Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry believes Guitar Hero has helped steer his kids away from violence. Or at least video game violence. "I think it has a lot more going for it than all that first-person-shooter stuff," he says. "You can only do so much of that, you know? Bottom line, how many car crash-ups can you see? How much blood do you want splattered across the screen? It's just a whole different way to play video games without all this violence. ... And you get to listen to rock 'n' roll, so that's great."
Meanwhile, Slash (of Guns 'N Roses fame) says that he's starting to believe Guitar Hero may help create the next generation of studio musicians. "[Kids] can become such video game junkies that they don't leave the house, don't play sports, and just gel in front of the TV. I was scared this immensely popular game would be as far as many kids would go toward becoming musically inclined. But it turns out that a huge percentage of children who play Guitar Hero aspire to play actual guitar to the point of getting their parents to buy them one. And the real positive thing is it introduces kids to a certain brand of rock 'n' roll that's not really around right now."
Therein, of course, lies the rub.
We're all for millions of young players trading time on the streets of Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV for playing music—wielding plastic guitars instead of virtual machine guns. But what if the tunes they're rocking out to belong to the likes of Slayer and Slipknot? Might that warrant a bit more discussion?
More of the Same, Plus a Little
Back in December 2006, we tackled Guitar Hero II. This time around, much of the applause and many of the concerns we raised in that review remain equally valid. The game mechanics in Guitar Hero III will be instantly familiar to anyone who's strummed previous iterations. Colored nodes on a virtual fretboard move toward you, and you have to "strum" the corresponding colored key on the neck of your guitar controller. Are you old enough to remember Simon and Tetris? If so, mentally merge light-up color buttons with cascading squares, and you've got the right mental picture.
Eight tiers of increasingly difficult songs take a player in Career mode from dive bars to stages in Europe and Japan. Along the way, riffmasters will also encounter boss battles with Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave) and the aforementioned Slash.
As with Guitar Hero II, some tracks are problematic and some aren't. Songs such as Eric Johnson's instrumental epic "Cliffs of Dover" certainly don't offer cause for concern; nor does Living Colour's funkadelic metal masterpiece, "Cult of Personality." Still, there are more misses than hits here, with caustic cuts from bands such as Poison ("Talk Dirty to Me"), White Zombie ("Black Sunshine"), Slayer ("Raining Blood") and Slipknot ("Before I Forget") winning the majority.
In addition, visuals reinforce the image of the rebellious, self-destructive rock star that reached its zenith in the late '80s. You see empty beer cans on the stage, and money gets subtracted from your pay each night for such antisocial behavior as setting fire to cars and trashing hotel rooms. Players who lift their eyes from the fretboard will also notice the silhouettes of pole dancers at a bar and a barely clad woman writhing in a cage at a prison gig.
As for female guitarists—and singers on certain tracks—strips of leather cover some skin but expose more. One of these femme fatales can purchase an outfit called "Skool Grrl" that comes with this description: "The exact same outfit Judy was wearing when she was kicked out of high school at age 15."
You can steer clear of most of these problems by picking your character—and his or her wardrobe—carefully. Still, the game has an undeniable penchant for sexualizing female characters, even if you've chosen outfits that keep them more covered up than not. It also concludes with one final fiendish cliché: You and your band ultimately discover that your shifty manager, Lou, is actually—wait for it—the devil. And the contract you've signed with him? It's not just for business matters, it's for your souls. To win them back, you have to beat the devil at his own game in the final boss battle. (Cue up "The Devil Went Down to Georgia.")
The Most Powerful Game in Music?
If much, then, has remained the same between Guitar Hero I, II and III, what has changed is this franchise's scope and influence. Its popularity continues to reverberate and expand. Guitar Hero III has outpaced both football powerhouse Madden NFL 08 and even the shooter-deluxe Halo 3. That success is partly owed to downloadable tracks that elongate shelf life, an elaborate interactive Web site and online competitions that push the game out of the family room and onto the global stage. (Among other things, unfortunately, players at guitarhero.com compete for groupies: "You're not a real rocker until you have groupies!" the site declares.)
The Guitar Hero phenomena is one that, by definition, introduces players to music they may never have heard before. In a recent Guitar World interview with Slash, the magazine's reporter observed that there aren't very many places a 10-year-old is going to hear Foghat's "Slow Ride." Slash agreed. "Exactly. So that's cool. A lot of people have been asking, 'Is this the new wave of how people are going to be exposed to music?' I thought that was sort of like a joke question when I first heard it. But I'm starting to realize that, given the current state of the music business, it might be. Because the kids are into it, and the possibilities are endless in terms of what you can expose them to through this medium."
Any way you slice it, Slash's assessment is right on the money. Before DragonForce's "Through the Fire and the Flames" was included as a bonus track on Guitar Hero III, it was selling about 2,000 digital downloads weekly. Afterwards, it peaked at 37,825. Jonas Nachsin, president of DragonForce's label, Roadrunner Records, commented, "There has been a steady buzz on the band, and you could feel their star rising. Then [Guitar Hero III] hit, and it catapulted [them] to an entirely new level." When songs from Guitar Hero II are factored in as well, bands such as Cheap Trick, Kiss, Metallica, Muse, The Pretenders, Killswitch Engage, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Slipknot have all enjoyed big spikes in popularity.
Rich Williams, guitarist for the classic rock band Kansas, notes another venue where the game seems to be having an influence: live concerts. After Guitar Hero II's release, which included the band's signature hit "Carry on Wayward Son," Williams said, "The front row of almost every show we did was filled with young teenagers. It's all due to [the game]. It's brought us a whole new fan base, [and] brought a young crowd to us that otherwise might not have come in."
So we'll end where we began. Going to see Kansas perform live because you fell in love with "Wayward Son" is one thing. Burning up the wee hours of the night jamming to Metallica and Iron Maiden are quite another. Wanna swing your ax with the best of 'em without compromising what you believe in? Then pick your songs and your costumes—and your exit strategy—wisely.