It's easy to be cynical about a game like Guitar Hero: Smash Hits. By design this package contains no new licensed music and adds nothing to the standard Guitar Hero formula. It's a full-price game that features half the songs of either Guitar Hero World Tour or the upcoming Guitar Hero 5. And while all of this is undeniably true, I found myself having an incredible time playing a bunch of songs I fell in love with in other Guitar Hero games. Smash Hits may not be Activision's most innovative release this year, but it's nice fan service for all of the gamers who made this franchise such an overwhelming success in the first place.
Guitar Hero: Smash Hits recycles some of the best known songs from the first few Guitar Hero releases (including the first three installments, Rocks the 80s and even Guitar Hero: Aerosmith). Not only are some of these songs making their Xbox 360 debut, but they are also ready to be played with the full band, including guitars, bass, drums and vocals. At its core this is nothing more than a Guitar Hero track pack, but there's just enough in this package to push me over the edge and recommend it.
Recycling content from past games is nothing new. Every time Nintendo releases a new Mario Kart game, they pad the level select with some of the best tracks from previous games. Activision is also guilty of this, often recycling old stages in each installment of their Tony Hawk series. These companies do this because it gives people a chance to see what it would be like to play these classic stages years later, with brand new abilities, power-ups, special moves, etc. But while that works for Tony Hawk and Mario Kart, I had to wonder if the same was true for Guitar Hero. Have there really been that many improvements over the release of the original game back in 2005?
It turns out that there actually have been a lot of substantial advances to the Guitar Hero franchise. I guess the most obvious is one I've already mentioned, the fact that you can play any of these songs as a full band. That's something new for all of these songs, all of which came from games that were released prior to Guitar Hero World Tour. That reason alone should be enough incentive to make many fans of the series excited by this release.
But it's more than just being able to play every one of these songs as a full band, there are a surprising amount of additions that most people have completely forgotten about. For example, when most of these songs were released in their original game they were nothing more than covers. Let's not forget, the first two Guitar Hero games were made up almost exclusively by remakes of well known songs. That has been remedied in this release. Instead of questionable covers, each one of the game's 48 tracks is a master recording.
For some of the earliest songs, just the idea of having hammer-on and pull-off notes is brand new. The very first Guitar Hero game featured the basic structure of the series, but failed to include hammer-on/pull-off notes. Having these types of notes completely opens up the charting, often in ways that makes the game feel more like you're playing a real guitar.
Since this game is based on the Guitar Hero World Tour engine, expect to see all of that game's enhancements forced on these classic tracks. That means that the songs will feature the gimmicky touch notes, the bass will have open chords to strum and not every extended note will start and stop at the same place. Some of these enhancements add to the gameplay, but I still fail to see the significance of the slide bar notes.
One thing that hasn't been improved is the game's story mode. The structure is no different from what you saw in the first few games, you start with a few songs open, you play them all, you master an encore and you move on to the next set of songs. Before long you will be traveling all around the world playing at crazy venues for money and stars. Do this enough and you'll work your way through all 48 songs, beat the game and then go back to better your score, play online or even create your own music (more on that later).
The reason this all works is because the music is so much fun to play. While the game doesn't feature all of my favorite songs from the first few games, it definitely hits enough to make it worth my while. You get genuine classics from the likes of Ozzy Osbourne ("Bark at the Moon"), Queen ("Killer Queen"), Incubus ("Stellar"), Joan Jett ("I Love Rock 'n Roll"), Franz Ferdinand ("Take Me Out"), Nirvana ("Heart-Shaped Box"), Jane's Addiction ("Stop!"), Rush ("YYZ"), Twisted Sister ("I Wanna Rock"), Extreme ("Play With Me"), Heart ("Barracuda"), Kiss ("Rock and Roll All Nite"), Boston ("More Than a Feeling") and many, many more.
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