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Review: Can heavy metal buoy music games’ sinking popularity?

I can pinpoint the exact moment that Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock transforms from amusing heavy metal camp into a nasty case of empathetic embarrassment.

It's not Gene Simmons doing his best impression of a wise old native-American chief as he narrates the game's corny story about an epic fight between fantasy head bangers and a rock 'n' roll-loathing beast. It's not even when our hard-rock heroes begin transforming from stylized musicians into headless, reptilian and winged monsters in order to better wage musical war against the creature.

No, it's when the original members of Rush awkwardly recite the story of 2112, the band's famous seven-part dystopian rock suite in which a man living in an Ayn Rand-inspired dictatorship marked by bland music finds an ancient guitar and discovers its sweet sound only to have it ripped away from him by government priests. The amateurish, discomforting sincerity with which Geddy Lee and his mates deliver their clichéd tale forces one to wonder: Have music games really come to this?

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After experiencing a swift and massive swell in sales, rock simulators have plummeted in popularity over the last couple of years, likely because players realized that the only thing separating each game from the last was a new coat of digital paint and some fresh songs.

Now publisher Activision and developer Neversoft seem to be grasping at straws, trying to save their once-mighty Guitar Hero franchise. Rather than make any effort to innovate, they have left the series' core mechanics unchanged and simply disguised its aging career mode – which usually has players working through a series of venues – as a journey through a hellish, Brütal Legend-esque musical realm.

  • Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PlayStation 3, Wii The good: Music mechanics are familiar and accessible, if a little long in the tooth. Gene Simmons proves an enjoyable, deep-voiced narrator. The bad: Campy “Quest” mode is merely a standard career covered by a thin coat of heavy metal fantasy paint. Special hero abilities do little more than artificially enhance scores. 90-song track list is bogged down by an overabundance of aggressively heavy tracks performed by relatively unknown artists. The verdict: Like a band past its prime, Activision’s set-in-its ways rock franchise continues its slow slide out of the limelight.

They've also incorporated special powers unique to each of our rock-star protagonists, such as the ability to shield against mistakes to preserve note streaks and earn bigger point multipliers. However, these abilities do little more than artificially inflate one's score. They're hardly satisfying.

All of this might be forgiven had the music been consistently fun to play, but it's not. While there are crowd-pleasers such as Neil Young's Rockin' in the Free World, Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody and Muse's Uprising, all too often sets are dominated by extremely heavy rock that mainstream players won't even recognize, much less appreciate. My wife, the singer in our little fake band, simply refused to participate when confronted by a selection of nothing but inaccessibly harsh metal from bands like Dethlok, Five Finger Death Punch, and Strung Out.

We spent most of our time in Quickplay mode, which lacks any substantial objectives but at least allowed us to pick and choose the tracks we most enjoyed.

Sadly, this latest Guitar Hero will do little to arrest the quick descent of the rock simulator. Here's hoping the-soon-to-be-released Rock Band 3, which is slated to offer such innovations as a keyboard controller and a "pro" mode that more accurately emulates playing a real instrument, will do a better job of resuscitating the genre.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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