The Guitar Hero franchise has certainly had its fair share of criticism. Ever since Activision took over the series some gamers have accused them of running it into the ground. This year alone we will have four console versions of the game outside of the quintessential DS outings and not to mention the excess of downloadable content that has been released. The genre may be getting crowded, but a company as large as Activision is certainly not going to let such a successful series wear out its welcome. In comes Guitar Hero 5, a simple name, back to basics, and most importantly a re-structuring of the series that fixes nearly every issue with previous incarnations. Guitar Hero 5 is the definitive version of the yearly franchise and finally matches the presentation and ease of use that Rock Band has so eloquently patented.
Being the only true successor landing this holiday season the team at Neversoft had a lot to prove. Sure Beatles Rock Band is hitting stores, but we all know who that game is for. Guitar Hero 5 keeps everything that made the originals good, throws away what made them bad, and adds just enough to make it the best experience in the series to date. Most of this is accomplished with the Party Play modes and structural changes that make this the most user-friendly music game experience currently available.
The biggest change as I mentioned is the Party Play feature. One of the most prominent problems with music games is that they have become complex over time. I guarantee you that anyone who has thrown down on Rock Band or Guitar Hero at a party knows how cumbersome it can be to switch instruments and drop in and out of the game. Guitar Hero 5 eliminates all of that in several fashions. First you can switch instruments and difficulties on the fly, as well as lefty flip for the southpaws in the room. Failing in band mode is also not such a problem anymore. Much like Rock Band individual members can fail, and you can save them, but the catch now is that you are no longer limited to three strikes. In fact if you let them sit long enough they come back on their own.
Star Power has also changed, no longer is it shared in one big pot during multi-player. Each player has their own individual stash, and it if you have a player that likes to never use it, then their overflow will disperse amongst the band. A lot of care has been taken into making this the most accessible and free-flowing game in the genre to date. This is evident right from the main menu as you can tap one button and begin playing the random song that is blasting in the background. You can even add other players, swap difficulties and anything else on the fly during this mode, which is just another reason why this game is so streamlined.
Keeping with the tradition another major addition to the game is the ability for all participants to play any instrument they choose. If you have four people who all want to play guitar, it is possible. Four singers? No problem. The game allows you to play any way your inventory of plastic instruments will allow. I have never seen a sight more impressive than four drum kits in the same room, complete with plastic banging, and plenty of it off-time. You wouldn’t think this was such a big deal until it becomes an issue in action. Who really wants to play bass all the time? Now the options are limitless, not to mention having four vocalists is awesome, even more so when three of them suck and you are drinking.
The career mode has also been completely redone, doing away with most of the boring formula we have been used to. Much like GH: Metallica before it you can complete the career long before completing every single song. Each venue consists of a wave of songs, and opening new ones is as simple as earning stars. This time around there are nine possible stars for each song, and the way they are broken down is what will keep this game fresh. The traditional five stars are based on performance, the sixth star is earned for completing a full-combo run, and the remaining three are earned for challenges. Challenges are new to the game, and are reminiscent of the band challenges in Rock Band 2. These are broken down into gold, platinum and diamond depending on your score and can range from strumming up and down to simply hitting a specific note streak.
You can also switch instruments and difficulty right inside your career mode menu; in fact you can switch to anything from this core menu. This is another example of how the game never removes you from the experience. If you decide to play on Expert and get to the monster 14-minute Peter Frampton song and simply cannot finish it, no fear, you can switch difficulty right there without having to start over from scratch on a lower difficulty. The correlation between everything is really what makes this version stand out above the rest, and make it even more easy and fun to play than any other.
Of course the song list is where music games derive most of their criticism, and GH5 is no different. The game does contain the most assorted collection of tunes I have seen in the genre thus far, but it still obviously will not cater to everyone. Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, Wild Cherry, A Perfect Circle, Sublime and Stevie Wonder just to name a few, and as you can imagine none of those have anything in common. The songs range from hard rock masterpieces such as “2 Minutes to Midnight” by Iron Maiden, to more laid back affairs where guitar players play the piano on “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones. This is not to say that the challenge and fun are not there, the note charts are downright phenomenal, but some of the actual additions such as Vampire Weekend and Arctic Monkey are simply only going to appeal to their hardcore fans.
If the song list doesn’t sit well with you, you can also import songs from both Guitar Hero World Tour and Smash Hits. As of this writing only around 35 songs were available to be imported from World Tour and Smash Hits is not applicable at launch, but the ability to import them shows that Activision finally realizes the importance of our music library. All of your DLC from the previous game works with a simple update, and the cost to import tracks is a dollar less then Rock Band 2, but in all fairness it is also only half the number of songs.
Other improvements come in the form of tweaks to already existing favorites such as the music creator and versus modes. Unlike last time GHTunes 2.0 features a much more streamlined interface that allows for longer tracks, better quality samples, and the ability to edit and create music using only one instrument. Multi-player has also been revamped by removing the annoying attack-based modes and replacing them with more appropriate activities. Band modes also make a comeback complete with the ability to go online and join other players with any instrument you want. The game also brings back guest appearances with familiar faces such as Carlos Santana, Shirley Manson, Kurt Cobain and the man in black himself, Johnny Cash.
Xbox 360 and Wii owners can also customize the fun by including their avatars into the game. Seeing your Mii dance around stage and sing along is certainly out of place, but the 360 avatars look near freakish on stage. Either way it was really neat to see your personal avatar on stage singing and playing along to the music. The Wii version also features some extra added things and changes that really set it apart from the other two versions. For starters the lack of friend codes is downright incredible. The system in place makes playing games online so much more user friendly than before, which keeps with the overall theme of GH5.
However, the largest and most significant reason to own the Wii outing is Roadie Battle. This new mode uses two DS handhelds and two players on plastic instruments for one hell of a good time. The DS users act as roadies, repairing items and doing stuff backstage while their partner rocks out. The concept is simple, but the action is intense and addictive, and if you can manage to find three friends and a couple DS machines, more than worth the price of admission. The developers have made the Wii version the best version feature wise, so if you have a choice, I highly recommend going with Nintendo’s option.
Visually the game sticks with the familiar formula with a few tweaks here and there. Character creator returns, the option to use Miis and Avatars is present, and customizing instruments all make a return. The venues are starting to become less and less impressive, but let’s be honest, the only thing we usually pay attention to is the note highway anyways, so what does it really matter. Sound gets an improvement with the ability to tweak the volume of each instrument and the menu system is nearly perfect on every account. Presentation is the front-runner for best improvement in the series thus far.
Guitar Hero 5 is definitely the best of the series, and easily the most streamlined of the genre. The option for importing songs is disappointing, but everything else is finally up to par with that other music game. If you are a fan of the series this is the one to get, and I applaud Activision and Neversoft for continuing to improve on an obvious cash cow. Offering gamers a free copy of GH: Van Halen also sweetens the pot and proves that whether you like it or not, the series is here to stay.