So, yes, this review is coming a day late and a dollar short. Game’s been out better than a month now, but I only recently acquired a copy and gave it a proper run-through. Most of this is because I was torn on what to do about purchasing it; whether to get the full bundle, etc. A friend who was unhappy with the game gave me his copy, rendering my dilemma moot.

In December of 2006, my sister attended a party at which she was introduced to the PS2 version of Guitar Hero and its just-released sequel, Guitar Hero II. She immediately got the game and began gushing to me about how great it was. I was uninterested in the game; as someone who’s played (albeit amateurish) guitar for the better part of 20 years, I believe I made some disparaging remarks about mucking around with a little fake plastic guitar. She insisted I try it, and within a song or two, my video game life changed completely.

I have played, and loved, basically every guitar rhythm game since. I immediately picked up Guitar Hero I and II for the PS2, and played them a whole hell of a lot – as a matter of fact, my newfound love kept me away from my brand-new PS3 much of the time (not that there was much worth playing on it those first few months, anyway). I became good enough to finish the first Guitar Hero on Expert, though it’s not something I’ve accomplished with any subsequent guitar games; not so much out of lack of ability, but unwillingness to do the practise and work for the most difficult songs (usually just the last 1 or 2 in the game, which I invariably dislike). The disappointing Guitar Hero: 80s, then Guitar Hero III – both for PS3 and, later, the 360. Then Rock Band (and later, Rock Band 2) came along and dominated my gaming life even more, largely because of my wife’s love for doing vocals. Even Guitar Hero: Aerosmith entered my collection, despite mixed reviews; and I enjoyed it well enough. Only the DS version has gone personally unplayed.

I say all this as preface to explain that I love these games, quite a lot, and consider myself very experienced in them and am reviewing this as someone who regularly attacks it on Expert difficulty most of the time. I have learnt the ins and outs of these games, their many tiny idiosyncrasies. And I hate to say that, without a doubt, Neversoft is completely destroying this beloved franchise beyond recognition.

It really started with GH3. The boss battles (and the whole battle concept, honestly) were a horrible, horrible idea – frustrating, unpleasant to listen too, and the final battle against Lou was unreasonable in its difficulty. The note charts became blindingly difficult, but it became over-lax in your timing window, especially with hammer-ons and pull-offs. It created a game that felt sloppy, and you got the impression they were trying to make it so experienced players could wow the noobs as they saw them tear through these crazy note charts like on “Cult of Personality” with considerably less difficulty than the note charts in GH2 songs like “Jessica”. But GH3 still had a lot to love about it – a great setlist, sharp graphics, and a smooth, polished look and feel. GH:A, despite its limited subject matter, seemed a minor improvement in gameplay; the note charts became less unreasonable, the gameplay tightened up a little. So I had some high hopes for GHWT, that maybe Neversoft would pull it back on the rails.

My hopes were dashed almost immediately. The game looks and feels remarkably amateurish from the opening menus. The character models and venues look worse than GH3’s; some of the celebrity characters are downright creepy to look at. Why does Billy Corgan look like a skinny alien in a silver dress? Why do I see so much of the insides of the character’s mouths, with the inside of their cheeks the same colour as the outside? Sure, they added a character creator, but the characters all look pretty much the same anyway, and none of them look particularly good (at least Clive Winston is back). Product placement for everything from HMV to Kentucky Fried Chicken is rampant to an embarrassing degree, but they’ve dropped licensed guitar designs, leaving you to play with Tinkertoy-like bodies and guitar components to create your “custom” guitar. None of them approach the elegant lines and beauty of a classic Gibson or Fender, so who cares.

They chose to screw with the basic graphic design of the game, putting the multiplier counter as if its attached to the left side of the fretboard, where it’s difficult to see at the best of times, and distracting at the worse. Note charts and gameplay has gotten better in some areas, worse in others. The entire “slide” system is stupid beyond belief. The difficulty of playing Expert-level slide sections on a guitar without the new “slide pad” is completely unreasonable, hard to look at and see clearly. I feel like I’m being forced to upgrade my guitar, and based on what I’ve seen and felt with the new guitar, I have no interest. The only additions which seem a good idea are the “open-strum” bass note, which effectively adds a 6th button and makes things more interesting on bass; and the new notes that must be held while others are played higher on the fret board, making some songs feel more like they would on a real guitar. But these are minor good additions; they certainly aren’t worth the rest of the hassles that come along with it.

Vocals are just plain awful. I’m not that much of a vocalist myself, but I hated them compared to Rock Band’s, the only karaoke game I’m familiar with, and experienced gamer vocalists I know are even more unkind about them. I also disilke the drums, with no ability to do any freestyle filling and an awkward method of deploying star power; though, in fairness, I’ve only played on a Rock Band kit, which is one pad short of the full Guitar Hero kit, thus probably providing a different experience. As with switching to the slide on the GHWT guitar (or the soloing buttons on a RB guitar, which are completely optional, at least), it seems almost impossible to deploy star power on drums smoothly while maintaining your note streak.

The design of the setlists is supposedly revamped, but really it’s just the same old succession of increasingly difficult setlists in a variety of venues. Only now, there’s the annoying twist that until you’ve finished unlocking all the venues, you’re forced to play an entire 4-6 song setlist in a sitting. Boss battles are back, and they’re no better.

Last, we come to the real core of the problem; the music. While GHWT impresses off the bat with some sweet, fun tracks like “Band on the Run”, “The Joker”, “Santeria”, “Love Me Two Times”, and “Crazy Train”, there is an astonishing proliferation of utterly awful pop punk, emo and obscure European metal that it is almost torture getting through many of the higher setlists – and not always because of the difficulty. The “final” encore – the equivalent of “Free Bird” in GH2, or “One” in GH3 – is a System of a Down song that is one of the most irritating, jarring pieces of crap I’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter. And yeah, while such things are a matter of taste, at least if you hate “Free Bird”, it has an unquestionable place of status in guitar music; this POS is something few people will have heard on the radio (or anywhere else). Why they didn’t use something like “Purple Haze” is beyond me, as getting Jimi in the game was one of their few coups.

While there is still a lot of good music in the game, an absolutely shocking amount of it – well over a dozen of the best songs – are also in Rock Band 2, making it almost feel like they were trying to make people choose between one or the other. Generally, the same songs are more fun to play in Rock Band, with note charts that seem to be closer to how it would be played in the original. Their DLC is, of course, not backwards-compatible with GH2 or 3 DLC, though at least they’ve finally dropped their “buy the whole bundle or nothing” attitude. And the music creator is awkward and hard to use, though I’m sure a few specialists will love it; further, most of the “most popular” tracks I downloaded were pretty bad. It brings very little to the party.

There is no doubt, right now, that if you are looking to get into a music game, Harmonix has demonstrated with RB2 – a polished, fun experience with a widely varied and recognizable selection of music – that they’re the reason, and not Activision, that GH1 and GH2 were such great games. Neversoft is screwing up the franchise as surely as they eventually screwed up the Tony Hawk games with the TH:Underground series, and it even feels similar, like the “Extreme!” guys from Harold & Kumar are run amok. I’ll continue playing it for the fun of a few favourites like “Beautiful Disaster” – at least until I finish getting the achievements. Then, I think this may be the first Guitar Hero game I’ve ever played that’ll be getting traded in. Awful, awful game – just go buy Rock Band 2 instead.