In the two years since it was first released, Guitar Hero has become something of a cultural phenomenon. It has inspired T-shirts, bands, South Park parodies, and the inevitable "is tomorrow's Clapton playing Guitar Hero now?" questions. (Get with the times you old fogeys! Clapton????).
Its popularity partly explains the shift away from PC gaming -- a scene which has eroded so much that Microsoft has set up a taskforce to try and save it. Quite ironic, then, that Guitar Hero is coming to the platform it's helping to destroy.
Is this the game that will help save the ailing PC, and help make the platform social again?
In a word: no, no, no, no, and no sweet monkey Jesus no!
But let's start from the beginning...
Guitar Hero III, if you aren't aware, is a rhythm-based game which uses a guitar-like controller. Essentially, "notes" scroll down the screen and you "play" the corresponding coloured buttons as they appear. The soundtrack boasts a roster of old-school rockers (Foghat, Cream), alterna-rock (Sonic Youth, Weezer) and metal (Metallica, Slayer).
Guitar Hero III for PC looks like the console versions ...
The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of Guitar Hero III are classics, and while some of III's new modes -- bosses and player-versus-player battles -- don't add anything useful the soundtrack and gameplay are top-rate.
That brings us to the PC version. Like its console brethren, the PC version comes with dedicated hardware. In this case, the same controller that shipped with Guitar Hero II for Xbox 360 -- a white, Gibson X-plorer. It's functional, but nowhere near as cool as the controllers available for the other consoles.
If you want to add further controllers, then the new Xbox 360 controller -- available separately -- will work with the PC version. To use this though you'll need to purchase the Xbox 360 Wireless Gaming Receiver for Windows which costs around thirty bucks and will, as its name suggests, let you use wireless Xbox peripherals on your PC. Although Microsoft only provides a guarantee for the wireless gamepad and the driving wheel, we were pleasantly surprised to find that Xbox 360 controller worked on our PC without much problem.
While Guitar Hero III is getting a little creaky in the face of the superior Rock Band, it has familiar gameplay, a few new modes, and an Internet play option in its favour. All of these have been brought to the PC more-or-less intact. The graphics have even received an update, with higher resolution and lens flare as options.
The PC brings with it a new option of mouse control, which is even harder to master than it sounds. Basically, the left and right buttons act as the strum bar, and the Shift, Z, X, C, and V keys act as the coloured buttons. Using the mouse to strum wasn't as annoying as we imagined it would be and, as we found out, it's certainly more socially acceptable than using your guitar controller on the train (check back for our video review). The only minor niggle is that the keyboard controls are quite close to the Windows key and it's easy to accidentally press it and get dumped to the desktop.
How did it all go wrong?
All in all, bringing such a great game to the PC can only be seen as a positive thing, right? Sure, but there's just one thing we want to say ... LAG!
... but even playing to an empty room won't guarantee stutter-free gameplay
We've suffered through three separate, jerky builds of Guitar Hero III for PC, and we're very unhappy to report that the current version, 1.1, is the worst of the lot. The developers have set the system specs at a ridiculously high level for a game that isn't graphically complex: the minimum spec calls for a 2.8GHz Pentium D (dual-core) processor and a GeForce 7600. Just don't expect a great experience on this spec machine; apart from the stuttering flow of notes down the screen, the entire game will freeze intermittently for up to six seconds. Try playing Dragonforce's ridiculously hard "Through the Fire and Flames" once under these conditions and you'll want to hurl your PC into the hotel swimming pool. Not in a rock way. But in a hurty, stabby underwatery way.
Aspy recommends turning down all the graphical niceties -- physics, resolution, and even the crowd(!) -- to get the best performance. You can also adjust the screen delay in ms, with the company advising that "most computers should not need to go lower than 70ms or higher than 130ms". Don't expect this to achieve very much though. Even with the recommended uber-computer consisting of an 8800GTX graphics card and an Intel E6700 processor, we still didn't get the baby-smooth scrolling you'll see on the console versions. Our collegues at GameSpot AU played it once and refused to play it again.
Today's message brought to you by the number zero
The other problem, if you're buying this version instead of a console one, is that once you go online you'll feel a little neglected. This is because none of the promised downloadable content is available. There's no available timeframe either, all it tells you is that it's "Coming Soon". Aspyr aren't even bothering with a Message of the Day anymore -- it's just blank.
We'll give the company one small break here because bringing a very popular and quite unusual game to the PC (and Mac) is a massive undertaking. They were even looking for a developer to work solely on this version after it was released and advertising it on their site! Nonetheless, we have to weigh the expectations of someone spending almost AU$150 on a game against the hard work taken to bring this game to PC users.
Your humble author is a staunch advocate of PC gaming, and currently doesn't even own a console, so to see Aspyr stumble here is particularly heart-wrenching. The only reason this game receives a score over five is because there is still a kernel of Guitar Hero in there, and when it works it's an absolute blast to play. It's possible the company will fix the issues, but there's no guarantee as the last patch was over four months ago. But please, save yourself the aggravation and buy one of the other console versions instead. Because, even if you have to buy a console to do it, at least you'll be able to get Rock Band as well -- when it comes out in 2009 or so.