Four years ago, the closest America got to Guitar Hero was laughing at the arcade scene in Lost in Translation. Pseudo tough guy wields a plastic guitar in a fluorescent, Japanese arcade. Bill Murray watches him play along to rock songs. Culture shock, "lock 'n' loll," har har har.

Since then, pseudo toughies have taken residence at Best Buy's fake-guitar demo stations and bought Guitar Hero games in the millions, and that means what was once cultural obscurity is already on track to wear out its massive popularity. Guitar Hero III follows the overblown rocker timeline perfectly, as its story is the take-home version of Roth ditching Van Halen or Bon Scott "leaving" AC/DC. Earlier this year, the game's original programmers jumped ship to make a new series (new rhythm game Rock Band), forcing the publisher to find its Sammy Hagar to keep the GH name alive.

To be fair, the result is more Back in Black than 5150, as GH3 holds the status quo without sounding as awful as Van Halen. The basic premise of playing along to popular guitarists remains intact, but now friends can play the "career" together in co-op, and a new versus mode gives opponents weird (and mostly annoying) attacks. Otherwise, it's pretty much the same, aside from one tweak: Button presses can be a few milliseconds off the rhythm and still count. Twelve-year-old GH YouTube stars might spaz, but the novice girlfriend will appreciate it. Accept the trade-off, kids.

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In spite of a few stinker songs (Slipknot, the Killers and Poison, oh my), GH3's track list is the series' most varied and tolerable so far. Original versions of "Paint It Black," "Welcome to the Jungle," Slayer's "Reign of Fire," and even a re-recorded version of "Cult of Personality" provide fun patterns to play along with—which is a good thing for the game's replay value—but watch out for a huge asterisk: Not every song is the original, and this year's scab cover band is a mighty load worse than the old one. Stevie Ray Vaughan already blows, but fake SRV's voice and tinny production make me want to perform an eight-minute peeing solo on Vaughan's grave.

If you're eager for a rhythm game revolution, wait for Rock Band and its $170 guitar/drums/microphone kit later this month. If you want the same ol' thing—and online modes on Xbox 360, Wii, and PS3—GH3 will shake your low expectations all night long. recommended