I've spent so much time playing "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero" over the last five years that, by now, I ought to be able to give Eric Clapton a run for his money.
That's what I thought, at least, before tackling "Rock Band 3" (MTV Games, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, $59.99). Yes, I can still pretend I'm a rock star by strapping on the familiar plastic guitar and jamming along with Jimi Hendrix's greatest hits. But "RB3" also features a much more demanding Pro mode, and mastering "Crosstown Traffic" is suddenly a lot tougher.
Those who aspire to true guitar godhood will need to invest an extra $150 for Mad Catz Inc.'s Pro Guitar peripheral, a solid piece of equipment with electronic frets and actual strings. For gamers who really want to learn how to play, "Rock Band 3" includes an exhaustive tutorial; after a weekend I was able to pull off a passable version of Joan Jett's "I Love Rock and Roll."
Mad Catz has also developed an $80 keyboard for "Rock Band 3," and it adds a whole new dimension to group play. Casual ivory-ticklers can play along using just five keys; Elton John wannabes can learn to use all 25. The set list includes piano-heavy acts like The Doors and Yes, and you can liven up all your old downloaded tracks by playing the guitar or bass parts on the keyboard.
"Rock Band 3" is the kind of classy production we've come to expect from developer Harmonix. It's great for people who just want to have fun at parties, and for those who seriously want to learn musical skills. Four stars out of four.
In contrast, "Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock" (Activision, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, $59.99) shows the rhythm-game genre at its worst. After too many sequels and spinoffs, Activision has drained all the spark from the "GH" franchise, and the metal-heavy set list of "Warriors" is one of the least imaginative in the series' history.
The major addition is the Quest mode, a tired fantasy in which you and your bandmates conquer evil with the power of rock. It's nowhere near as rewarding as the career mode in "Rock Band," and the narration by insufferable Kiss frontman Gene Simmons makes it almost unbearable. One star.
Activision hasn't yet exhausted its second rhythm-game series, so "DJ Hero 2" (for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, $59.99) still feels innovative. The big question remains: Do video-game players really want to emulate turntable wizards like David Guetta and RZA, just as their parents played air guitar to Pete Townshend and Jimmy Page?
Judging from the middling sales of last year's "DJ Hero," I'd guess not. But that doesn't stop "DJ Hero 2" from being entertaining, and its hip-hop-heavy set list is certainly more up-to-date than those in the guitar-based games. The mix ranges from chart-toppers like Lady Gaga, Eminem and Lil Wayne to old-school legends like Kool and the Gang and Chic.
The essential gear is a faux turntable, which you can spin to create scratching effects, with a cross-fader that allows you to switch between two songs. (If you don't own the turntable, it'll cost you another $30.) You score points by timing your actions to match on-screen cues, but "DJ Hero 2" does introduce some freestyle scratching and mixing sequences.
A second turntable brings a competitive element to the party, and you can also plug in a microphone and sing along. "DJ Hero 2" won't turn your living room into a sweaty Ibiza nightclub, but it will get you on your feet. Three stars.