At long last, I give you Guitar Hero 5. Wait ... Guitar Hero 5? How can this be the fifth game when I own six different Guitar Hero games all on the Xbox 360? The proper sequel to Guitar Hero World Tour (and not this year's Guitar Hero: Smash Hits, Guitar Hero Metallica, Guitar Hero On Tour: Modern Hits or even Guitar Hero: Van Halen), Guitar Hero 5 doesn't try and reinvent the wheel. What it does is offer enough rockin' songs and compelling changes to warrant a look.
All joking aside, Guitar Hero 5 is the very best entry in the Guitar Hero franchise. I don't say that because it adds a bunch of brand new modes and extras, but rather because it manages to take what already worked and polish up the presentation. This is a sharp looking music game full of must-own songs from new and old artists. Even if the game still hasn't found a way to duplicate the longevity of Rock Band 2's world tour mode, Guitar Hero 5 has enough going for it to remain a great buy on any system.
After several installments that attempted to add new gameplay gimmicks, Guitar Hero 5 decides to keep it simple and focus on the presentation and multiplayer modes. This turns out to be a wise move, since each new "enhancement" makes it feel less like the Guitar Hero I fell in love with all those years ago. You still have the touch pad notes (which can be activated using the standard buttons if you don't have a World Tour guitar) and differently shaped extended notes, but neither of those things feel as out of place the second time around.
The real improvements lie in making this series more accessible from the get-go. Beyond offering a bunch of different difficulties (including one that doesn't even require you to hit notes), Guitar Hero 5 lets you jump right into the game without dealing with a single menu screen. Right from the get-go you see a video of a band on stage playing a random song, if that's something you want to be a part of you can push the right button and jump right up on stage. From there the game will just continue to throw songs at you, all without worrying about making a set list or surfing through cumbersome menus.
Let's say your buddy shows up and wants to get in on the action, you can do that too without even stopping the song. Just have your friend pick his weapon of choice and start rockin', even if you're in the middle of a song. And best of all, you don't have to fight over what instrument you're going to play. Does your party want more than one drummer? You can do that. Or maybe everybody wants to sing in a chorus of tone deaf drunkenness. You can do that, too. It's a little weird to see all of the different people on stage, but the game gives you options that actually make sense when you're putting together a Guitar Hero party.
One of the most shocking developments in Guitar Hero 5 is the overhaul of the traditional 5 star rating. While you still earn five stars (based entirely on how many points you earn over the course of the song), you now have the ability to earn as many as four additional stars. One extra star is doled out if you get 100%, or what used to be 5 gold stars. On top of that extra star, there are three more stars you can earn by completing a special task. These tasks are instrument specific, so you won't be able to take part in these optional challenges with every song. You'll find that every song has one of these tasks, which will often have you trying to hit as many notes as you can in a row, use your whammy bar a certain amount of time, beat a high score with your full band, etc. While this is a simple idea, it does offer an incentive to go back and play songs in different ways.
Outside of a few other minor changes, much of Guitar Hero 5 remains the same. You still have a campaign mode, which takes you through a number of different venues playing songs and rockin' encores. There's also a quick play mode which lets you choose any one of the 80+ songs right from the get-go. You'll also find the same kinds of competitive modes you saw in World Tour, only now with a few unexpected twists. If you enjoyed these modes before then you'll likely find yourself having an equally good time with Guitar Hero 5.
The game is made up of 83 individual bands (playing 85 songs). It shouldn't come as a surprise that many of the bands that make up Guitar Hero 5 are mainstays of the franchise. We get another song from Bon Jovi ("You Give Love a Bad Name"), Kiss ("Shout It Out Loud"), Smashing Pumpkins ("Bullets with Butterfly Wings"), Beck ("Gamma Ray"), Sonic Youth ("Incinerate"), Rush ("The Spirit of Radio"), Muse ("Plug in Baby"), David Bowie ("Fame"), Coldplay ("In My Place"), Blink-182 ("The Rock Show") and a pair from Nirvana ("Lithium" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit").On top of returning acts, Guitar Hero 5 offers a surprising amount of artists never before seen in the franchise (or in any fake plastic instrument game, for that matter). I'm talking about Arctic Monkeys ("Brainstorm"), King Crimson ("21st Century Schizoid Man"), Spacehog ("In the Meantime"), Sunny Day Real Estate ("Seven"), The Raconteurs ("Steady, As She Goes"), The White Stripes ("Blue Orchid"), Vampire Weekend ("A-Punk"), among others. There's an impressive list of songs for just about any musical type, including only a few tracks that are repeats from other music games.
On top of offering 85 songs, you can also import some of the songs from Guitar Hero World Tour and the recently released Guitar Hero Smash Hits. While the idea of exporting your older songs may sound exciting, Activision has taken all of the fun out of it by limiting the amount of songs available to you. Of the original's 86 song library, only 35 can be exported. I'm no good at math, but even I know that we're talking about less than half of the songs, including many fan favorites. Similar cuts were made to Guitar Hero Smash Hits, which only allows 22 of the game's 48 tracks to fit on your hard drive. Granted, the prices are somewhat reasonable ($3.50 for the World Tour content and $2 for Smash Hits), but it still feels like we're getting the short end of the stick. Like Guitar Hero 5, Rock Band 2 allowed you to import songs from the original game; only in that case you paid $5 and lost only three tracks.
As always you can go into the music creator and compose your own rock hits. This time around the interface has been cleaned up and the whole process is a lot less painful. That doesn't mean that you're going to create the next rock anthem, but at least it's not fighting you the whole way. Best of all, you can make tracks on the fly, so there's none of the cumbersome waiting we're all used to when it comes to this kind of thing. When you're done you can upload your songs and test out other people's tunes, giving you an almost unlimited amount of user-created content to play after you've grown bored of the 85 songs on the disc.
What Activision has learned is that the original Guitar Hero gameplay is what made the series so successful. There's no need to add a bunch of gimmicky features to an already good game, all you need are great songs and fun modes to play them in. For the first time in several years it doesn't feel like Activision is just throwing ideas at the wall and hoping they stick, the additions here actually make sense and in no way take away from the brilliance of the gameplay. I'm still not a fan of some of the World Tour improvements (those tap notes have to go), but I'm thankful Activision didn't take the opportunity to cram even more useless gameplay changes down our throats.
As I mentioned before, Activision has retooled the look of the game. While Guitar Hero III and World Tour looked good on the Xbox 360, they were really nothing more than higher resolution versions of the PlayStation 2 releases. Guitar Hero 5 is different, featuring dynamic lighting, fully realized 3D characters and amazing new venues to rock. Couple the detailed graphics with some impressive camera/lighting effects and you have one of the best looking music games of all time. Simple pictures do not do it justice; the change is night and day when you see it in person. It's cool seeing what my favorite guitar heroes look like with real next-generation graphics.
With its accessible game modes, amazing track list and sensational visuals, Guitar Hero 5 is easily the best installment in the series since Guitar Hero II. Instead of focusing on gimmicky gameplay, Activision has wisely stuck to perfecting the game that wraps around the gameplay. It's still not perfect, but Guitar Hero 5 is a giant step in the right direction.