Review – Guitar Hero: Metallica

A FEW DAYS INTO ITS RELEASE, I feel like I’ve already gotten more than my money’s worth out of Guitar Hero: Metallica. Granted, I’m not the typical player: As of this writing, I’m sitting at 30th on ScoreHero’s Expert guitar leaderboards, and I’d be thrilled playing “Master of Puppets” and “Creeping Death” all day long. But if you’re a rhythm game fan who’s been looking forward to some heavy rock, GH: Metallica is probably the best release since Guitar Hero II, making some slight improvements over last fall’s Guitar Hero World Tour and offering much more content and better fan service than Activision’s last mid-year release, Guitar Hero: Aerosmith.

But there’s a flip side: If you’re not into harder rock in general, GH: Metallica has far more narrow appeal than the Rock Band games, which offer more diverse musical selections as well as tons of DLC. The band aspects of GH: Metallica are still sloppy compared to its main competitor, and the setlist steers it away from being the successful party game that Rock Band is. But as a game built around the music of Metallica, it’s an outstanding one filled with tons of content and extras  that hopefully will set the template for similar releases to come.

Hit the Lights

As always, it starts with the music. There are 49 songs total: 28 by Metallica, and 21 by other bands associated with Metallica over the years. There’s almost no questioning the Metallica song choices: almost all of Master of Puppets is here, as well as many other songs from the band’s pre-Black Album days. Even notable omissions like “And Justice for All” and “Ride that Lightnin,” aren’t so bad, since both have been available as DLC for Rock Band for well over a year. The non-Metallica songs are a decent lot, with classic rock like Queen and Thin Lizzy and newer selections like Mastodon and The Sword, but it’s easy to forget they’re even on the disc when confronted with so much Metallica content. If you bought the Death Magnetic DLC last year, it’ll also be imported into the game (sadly, no other World Tour DLC is compatible).

Maybe one of the smartest things Neversoft did with this latest Guitar Hero title was to remove almost every barrier to enjoying the music. There’s a career mode for every instrument, but rather than making players slog through every song and potentially get stuck on something like “Raining Blood,” the campaign lets you advance after playing only 2 or 3 songs in each tier. As a result, you can zip through almost any instrument campaign in under two hours, playing maybe 16-20 songs. If this isn’t forgiving enough, the entire Quickplay list is unlocked from the start, so no longer will you have to deal with parties where your friends haven’t unlocked all the songs.

The highlight by far is the solo guitar campaign: at times, it feels like some of Metallica’s songs were written just for Guitar Hero, and for any Metallica fan, songs like “Fade to Black,” “Creeping Death” and “Master of Puppets” are pure joy. The bass campaign is more challenging than players might expect, due to the “open note” added in the harder difficulties — bass is far from a watered-down version of the guitar part (like it usually is in Rock Band). The vocals have been tweaked slightly, but the continued lack of a meter to show you how well you’re doing during each phrase is hard to understand.  

Finally, there’s the drum campaign. As in Guitar Hero: World Tour, GHM supports both the 5-pad drum kit as well as the Rock Band 4-pad kit, with note charts automatically condensing. Personally, I’ve found the 5-note versions to be a little overwhelming, but I was still able to get through the Hard campaign with a GHWT kit without much trouble. There’s a new “Expert +” mode that allows you to add a second kick pedal to emulate the double-bass drums on many Metallica songs, but it’s not for the faint of heart — only top-notch drummers should even consider trying songs like “Dyers Eve” or “War Ensemble” with double-bass going.

One of the things that makes the single-player so much fun is the presentation: aside from the band character models looking eerily like their real-life counterparts, lots of the band’s little mannerisms have been ported into the game, like the way guitarist Kirk Hammett stalks around the stage or James Hetfield introduces specific songs. If you’ve never seen Metallica live, playing the game will give you a remarkably good idea what it’s like, which, considering the cartoony graphics we’ve gotten used to in these games, is something I never thought I’d see.

Sad but True

The biggest disappointment in Guitar Hero: Metallica is that the band play hasn’t gotten more of an overhaul from World Tour. That game’s biggest problem was an unintuitive band interface, where players often had a hard time figuring out what was going on. Star Power is still shared by the entire band and represented by a meter in the upper left, which is hard to look at when you’re focused on your own note chart. Some small tweaks were made, such as showing rock meters for each player and making it more obvious when the band is in danger of failing, but it still feels confusing and unfriendly.

Other interface tweaks hamper the game as well. The note charts are shrunk considerably from the single-player layout, which cuts down reaction time and inherently the multiplayer charts harder to play. The Quickplay screen is still a mess, and continues to exhibit one of the dumbest things you’ll see in any game: it doesn’t show how the list is currently sorted, only what the NEXT sort option is. This was brain-dead enough in World Tour; the fact that it still exists in GH: Metallica suggests Neversoft still has some stuff to get a grasp on.

The usual batch of head-to-head multiplayer modes return in Guitar Hero: Metallica, including Face-Off, Pro Face-off and Battle Mode. You can play 1v1 or even as a full band, and the slew of Metallica content will inevitably attract more competitive players. In yet another confusing move, the Career menus only show star ratings and no scores whatsoever, which only gets more bizarre when you consider that the leaderboards are based solely on scores you get in Career mode, ignoring Quickplay altogether.

Fade To Black

Ultimately, these are small glitches in what’s otherwise a stellar release. As a single-player game, I’ve waited years to play many of these songs, and Metallica fans of all skill levels will have a field day with the game, especially with all the cool extras strewn about. There’s a part of me that’s disappointed that the band play and interface aren’t more polished, but somehow, getting to play through “Disposable Heroes” makes it all OK.

Score: 9/10
Great song selection; abbreviated career lets you skip to the songs you want; lots of nice extras for Metallifans.
Cons: Weird interface issues remain from GHWT; full-band play is still underwhelming and confusing; heavy metal focus narrows the game’s appeal.