If you want a good example of the incredible growth the Guitar Hero series has undergone since its 2005 debut, last year's Guitar Hero: Aerosmith is a great place to start. It's hard to tell who exactly the headliner was in that show: the phenomenally successful band that's been around for nearly 40 years or the phenomenally successful video game franchise that's existed for a 10th of that time. No matter the answer, the formula must have worked, because Activision will soon be releasing a similar spin-off in the form of Guitar Hero: Metallica. Besides the obvious switch from bluesy hard rock to heavy metal, Guitar Hero: Metallica will differ from its predecessor by supporting the full suite of instruments bundled with Guitar Hero: World Tour while also cranking up the level of fan service packed into the game. Just yesterday, some members of the Neversoft development team dropped by the GameSpot office to give us a look at what to expect out of the final release.
The challenge that exists in creating a music game dedicated to such a massive artist is the sense of progression in the game's Career mode. After all, when you're already on top of the world, there's not a lot of vertical growth left to achieve. Neversoft's solution to this will be to replace the documentary-style approach of the Aerosmith game--which took you on a chronological journey of the band's greatest hits--with a fleshed-out storyline that puts you in the shoes of a garage band looking to achieve their dream of opening for Metallica. Animated interludes that play out between sets show a young collection of Metallica fans doing their best to win over the famous rockers, and the visual style is definitely in the rough and grungy aesthetic Guitar Hero fans are familiar with.
The progression of the game's Career mode will alternate between performances by Metallica--complete with eerily accurate character models for all four members--and performances by the upstart band featuring characters of your own creation. Metallica will be playing some of their hits, such as "Enter Sandman," "Master of Puppets," "No Leaf Clover," "The Unforgiven," and "Nothing Else Matters," alongside some lesser-known numbers, while your group will be covering the work of bands that are associated with Metallica in some way. Whether it's a group that played with Metallica, inspired them, or used them as a source of their own inspiration, there will be a wide variety of other bands' music available to you. A few examples are Bob Seger's "Turn the Page," Social Distortion's "Mommy's Little Monster," Mastadon's "Blood and Thunder," Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Tuesdays Gone," and Judas Priest's "Hell Bent for Leather"--plus an unnamed Queen song. Similarly, the venues you'll be playing in will be those taken from key moments in Metallica's career and will include the likes of the Los Angeles Forum, Hammersmith Apollo, and Tushino Airfield in Moscow.
Like the Aerosmith game before it, Guitar Hero: Metallica will have a lot of fan service for those who consider themselves big followers of the band--the only difference is that Metallica will have a lot more of it. As you progress through the game's songs, you'll unlock all sorts of bonus features, such as video of old live performances and behind-the-scenes footage at Neversoft, pictures such as backstage photos and setlists, and other audiovisual fragments of the band's history. One of the more interesting unlockables is something called "Metallifacts," which is a performance of each song in the game by the computer accompanied by pop-ups on the screen containing facts about each song. For example, if you didn't realize before that "For Whom the Bell Tolls" was inspired by James Hetfield's love for the work of Ernest Hemingway and represents one of the many examples of literary allusion in his songs, well, now you do. Further unlockables include details for each song, such as lyricist, producer, original recording date, and complete lyrics.
One thing that sets Metallica apart from a lot of bands featured in Guitar Hero games is the prominent use of double bass pedal in their drum work. For World Tour, Neversoft had to effectively cut the number of pedal strikes in half for a lot of songs on the expert difficulty level, at the risk of forcing players to upgrade their human feet into something a little more cyborg. Now they've introduced a new difficulty setting for drums called Expert+, which allows you to plug in a second kick pedal (using a splitter accessory) and play the songs with full pedals. We watched as a member of Neversoft played through one Metallica song on this setting, and at several points during the song his entire note highway was filled purple kick pedal notes. It made our feet hurt just looking at it. But you can take solace in the fact that this is a purely optional bonus setting for mildly insane drummers; normal players won't be required to drum with both pedals on the standard, beginner-to-expert difficulty levels.
This being Neversoft's second stab at the multi-instrument branch of rhythm games, it has had some time to see what works and doesn't work as far as the gameplay is concerned. What Neversoft has found is that it liked the way players mimicked songs, but there was some room for improvement in terms of how players could tell whether or not they were doing a good job of it. So Neversoft made a few small but noticeable changes to the game's heads-up display. Now your overall success gauge won't be tucked away in the upper left corner; it will be attached to each player's own note highway, so as to limit the distance your eyes need to travel between seeing which notes you're playing and seeing how well you're playing them. Another change has been made to the overall feedback system for how well you're doing as a band. If the entire group is at risk of failing a song, the edges of the screen will glow progressively redder, as you might see in a first-person shooter along the lines of Call of Duty.
One of the biggest features from Guitar Hero: World Tour, the music studio, will be available in the Metallica game. A few Metallica-specific guitar sounds have even been added, such as the ESP Truckster guitar tone. All the songs you make in the music studio here will be compatible with those made in World Tour's music studio, and vice versa. That's good news if you've created a discography's worth of Metallica-inspired tunes in the World Tour music studio and would love nothing more than to play them in Metallica's favorite venues using spot-on doppelgangers of the band. You'll have the chance to do that when the game is released this spring.