Review: Guitar Hero: Metallica (Xbox 360)

The Ecstasy of Gold

When the biggest name in music gaming dedicates an entire game to the most popular thrash metal band of all time, there’s not much need for introductions. (After all, we just covered the demo a couple weeks ago!) Just about everyone with a pulse has played one of the billions of Guitar Hero games by now, and Metallica has been an institution in popular music for more than 25 years. Say what you will about the Grammy Awards, but you don’t win nine of them without developing a sizable following.

Remember, this is the second time Neversoft has tapped a musical juggernaut to star in a game. However, Guitar Hero: Metallica comes a year after Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, and it benefits from being built on top of the newer Guitar Hero World Tour engine. While Neversoft demonstrates that it is capable of improving upon past failures — and really, this is the best Guitar Hero game they’ve made yet — this latest Guitar Hero iteration, just like every Neversoft-developed game in the franchise, is packed with ambition but stunted in delivery.

Just like any other creative work, a game should ultimately be judged on its own merits — how it plays, whether it’s any fun, and so on. But before I can begin to offer my personal impressions and opinion on Guitar Hero: Metallica, it’s absolutely essential to recognize the critical and financial success of both Guitar Hero and Metallica. With the Guitar Hero franchise boasting sales at well over $1bn and five of Metallica’s new releases shooting immediately into the #1 Billboard spot, there’s just no denying their success. A hell of a lot of people just eat these brands up.

Give Me Fuel, Give Me Fire

For better or worse, Guitar Hero: Metallica contains the same gameplay elements of its predecessor, Guitar Hero World Tour. Strumming on top of sustain notes, open notes on the bass, the often-infuriating tapping/sliding mechanic — they’re all back, and they’re all functionally identical. Really, the only significant changes reside in the game’s interface and the drum kit.

Full-band gameplay. Image courtesy of Destructoid

Full-band gameplay. Image courtesy of Destructoid

The folks at Neversoft took a couple ideas from series-founder Harmonix in the user interface category, and the results are largely pleasing. In addition to the star power meter and score/note streak counters, Guitar Hero: Metallica features a star counter. Stars offer a general analysis of how well you performed, on a scale of one to five stars. This has been the standard scoring mechanism since the first Guitar Hero, and Rock Band 1 and 2 have both featured a star meter that builds as your score increases as you play a song. It’s a nice indicator of general song performance, and it complements the more hardcore-oriented streak counter — a Neversoft innovation for the series — very nicely.

Those who were giddy beyond expression at the announcement of Guitar Hero: Metallica and rushed out to pre-order the game from Gamestop were rewarded with an additional kick drum pedal and a connector to hook it up to their existing World Tour kit. Yes, double-bass drumming has finally come to rhythm gaming in the form of Expert + difficulty. Basically, it’s the same as Expert, except every single kick pedal note is charted. See all those purple bars in the middle column in the picture above? They indicate bass drum hits. Expert + is definitely not for the faint of heart.

While wholly unnecessary and out of place in most genres of music, having two bass pedals feels right at home in a game that features metal music almost exclusively. Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich is infamous for his swift, thundering beats, which proved too difficult for even the hardest of the hardcore in Rock Band and Guitar Hero. Previously, both games had opted to include a reduced number of bass notes to compensate for their decision to include one foot pedal with their drum kits — and to prevent countless potentially hilarious leg injuries. However, Neversoft saw this game as a chance to offer more authentic drum charting, and it ends up being a cool option for challenge-seekers.

Nothing Else Matters

Since adopting the Guitar Hero series, Neversoft has “hardened” the image of the game. While to some this is an improvement, to me it looks like a pale imitation of its former glory. Clever character designs with subtle real-life inspirations became blatant, hyper-sexualized stereotypes; witty loading screen quips were replaced by smarmy, idiotic would-be rockisms; the user interface went from functional to baffling (six lights are used to represent the four quarters of the star power meter…and only three are initially visible. Really, guys?)

