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 And finally, one-off gimmicks have been replaced by some desperately needed fine tuning.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.The star system has also been upgraded. You can still earn the standard five-star rating but acing a song perfectly will gain you a sixth, while each song has three more possible stars tied to a challenge. These challenges are instrument specific—for example, you can only attempt a bass challenge if you’re playing bass, and others require a band effort of at least two people playing. They can involve anything from achieving a high score to alt-strumming, or even hitting every tap note in a song. Some challenges even let you choose from a limited list of songs, so if you need a really high score you can select a song with a ton of chords and a virtuosic solo.
Earning just the lowest rank in these challenges usually unlocks some new goodies but to earn all three extra stars you have to earn the highest rank. This can be a problem when the score requirement is stratospheric, practically requiring full band play on expert, but in any case the challenges are a welcome mix-up of the standard career mode and they should offer plenty of replay value for Score Hero forum frequenters.
All of the modes have general gameplay tweaks that make GH5 the most enjoyable entry in quite a while. For starters, four people can play any combination of instruments so yes, if you own the equipment you can have four people on guitar, bass, drums or vocals at any given time, or any combination of the three. No one gets stuck playing a boring baseline this time. The perplexing “one person fails, everyone fails” mechanic from World Tour is gone and not missed; instead all remaining players must rock well enough to win back the crowd and reinstate their fallen bandmate. Each person has their own star power meter too, doing away with the odd communal star power pool that doled out tiny sips of energy to each player. Instead, to encourage band coordination most songs have “Band Moments,” which are brief sequences of fiery notes that confer a bonus score multiplier if every band member nails the sequence. You can also change your difficulty at any time, even during a career song, which does require that you restart the song but at least you don’t have to quit and double back through three menus.
I didn’t play around with the GHtunes song creator much but its menus are much easier to negotiate, the sound quality is slightly better and on the whole it feels less like a stripped down dev tool and more like a full mode.
In terms of individual instruments, I didn’t receive the full band kit to review and had to fall back on my trusty World Tour controllers but I can elaborate on how the gameplay’s been improved. For the guitar the tap solos make a return but they aren’t as abrupt or arbitrary; they make a lot more sense this time are don’t feel like a gimmick.
The drums are still markedly harder on any difficulty than the drums in the Rock Band series, especially with that orange cymbal showing up from easy onward, but overall they felt a lot less temperamental than they did in World Tour. You still have to hit both cymbals simultaneously to engage star power, which I think is awkward. It breaks your rhythm especially in difficult songs, making you much more likely to miss and kill your multiplier when the whole point of star power is to double your multiplier beyond normal. I prefer Rock Band’s drum fill method, which may seem too scripted but it gives you a chance to freestyle a bit and lets you keep rhythm.
I still have issues with the vocals. GH5 lets you choose from static, scrolling or karaoke lyrics and introduces vocal star power—granted you have to be holding a Wii remote to activate it—but even on easy the voice recognition is pretty fickle. I’m either a very, very bad singer or once again Guitar Hero is much harder and more stringent than Rock Band, a series where vocals never gave me a problem on anything but hard and expert difficulties.
Even with the mix of improvements and lagging leftover issues from World Tour, GH5 has a much stronger list of music than its predecessor. Boasting 85 songs by 83 artists, you get “Lithium” and “Smells Like Teen Sprit” from Nirvana, “Kryptonite” from 3 Doors Down, Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” and “Hungry Like the Wolf” from Duran Duran, which is a different master recording than the one in Rock Band 2. The Keiser Chiefs return to the series with “Never Miss a Beat” and Muse is back with “Plug In Baby” and frontman Matt Bellamy as a playable character. There’s some funk with Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” and “Play that Funky Music” by Wild Cherry.In fact GH5 might cast too wide a net, shifting the focus to more wide-ranging tastes at the cost of its hard-rocking roots. There are also a few strange choices. One example is “Sympathy for the Devil” from the Rolling Stones, which has a lot more keyboard in it than guitar. I know they were saving “Satisfaction” for the inevitable DLC scalping, but the omission of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” really disappointed me.
