. I didn't enjoy the singing at all, but then I've never been fond of karaoke. The art style was cool, but the changes to the notes sliding down the screen were harder to read, mainly because they are designed to be thinner. It made some of the timing hard to read but I guess it's something you get used to. I still like the bigger round buttons on GH better. I wasn't that fond of the song selection but then I'm not sure if my friends had unlocked the entire library yet, nor did I play that many of the songs.
Speaking of song lists, GH3 rules in this department. GH2 had a few good songs I liked, but even those were penalized for being mediocre cover versions at best. Having the real tracks in GH3 is just too much fun. Rock Band has master tracks as well, but considering that most of the time someone is singing into a cheap mic with way too much reverb on top of the original vocal track, it gets noisy really fast, and you can't really hear the original mix coming through very well. Unless all the players are dead on, it can sound like a garage band doing a bad cover of the song. Whereas in GH3, even screwups don't sound that bad, and when both players are tracking well, it sounds exactly like the real deal.
The one area that Rock Band is leaving GH3 in the dust is in downloadable songs. They've already got 3 times as many songs, with promises of more on a weekly basis, while GH has a pretty limited selection of DLC with no word on any future releases.
Overall, I have to say that GH3 is still my favorite to play in spite of some of RB's advantages. RB is a great party game, but doesn't really shine unless you have at least 2 or 3 people. At $180, it's only a deal if you know you've got family and friends to play with on a regular basis. I enjoy the challenge of GH3 by myself and can still enjoy coop with a friend, too.