I can play the guitar. Like, in real life (remember that?). But I can't play Guitar Hero: Metallica. Well, at least not yet. And that's because it's rock (ha!) hard. Absolutely. Rocking. Hard.
As I found out during a recent hands-on session with the game, due out on Xbox 360, PS3, Wii and PS2 this spring. For the medium difficulty on Guitar Hero proper, see easy on Guitar Hero: Metallica. This one's for rockers. This one's for Metallica fans. This one's for true Guitar Heroes.
Quite simply, Guitar Hero: Metallica is the most hardcore Guitar Hero yet. This shouldn't be a surprise. A lot of the band's back catalogue is serious thrash metal. Thrash metal is hard to do in real life. It's hard to do in Guitar Hero. We're not talking about "Wonderwall" by Oasis here. We're talking about "War Ensemble" by Slayer.
Which is a track an Activision representative is getting absolutely brutalised by on the new Expert+ difficulty, right in front of me. He's on the drums, the most lifelike instrument Guitar Hero has. He's no mug, either. He's actually really good, normally. But this is no normal Guitar Hero track. This is monstrous. The little coloured circles are flying down the screen like laser beams from a Gatling gun of the future. On the right hand side of the fretboard the new star progression meter, designed to give you a real-time idea of how close you are to nailing that perfect five star performance, is screaming in pain. Just keeping up would require the hand-eye coordination of, I don't know, D.A.R.Y.L.. To actually nail every note perfectly, well, you'd have to be DATA.
Slayer's "War Ensemble" is probably the hardest track on GH:M, and, to be fair, he was on Expert+. This is as difficult as the Guitar Hero challenge gets. It won't be like this all the way through. You won't need the skills of an actual musician to get any pleasure out of the game. But you will need skills of some description, and that's just how we imagine Metallica fans, who, let's face it, will be most interested in the game, want it.
GH:M will actually be the second band-focused Guitar Hero game, following Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, a game that, let's be honest, didn't exactly scream "the band gets it". Here though you really do get a sense that the band understand what the game is about. GH:M is based on Guitar Hero World Tour, so will support lead and bass guitar, drums and vocals, but Neversoft will release a splitter for the bass drum pedal that will allow players to use two pedals to attempt to recreate the double bass kicks thrash metal is known for. I can feel my ankles burning already.
Story's not the point with Guitar Hero, of course, but there's some nonetheless, via the career mode. The game begins with a gift - you're allowed to play as Metallica themselves, before switching to a wet behind the ears tribute band called 'Tallica Junior. Luckily, Metallica are auditioning for a support act. A by the numbers rock band strolls up outside a stadium. Things look bleak until 'Tallica Junior rock up in a van and bust out some riffs there and then. James Hetfield looks happy. You're in.
The career mode has been tweaked so that new venues are opened up once you have enough stars, and not once you've completed every song in a set. To get new stars you can return to songs you've already played, thus avoiding the problem of hitting a brick wall once a particular track in a particular set gets the best of you. As before you can create a rock star, but this time there are options to make you look a little more... well, Metallica. Indeed the old pre-set favourites return with a Metallica thrash metal look. Black is the way forward. And, as you'd expect, earn enough cash and you'll unlock members of the band themselves.
Subtle but important touches have been added in order to make the game feel a bit more down and dirty compared with previous Guitar Hero games. The graphics have a darker, gritty sheen, and during songs proceedings will turn black and white for effect. Metallica walk on stage in a slow motion, Reservoir Dogs fashion. During songs new dynamic camera angles add to the excitement. Groupies will dart on stage and hand James different guitars before the beginning of certain songs. The goal has clearly been to capture that live Metallica atmosphere. From what I've played Neversoft has done a pretty good job of that.
You'd be forgiven for thinking, why should I buy GH:M if I've already got GH: World Tour? You might even be thinking, well I'm not that into Metallica, why should I bother? There's a couple of reasons. One) the game offers the hardest GH challenge out there, so if you've mastered every track on World Tour, you'll find your drumming and strumming skills seriously tested here. Two) there's more to Metallica than Metallica. Of the 45 songs included on the disc 21 are from artists that have inspired the band, including Alice in Chains, Thin Lizzy, King Diamond and Motorhead (Lemmy's been motion captured for Ace of Spades). If you're thinking 45 songs is a bit light, remember this: Metallica aren't really into happy happy joy joy two minute pop songs - some of these tracks are eight minute epics.
Clearly, then, Guitar Hero: Metallica is shaping up to be one for the fans. And not only Guitar Hero fans, or even rock fans in general, but Metallica fans. There's unlockable never before seen concert footage to enjoy, as well as video clips showing the band soldiering through the trials and tribulations of motion capture. In Performance mode you'll be able to watch the songs, music video style, and get snippets of trivia at the same time. Every song is an original master, too, so there won't be any dodgy cover versions recorded from inside someone's garage. And, get this, there's even a Soundboard, where you can hit notes to trigger recordings of James Hetfield screaming things to the crowd. Pointless, but fun.
Activision's Hero series is spiralling off into a million different directions it seems, each aiming to provide music-based pleasure to a different type of gamer. It's getting difficult to keep up and be sure that what you're buying isn't simply the same game as the last one with a few new tracks thrown in for good measure. From what I've seen GH:M isn't going to revolutionise the Guitar Hero experience, but it will provide a distinctly hardcore experience that Metallica fans, and Guitar Hero purists, are sure to enjoy.
Guitar Hero: Metallica is due out in early May.