Despite modest improvements over time, the interface still lags significantly behind the sleek, hip and — most importantly — legible Rock Band presentation. The set list is almost as horrendously cluttered and hard-to-read as World Tour’s. Customizing musicians, logos and tattoos just isn’t as inspired or intuitive as in Rock Band, and the whole customization element comes off as tacked-on. It’s true that this entire feature set was copied and pasted from World Tour, but the same criticism applied then as well. In all, the presentation can be described like the majority of the features in Guitar Hero: wide-ranging, but barely passable.

But it’s not all bad. In fact, Neversoft has done a first-rate job of bringing the band members of Metallica to life. The band members participated in motion capture sessions specifically for the game, and the detail is leaps and bounds better than the animations in Guitar Hero: Aerosmith. Animations are fluid and convincing, and lead singer James Hetfield’s vocals are punctuated with flecks of spit and accordingly violent or subtle movements depending on the energy of the song. I even laughed when the virtual Hetfield closed one eye and glared menacingly at the camera while singing “sleep with one eye open/clutching your pillow tight.” Hetfield even has an animation for swapping guitars between songs during the game’s introductory sequence, which deserves praise for setting the game’s tone flawlessly by having the band enter the stage to Ennio Morricone’s “The Ecstasy of Gold” from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and immediately thrusts the player into the role of playing as Metallica right off the bat. For a virtual recreation of a band, Neversoft really did an impressive job bringing Metallica to life.

…And Justice For All

It’s a shame, then, that the multiplayer component seems so stripped of energy. Guitar Hero World Tour was plagued with a host of deficiencies when it comes to playing over the Internet: matchmaking was a grueling, interminable process that often resulted in no games being found, particularly for full band play; song choices were determined by random rotation, rather than the host choosing first; difficulty levels MUST be chosen before matchmaking begins, not during song selection, and picking between guitar and bass is a guessing game at best. All these poor design choices added up to an excruciating online experience that was handled much more gracefully in Rock Band, which came out nearly 12 months prior. Surely Neversoft had enough time between March 2009 and November 2008 to at least create a carbon copy of Rock Band’s online matchmaking, or maybe even create a full band career mode that’s playable online?

Nope. Guitar Hero: Metallica features the exact same multiplayer component, complete with all the same crippling problems as before. Very few of the game’s reviews I’ve read even mention the multiplayer component at all, and none with any real detail, so let me do you a favor and be as blunt as possible: Do not get this game with the expectation of having any fun with its online modes.

Finally, there are a few bonus features that are great in principle but lacking in execution. To be fair, some inclusions are excellent. For instance, every song has viewable lyrics that can be read while listening to the track, and the Metallica songs even include a feature called Metallifacts. If you remember Pop-Up Video from the ’90s, you’ll love this feature…at first. Metallifacts consists of the game playing itself in the background while song-specific factoids pop up every so often. It’s great at first, until you start to see the same fact again…and again. Metallica’s songs are lengthy, sure, but when a band has such a strong following and a quarter of a century of history, this feature sure could have been fleshed out more fully. The included videos shot at live performances give a cool, real-world perspective on the band, but they’re going to appeal to Metallica fans only.

And really, that’s the truth about this game. Unless you’re a hardcore Guitar Hero fan or a hardcore Metallica fan, you’re not going to find much to keep coming back to in Guitar Hero: Metallica. It’s definitely worth a rental for anyone looking for a solid challenge, but with a mostly lacking array of supporting artists (Lynyrd Skynyrd and Queen are real standout additions, however) and very little potential longevity through online play or DLC, this is a game that’s worth $60 to only the most dedicated of fans.

Recommended for:

  • Metallica fans
  • Rhythm game devotees who crave long, noodling solos, heavy bass lines and hard-hitting drum beats

Not Recommended for:

  • Anyone expecting a functional set of multiplayer modes — matchmaking is just as broken as in Guitar Hero World Tour, and many of the design choices are baffling and frustrating
  • Gamers in search of a fun, accessible game to have friends over to play
  • Consumers who expect budget-conscious features like exportable songs and cross-compatibility of downloadable songs with Guitar Hero World Tour
  • Gamers expecting the immense longevity of a game like Rock Band 2 — there’s no new content on the horizon for GH:M

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