In the scant four years since Harmonix and Redoctane’s quirky, experimental Guitar Hero showed up in the bowels of E3’s Kentia Hall, the franchise has exploded in popularity. Changed hands from its original creators and now in an annual struggle to outdo Harmonix’ graduating effort, Rock Band, Guitar Hero is currently developed by Neversoft on PS3 and 360 and by Vicarious Visions for Wii. Last year was all-out music game war, a proving ground as the series made its first attempt at full band play with Guitar Hero World Tour and went head to head with the pitch-perfect Rock Band 2. As we all know World Tour looked like a freshman effort compared to Harmonix’ masterpiece, and although Vicarious Visions did some impressive innovating with the Wii version, World Tour was marred by poor design decisions, counter-intuitive menus and an inferior song list.
Many gamers I’ve talked to are satisfied with the outcome—Rock Band is rightfully king and the once groundbreaking Guitar Hero is relegated to playing eternal catch-up, settling into the category of the annual franchise churn-out with Madden, Tony Hawk and…whatever party game Nintendo is putting out. Even after years of Guitar Hero fandom I admit to being a born-again Rock Band convert, but Guitar Hero 5, especially and surprisingly on Wii, will make everyone think twice about writing the series off.
Guitar Hero 5 is the first time the series has grown up. Guitar Hero 2 feels like the last time the series really nailed its concept, because that was the last time Harmonix worked on it. Once Activision got hold of it…well, it did turn into Madden. GH5 is a valiant attempt to return the series to its roots. Gone is the shameless product placement—you won’t be playing your Axe Body Spray guitar on the Pontiac stage in the KFC venue anymore. The unnecessary and garish visual changes have reverted to a more muted, sensible presentation. And finally, one-off gimmicks have been replaced by some desperately needed fine tuning.
The most obvious improvement is the overhaul of World Tour’s cumbersome menu system. GH5 makes it much simpler to start playing in any mode. In fact the game’s attract screen functions as the most peripheral form of free play. Called Party Play, it displays a band on stage cycling through the game’s entire song list. Party Play lets any combination of four players pick up controllers, choose their instrument and difficulty, and start playing right in the middle of a song. You can even switch to a different song if you like. This mode is brilliant—it epitomizes what Guitar Hero is: the preeminent party game, perfect to just leave running in the background during any birthday or house party.
Free Play mode is still around but gives you more customization than Party Play, letting you choose your character and build a setlist. The game’s entire song list is available from the word-go so there is no need to unlock any of them. World Tour’s character creator is back and while it has seen some streamlining I still can’t get any of my rock stars looking as unique as the ones in Rock Band. The pre-set facial shapes in Rock Band don’t allow as much customization but at least they are distinctive enough to tell apart. Unless you glitz your GH5 rocker up with outrageous costumes and makeup they all end up looking like slight variations on the same generic action figure.
With most of the core features now available in Free Play you have to wonder if there’s still a reason to have Career mode at all. Activision must have had the same thought because they’ve implemented a number of welcome changes. You still move through a preset list of venues and gigs—no dynamic Rock Band-style world tour here—but at least there’s a few fresh changes to make it more interesting. The method for unlocking content has been trimmed down to focus on the number of stars you earn on a song, so don’t worry about that superfluous cash system anymore. You’ll still need to unlock new rocker outfits, venues, custom instrument parts and characters like Johnny Cash and Kurt Cobain, but they unlock automatically once you obtain the necessary number of stars.
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