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.
There's a story in the game that desperately tries to tie all of these songs together. Sadly these cinemas prove that there's no way possible to turn these stories into a cohesive story. While I can appreciate that these songs are listed by difficulty, there are far too many different sounds to make a thread that runs through all of the tracks. Instead we get a lot of action-packed rock songs, all of which offer their own unique challenges.
On top of the standard story mode (which can be played solo or with a group of friends), you get a lot of other traditional Guitar Hero modes. There's a quick play mode which lets you select a group of songs to play whenever you want. In the past you had to unlock the songs in the story mode before you could enjoy them in the quick play, but Smash Hits throws that out and allows you to select from all of the songs from the get-go.
You can also make and distribute your own music in a slightly complicated music creator program. This feature is no different from what was found in Guitar Hero World Tour. And considering this very same mode appeared on the Guitar Hero: Metallica disc, it looks like it's going to be a mainstay across all future installments. While I haven't had much luck creating my own songs, I have had a good time downloading everybody else's. Sure there are some clunkers, but by and large there's enough content in this mode to make you forget about the fact that the game has less than 50 songs.
You also get the traditional Guitar Hero multiplayer modes, which include both online and offline variants. If you have a bunch of people over this game can be a lot of fun, though I'm still not a fan of Guitar Hero's item-heavy battle mode. The good news for single-players is that you won't have to deal with any of those one-on-one battles that Activision likes to throw into their story modes. They save the battles for the multiplayer, which is exactly where it belongs.
The graphics and presentation is straight out of Guitar Hero World Tour, as is your ability to create characters, design band logos and draw tattoos. The characters are still the over-the-top cartoon characters that you've learned to love and their moves are straight out of every other Guitar Hero game you've played. Then again, you're not buying this game for flashy new graphics; you're buying it because it has a collection of some of the best songs from Guitar Heroes past.
For the most part I'm fine with that. I don't mind that this is essentially a glorified expansion pack to Guitar Hero World Tour. What I do mind is paying the full $60 for content that is straight out of older games. I love having these songs, but it would have been nice to see them presented in a more original way. As I played through the disc I kept asking myself why these songs were on a separate disc and not in a music store ready to be downloaded. If that was the case then they wouldn't have needed to stop at 48, perhaps they could have gone all the way and remade all of the music over time.
Still, the songs in this collection are strong enough to recommend for people not patient enough to wait for Guitar Hero 5. It's fun to play through most of these songs using the new techniques that have been developed for Guitar Hero World Tour, even though some of them feel more like gimmicks than anything. If you're a fan of the older games and your fake plastic band needs more tunes, then I definitely recommend this. I just wish there was a little more to it to justify the high price point.
One could certainly argue that Guitar Hero: Smash Hits is nothing more than a glorified expansion pack. But there's definitely enough content in this game to warrant a look, even if you already own these songs in older Guitar Hero games. I just wish Activision would have done more with this idea than throwing us new songs.