Get ready to Ride the Lightning: The Guitar Hero Metallica demo is out

Like Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, but without Steven Tyler's gaping, Lovecraftian mouth.

Like Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, but without Steven Tyler's gaping, Lovecraftian mouth.

Color me disappointed. I was all ready to title this demo review “Sad but True: The Guitar Hero: Metallica demo is out,” thinking I’d cleverly turned a Metallica song title into a jab against the band’s very own game. But after playing through the handful of included songs, I’m writing this article with an unexpected humility. It’s definitely not for everyone, but Neversoft is slowly (and finally!) starting to breathe new life into a franchise that’s quickly beginning to show its age. 

I’ll be honest: I’ve been hard on Neversoft in the past. But frankly, they’ve deserved it. After all, it’s largely accepted that the once-brilliant Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater franchise has gone down the toilet, and Harmonix’s brilliant upstart franchise, Guitar Hero, suffered a significant drop-off in quality once Neversoft took the reins. The game’s mechanics only got messier with Guitar Hero: World Tour, which tried to replicate the successful formula of Rock Band and stumbled significantly in executing the full band gameplay mechanics. I’m unable to say whether you and your musician friends will encounter a friendlier experience when you jump into Guitar Hero: Metallica, but I can say with some confidence (and relief ) that the interface and presentation have been given a much-needed (albeit subtle) facelift.

When Neversoft added the note counter into the Guitar Hero III in-game interface, it was catering to the game’s hardcore fanbase in particular: the ScoreHero junkies who argue over optimal Star Power paths and other minutiae that can be leveraged to squeeze out every last point from the game. Released around the same time, Rock Band shied away from intensive stats tracking in favor of a new in-game display that indicated how many stars your band’s performance was earning in real-time. It was a subtle but useful indication of your band’s ability, and it did away with the suspense and frustration of waiting to the end of the song to find out you were just a few thousand points away from that last five-star score. That score indicator is now present on-screen in Guitar Hero: Metallica, along with the other score-optimizing accoutrements that have remained a staple of Guitar Hero. Rather than seem tacked-on, however, it’s actually more of a best-of-both-worlds type of situation. The interface is generally cleaner while also being more informative.

Another area the game had been struggling in — character animation — has been tuned up significantly. While you’ll still be able to create your own rockers or play as the same ones as in Guitar Hero: World Tour, digitized recreations of Metallica’s members appear on-stage when you play any of their songs. It’s clear thatNeversoft’s art team dedicated the majority of their time to making Metallica’s on-stage performances come alive, and they’ve succeeded marvelously. Lead singer James Hetfield’s lip syncing is impressive and easy to follow, and his singing is complemented by gestures (such as him holding a finger to his lips to shush the audience during a quiet segment, or spit flying from his mouth during a particularly thrashing chorus) that add greatly to the game’s characterization. Drumming and guitar playing animations are all motion-captured quite well, and they’re personalized enough to resemble the Metallica members’ play styles; in other words, they don’t just look like generic rocker dolls with Metallica’s faces spraypainted on.

Conspicuously absent from the demo was one of the hallmarks of Metallica’s music: Difficulty. Each of the demo’s four songs could be played on any setting between Beginner and Expert, but none of the demo’s songs will present a challenge to anyone who’s halfway decent at Guitar Hero. But it makes sense: When it comes to music games, metal is the one genre most closely associated with sprained wrists and shattered plastic.  The guys at Neversoft instead opted to include a couple of relatively simple (but enjoyable) classic Metallica songs, as well as a mellow Alice in Chains tune titled “No Excuses.” Good move.

But the most bizarre inclusion has to be Queen’s “Stone Cold Crazy,” which marks the triumphant return of Queen to the Guitar Hero/Rock Bandseries — conspicuously absent since a cover version of “Killer Queen” graced the very first Guitar Hero. Out of the full game’s 49 song tracklist, “Stone Cold Crazy” promises to be one of the most distinctive songs. It’s just a shame that vocalists eager to stretch their falsetto to the breaking point will have to pick up a game dedicated primarily to a metal band; unlike how the Rock Band Track Packs can be exported for play in Rock Band 1 and 2, Guitar Hero: Metallica’s songs can’t be exported from the disc to the hard drive in order to be played in Guitar Hero: World Tour.

This is a game that won’t have a hard time finding its target audience. If you like Guitar Hero or Metallica, this game is probably gonna be for you. None of the bonus features or
“History of Metallica” elements were present in the demo, but the game looks and plays solidly enough. Odds are it’ll be worth at least a rental to anyone who enjoys music games, but if the game delivers on its promise of delving deep into the band’s history and dynamics, it could make for a pretty solid purchase for any Metallica fans. Look for our full review when the game hits store shelves on March 29.