Battle of the Bands: 'Guitar Hero III' vs. 'Rock Band'

These aren't good times to be a rock 'n' roll fan.

There isn't even one rock song among Billboard's top 10 singles. Rock radio stations are vanishing at an alarming clip. The most popular rock band in the country is Daughtry.

Nonetheless, kids all over the world are picking up guitars — or at least, objects that resemble guitars.

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It's all thanks to "Guitar Hero," the video game that lets you jam with rock gods like Jimi Hendrix and Keith Richards. And while pushing buttons on a plastic guitar may not prepare you to open for Aerosmith, guitar teachers have reported increased enrollment since "GH" debuted in 2005.

Like a good episode of "Behind the Music," success has led to some feuds.

After Activision bought "GH" publisher RedOctane, developer Harmonix Music Systems bailed out — taking the more ambitious "Rock Band" to another publisher. Meanwhile, other studios have tried to duplicate the formula.

Let the battle of the bands begin:

—"Rock Band" (Electronic Arts/MTV Games, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $169.99 with guitar, drums, microphone; game only, $59.99): Just when you've mastered the guitar, Harmonix returns with two more essential components of rock 'n' roll glory: drums and vocals.

If you want to be Robert Plant, you sing into a microphone, trying to match the pitch and length of the on-screen notes. If you want to be John Bonham, you get a set of four drum pads and a kick pedal to bang on.

You'll notice right off that drumming is much harder than guitar-playing; who knew sitting behind a drum kit was so physically demanding?

The guitar buttons, at least in the Xbox 360 package, feel stiffer than those on the "Guitar Hero" instrument — although, to be fair, the "Rock Band" guitar is sturdier.

The game itself is more involving than "Guitar Hero." You start by performing hometown gigs with a limited repertoire; as you earn money and fans you learn more songs and travel all over the world.

The role-playing element motivates you to master every tune in the set list — and what a set list it is, with original tracks by an impressive array of bands, from The Who to Fall Out Boy.

Three-and-a-half stars out of four.

—"Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock" (Activision, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $99.99 with guitar; Wii, PlayStation 2, $89.99 with guitar; game only, $49.99-$59.99): The "Guitar Hero III" soundtrack is more metal-heavy than the one in "Rock Band," so if you dig Slayer, Priestess and Slipknot, here's your game.

But it also has a decent selection of album rock classics from the likes of Cream and the Rolling Stones, as well as newer tunes from bands like the Killers and AFI.

In the career mode, you have to challenge three "bosses" — Guns N' Roses' Slash, Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello and, um, The Devil — in head-to-head battles.

Solid playing earns you attacks, like broken strings or increased difficulty, that you can foist on your opponent. I found these sequences frustrating; "Guitar Hero" should be about improving your own skills rather than messing with someone else's.

"GHIII" does deliver, at last, a cooperative career mode, allowing two people to play through most of the set list together, with one on lead guitar and the other on bass.

The career mode isn't as imaginative as the one in "Rock Band" — essentially, you just play the songs in order — but it's much more fun to jam with a buddy.

Three stars.

—"Jam Sessions" (Ubisoft, for the DS, $29.99): I had high hopes that "Jam Sessions" would deliver a "Guitar Hero"-like experience on the DS, so I was disappointed when it turned out to be a fairly straightforward guitar simulator.

You use the directional pad to select a chord and strum the on-screen strings with the stylus.

And that's about it. You can play along with a very limited selection of songs, or record your own tunes.

But there's none of the flashy rock star role-playing we've come to expect, or even anything resembling a game at all. (The guitar-playing in "Hannah Montana Music Jam" is more amusing.)

"Jam Sessions" is a decent guitar simulator; it's just not much fun.

One-and-a-half stars.