Speaking of DLC, this is the one area where GH5 still lags far behind Rock Band. On the positive side, all of World Tour’s DLC can be imported into GH5 complete with the new features and infrastructure, and on the Wii songs can now be streamed right off an SD card. Unfortunately only a small segment of the core World Tour and Smash Hits song lists—less than half for both games—can be imported at this time. Future packs of back content are promised, but if they didn’t have all of the licensing and updating ready for the GH5 launch, why did they release any of it in the first place? It seems counterproductive to release it a chunk at a time. Even if the full lists are available eventually, it’s still going to take longer and cost more than the cheap and easy import between Rock Band and its sequel.
GH5’s spotty DLC serves as its Persian flaw, however, because the rest of the package is so solid, particularly on Wii. Vicarious Visions takes pride in their ability to push Nintendo’s platform and they always include something extra for Wii owners. Last time it was Mii Freestyle, which does make a return in GH5 with a number of improvements. Online multiplayer has also seen the elimination of friend codes—instead it connects to the people you already have friended in your Wii address book. Far and away though, GH5’s standout Wii exclusive is Roadie Battle. A 4-player competitive mode, it has two players going head-to-head on guitar while two others link to GH5 through a Nintendo DS.
While the guitarists compete as usual, the “roadies” use the touch screens on their respective DS handhelds to sabotage the opposing guitarist’s equipment. This can be as simple as misfiring the pyrotechnics to set the fretboard on fire, or as complicated as snapping a spare guitar’s strings, restringing it in the wrong order and finally dropping it into the guitarist’s arms, resulting in a performance-killing lefty flip. A roadie must rush back to their own guitarist to repair the chaos caused by the other guy, leading to some truly frantic battles.
Roadie Battle sports a smooth interface, tight balance and impressive production values for a DS download play minigame, but to have fun with it you need skilled guitarists playing on hard or expert. A gamer used to playing on hard will be able to put up with their amp overloading or their fretboard bursting into flames, while a newcomer playing on easy or medium will be absolutely crippled by the attacks of the opposing roadie. This can lead to one roadie playing offensively while the other just fixes things, but to have truly epic roadie battles you need guitarists and roadies that are matched in skill. That said it’s a great new idea and I hope it’s a mainstay on the Wii.
The Wii version of GH5 is no slouch in production values either. For the first time on the platform Guitar Hero doesn’t look like an up-scaled port of the PS2 version. Character models animate much smoother than they ever have before, the boxy polygon counts from World Tour have been fleshed out and adorned with crisper textures, and gentle bloom glow softens any remaining hard edges. This pushes back the uncanny valley on all the character models, and while the custom rockers look much better than they did last time, the celebrity players are finally convincing. I actually got chills when The Man in Black strode up on stage and announced, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” before performing “The Ring of Fire.”
The art style in general has seen some maturing, and while it isn’t as Spartan as Rock Band’s minimalist appearance, it’s much, much cleaner and more appealing than World Tour’s jumbled look. The star power meter is back to its old self—no more confusing neon bulbs—and all of the scoring, combo and progress info is consolidated into one easy-to-read display. These elements are still a bit too small to read comfortably but after nearly going blind trying to read World Tour’s packed little display I think it’s a big improvement.
Talking about art style, gameplay or new features still can’t convey, however, the way it feels to play GH5. It’s hard to put into words, but for the first time in two years I really enjoyed playing a Guitar Hero game, I kept coming back the way I did when the series was new. It isn’t a chore to get a bunch of people playing together and once you have four people rocking out there aren’t any gimmicky distractions, just pure music game fun. This game is just really, really fun to play.
Polish seems to be the central idea behind Guitar Hero 5. It isn’t a radical change from past games and it doesn’t drop a lot of gimmicky features in like World Tour did. Instead it’s a gradual progression, a refinement of the very rough setup we saw in World Tour, with a few innovative ideas like Roadie Battle. And in the end, wasn’t Rock Band 2 just a much-needed polish job on Rock Band 1? I still remember back at Chuck’s launch party that at first glance, I couldn’t tell the two apart. Thankfully GH5’s improvements are more noticeable, and while it still misses a few beats, it isn’t being different from Rock Band just for the sake of being different. GH5 imitates what works with Rock Band and tightens up the best elements of the GH series, which makes for a supremely satisfying experience at the end of the day.