Version tested: Xbox 360
There was a time when almost no one cared about appearing in Guitar Hero. Record industry types would seek clarification: "So, the kids play along with our artist's music on a Fisher Price plastic guitar?" Then they'd politely decline the offer, toddling off to snort the last of their terminally ill industry's profits.
But by the time Rock Band rolled around, every band, manager, song publisher and industry-head was smashing down Harmonix's gates for the opportunity to be in the game. Everyone wanted a stake in this brave new interactive musical world where profits went up, not down, and where piracy was virtually impossible.
And yet despite the meteoric rise of rhythm-action, Metallica - those Luddite, Napster-killing metal-heads - remained not only disinterested, but positively hostile to the idea of their music being cheapened by a videogame. They blocked offers from all of the music-game makers, denying teenagers across the globe the chance to spandex up and role-play Lars Ulrich.
We don't know what it took to change the band's tinnitus-addled minds. A generous royalty offer perhaps, or maybe just the sight of their bank manager stabbing his finger furiously into some imbalanced books. Whatever the reason, the worm has turned and the Thing That Should Not Be has become a reality: a special edition release of Guitar Hero featuring 28 of Metallica's songs alongside another 20-odd guest acts "hand-picked" as influences by the band.
The set-list collects material from across the band's history, from their first recorded song, "Hit the Lights", right up to "All Nightmare Long" from 2008's critically divisive Death Magnetic. Songs are drawn evenly from across the group's career, catering as much to fans who prefer their thrash beginnings as those who first fell for their most commercially successful record, 1991's Black album (all of whose singles are present and correct).
Career Mode, as ever the heart of the Guitar Hero experience, starts with a recreation of a contemporary Metallica live show, showing the band's dramatic entrance with "The God, The Bad and The Ugly", going straight into the sucker-punch that is "For Whom the Bell Tolls", and then segueing into "The Unforgiven", the band's film-tribute inverse ballad.
It's a stylish opening, benefitting greatly from aping the Metallica live show visuals, which, despite the music's bombast, are generally far more tasteful and impactful in terms of lighting and stage design than Guitar Hero's traditional cod-rock aesthetic. From here, rather than just continuing on through a live show, the game introduces a story, casting you as a member of the crowd who's so inspired by the performance that they decide to start a Metallica tribute band.
Career progression is handled in the traditional list format, although now you only need to collect a certain number of stars to unlock the next venue (and its attached new songs) rather than completing all of the songs in a grouping. For competent players who routinely earn a five-star rating during a single song, this makes the job of unlocking the full set-list swift and easy, and is a good decision on the part of Neversoft (a full list of the songs included on the disc can be found on Wikipedia).
The venues, which include London's Hammersmith Odeon and Los Angeles' Forum, have all been chosen as sites of legendary Metallica concerts and, as they're based on real-life locations, dodge the Spinal Tap-esque ambiance to which Guitar Hero's stages are usually submitted. But despite the fact the band themselves provided mo-cap for the game, the characters still have that ungainly, cartoonish feel, which sits slightly at odds with the slick, serious presentation elsewhere.
We're not here to review Metallica's music for you, but there are characteristics and traits that are significant from a gameplay perspective. By definition, the more notes in a rhythm-action game song, and the faster those notes come, the more interesting and challenging that song will be to play along with, which is in contrast to music for music's sake, where space and silence are just as important. System of a Down are always going to be more suitable for gameplay than an ambient act like, say, Stars of the Lid. In that sense, not all music is suitable for music games, at least music games in the Guitar Freaks mould.
For Metallica, however, this quirk is a resounding positive. The band's heavy, thick-layered rhythms and machinegun-fire downstrokes provide interesting, appealing level designs. Indeed, Neversoft has done its best work yet extrapolating these across various difficulty levels. At the easiest levels, beginners will be able to happily join in with "Enter Sandman" and "Nothing Else Matters", while seasoned experts will find most songs in the game a consistent challenge at Expert level. For drummers, there's even an "Expert +" mode for those who like their difficulty to go to eleven by trying their feet at double bass pedalling (although as a splitter is required for this we were unable to test it).
The standard Guitar Hero: World Tour features are all included too, so players get full access to the Music Studio, where they can compose their own pieces, as well as the full band multiplayer capability. However, the only compatible downloadable content is Metallica's own Death Magnetic tracks, so if you want to play content you've previously purchased from the Guitar Hero store then you'll have you put your World Tour disc back in for access - a shortcoming offset somewhat by the fan service, which bundles multiple pieces of band and song trivia, exclusive videos and behind-the-scenes making-of documentaries in amongst the gameplay.
Much has been written (and filmed) about the Metallica of today, a band of men approaching their fifties who still play the music of their teens and twenties. Their output is precision-designed to appeal to adolescents because, in a great many cases, it was created by them. Its themes revolve around identity, anger and violence, while its heavy, palm-muted chugging rhythms and screaming pinched harmonics are the soundtrack of young men's alienation.
But beneath the scream and riot there's a mathematical reality that simply makes for really good videogame levels. For players able to appreciate the music for the gameplay it facilitates, this is a worthwhile buy. And for fans of the band, who it's primarily aimed at, Guitar Hero: Metallica is nothing less than a stunning 'Best Of' compilation, and one that sets the benchmark for artist-specific Guitar Hero and Rock Band releases of the future.
8 / 10