Guitar Hero: Metallica

Nothing says more about the difference between the Guitar Hero and Rock Band music game series than their choices for bands to build standalone games around. This fall, MTV games is releasing Rock Band: The Beatles, featuring last century’s most iconic pop rock band. The tightly written songs, wonderful catchy melodies and gorgeous vocal harmonies fit right into Rock Band‘s strategy of being the crowd friendly party game — the kind of party that you could invite your non-gamer friends to. Who doesn’t relish the idea of shouting out the chorus to “Hey Jude” with a roomful of people?

Guitar Hero is a completely different tale. Ever since Neversoft took over the franchise, the developer has positioned the series as the choice for the hardcore music gamers out there. The type that constantly practice their favorite song alone to get a five star rating and upload YouTube videos of themselves getting carpal tunnel syndrome trying to perfect Dragonforce’s “Through the Fire and Flames” on Expert in Guitar Hero III.

With that in mind, Guitar Hero and Metallica seem like a match made in heaven. The masters of heavy guitar-based thrash pairs well with Neversoft’s fake plastic instrument games, which often emphasize virtuosity over sheer “tunesmanship.” We’re talking here about intense six and seven minute long songs, James Hetfield’s growling vocals, brutal drum fills, and guitar solos so complex that even vets will struggle with some songs on the medium difficulty.

So the bottom line is: unless you’re the kind of person who carpools to Ozzfest, has a social circle that dresses all in black and has a fondness for Slayer’s “Reign in Blood” — chances are you’re not going to have a big Guitar Hero: Metallica party. And let’s face it, this is especially true if you want girls to come. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Guitar Hero: Metallica certainly holds up on its own merits and is leaps and bounds better than last year’s Aerosmith edition.

Metallica is the first edition to make use of World Tour’s template, letting players sing (or scream as often is the case here) or play drums as well as play drums and bass. This seems pretty much the standard in music games and it’s hard to imagine anyone going back to the days of restricting you to a guitar only.

The song list here is stellar if you’re the type who likes their coffee and rock ‘n roll black and heavy. The game boasts 49 songs split between guest acts handpicked by Metallica and the metal gods themselves. Hardcore Metallica fans will likely quibble about the exclusion of this or that favorite song, (“Blackened” and “…And Justice For All” are the biggest holes in the track list, but that’s likely because they are a part of Rock Band‘s downloadable content) but most of the best are here. There are at least a few songs from each album spanning from the 1983 LP Kill ‘Em All to tracks from last fall’s Death Magnetic (note: the entire Death Magnetic album can be downloaded from the music store and can be played through the game).

The most wisely chosen songs are from Metallica’s peak — from the albums Master of Puppets and the so-called “Black Album.” Hits like “One” and “Enter Sandman” are certainly fun to play, but old school Metallica is where some of the greatest challenges come from. “Seek and Destroy” might destroy your fingers or vocal chords and “Fight Fire With Fire” could very well set your joints on fire. That’s not even counting the borderline ridiculous Expert+ difficulty, which lets you recreate drummer’s Lars Ulrich’s machine gun blast beats if you manage to get your hands on a splitter and two bass pedals. The guest act songs here are also good, if a bit unexpected. It’s a bit like the songs are from Metallica’s mix tape to show how cool they are. For instance, we get a Samhain song instead of the Misfits or Glen Danzig, and they selected a Kyuss song instead of Josh Homme’s much more famous current band Queens of the Stone Age (though Kyuss really is an amazing band).

Though visual presentation always feels like the icing on the cake for music games, Neversoft has nonetheless improved the visuals from past titles. Extensive motion capture sessions with the band (which can be viewed in the game’s bonus videos) have yielded plenty of realistic animations and dramatic, 360-degree camera angles. There are also concert halls and arenas based on the band’s real-life tours featured in vivid detail, though the show that takes place in some sort of demonic ice cave in Antarctica is probably fictional.

Instead of the gig-based progression from World Tour, you’ll find something closer to the first two titles’ tier-based system where advancement is determined by how many stars that you earn. Technically, I actually “finished” the game after having only played through less than half of the songs, so there’s a lot of freedom in the career mode. You’ll probably want to play through every song at some point, though, just to get all the unlockables, which include signature instruments, amusing bonus videos, and most impressively something like a VH1 Pop-Up Video look at each song including interesting behind-the-scenes facts about each.

Still though, despite the polish of Guitar Hero: Metallica and the quality source material, it is still hard to get too excited about paying $60 for the game unless you love the band or are a fake plastic instrument junkie. As I stated in my review for Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, I still think that fans would be best served by releasing Guitar Hero: Metallica as either a budget priced expansion pack to World Tour or as downloadable content on Xbox Live or the Playstation Network. The other approach could have been to take the “Play Metallica’s Career” idea much further and turned it into a Guitar Hero role-playing game where you could set up practice spaces, hire a manager, make an embarrassing documentary, and publicly fight against college kids downloading your music off the internet. OK, maybe not that last part.

As it is, pick up Guitar Hero: Metallica immediately for a truly face-melting experience.

RATING 7 / 10