Honed to a Razor’s Edge
Neversoft and Activision’s latest entry in the Guitar Hero franchise looks to buck the slumping trend in music and rhythm gaming by giving consumers the very best it has to offer. Guitar Hero 5 coalesces years of trial and error and lessons learned into one cohesive, ultimate experience – signifying the maturation and perhaps pinnacle of the genre.
Like millions of gamers out there, I’ve been picking up plastic instruments for years now. Honing my virtual musician skills across all platforms, multiple brands, and rising up through the difficulty levels was something of a badge of courage. Unfortunately, years of repackaged games with little more than new set lists and slightly tweaked peripherals have forced my six guitars, two drum sets, and four microphones to the back of closets, bottom of drawers, and dark parts of my basement. I rarely play any of my music games anymore. In fact, the only time I pull out all that jazz is when my noob friends and family members come over and demand a jam session. Without a doubt, music and rhythm games have lost much of their novelty for core players.
Enter: Guitar Hero 5. Rather than appealing solely to casual gamers or to the hardest core of virtual axe slayers, the game synthesizes the best aspects of the genre into a user-friendly and seamless experience. For example, if you and your friends hate to sing and are bothered by the incessant banging of the drums, you can all play guitars. If you plan on having a party, the pick-up-and-play nature of Party Play is without equal. If you simply hunger to shred licks or blast through fills on your own, the challenging song list and perfectly mimicked note phrases will test your technical prowess more than ever before. This game really feels like the ideal amalgamation of qualities drawn from across the genre.
The most revolutionary aspect of Guitar Hero 5 has to be the Party Play feature. Imagine inviting a few friends over, effortlessly setting up lengthy playlists (before or during play – even mid-song), imbibing a few libations, and hopping on to play whenever you want without any risk of failure or waiting through load screens. The new Party Play mode allows you and your cohorts to jam however you want, whenever you want, in any difficulty setting, with any instrument combination, at the press of a button. In fact, if you never want to play, you can simply have the game spin in the background and let the tunes fuel conversation. It’s the perfect party tool because it requires nothing from your guests while still adding to the ambience, just waiting for someone to hop on and jam.
Furthermore, being able to play with any combination of instruments is an upgrade that is long overdue. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had friends bicker over the mic and guitars. Guitar Hero 5 lets you create the kind of band you want to play in. What’s more, this option isn’t just limited to Quickplay. This functionality is implemented across the board, from online/local co-op and competitive modes to Career and Party Play; the mix of instruments is always up to you.
This spirit and freedom of choice is found throughout Guitar Hero 5. The options menu alone is evidence of that. Truly, anything that you want tweaked can be adjusted to your liking. I especially liked the ability to mess with playback levels and import songs from other Guitar Hero disks (World Tour and Smash Hits). Being able to create your own rocker (the 360 version even lets you make Avatar characters to jam on stage) and make and share your own music via an enhanced GH Studio and GHTunes is also nice.
The import functionality is particularly significant, even though it too is severely limited, because the song variety isn’t ideal. This is perhaps my biggest gripe with the game. Sure, the game sports 85 original songs reproduced in crystal clear fidelity, but there aren’t a whole lot of classic crowd-pleasers thrown in for old-timers. Outside of notable exceptions from Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan, the music selection is geared toward modern music (Muse, The Killers, Kings of Leon, Vampire Weekend, The White Stripes, etc.). While these songs are an absolute blast to play through, they aren’t so great for getting the entire party rocking. On the other hand, there is a lot of music for old farts to discover, and the addition of quality, master recordings of live performances (I’m thinking specifically of Rush’s Spirit of the Radio) tend to smooth out the qualms a curmudgeon might have.
Career mode is essentially the same as what you’ve always had in Guitar Hero. However, this time around does include the Bonus Challenges that helped bolster Guitar Hero – On Tour: Modern Hits for DS. These side objectives have players meeting specific goals (Ex.: Utilize the whammy bar for 30, 60, or 80 seconds on held notes). Successfully completing these challenges will net you rewards such as instrument skins and outfits.
Outside of the standard Career mode, the local and online competitive multiplayer options really offer a lot of engaging, diverse gameplay for more serious virtual musicians. RockFest gives players six modes of play with which to mix things up. Momentum constantly changes difficulty for individual players depending on how well they’re executing. Perfectionist divides songs up into sections and rewards the player with the highest percentage at the end of the segment. Elimination drops the player with the lowest percentage out of the mix after each section, crowning the last man standing the champion. Do-or-Die penalizes players if they miss just three notes in a segment by temporarily freezing them, not allowing them to accrue points. As the name implies, Streakers gives exponential point bonuses to those players that put long note streaks together. Finally, Pro Face Off is the most straightforward of the bunch, as it is a head-to-head battle where all players play at the same difficulty with the same instrument to see who’s the baddest. These multiplayer modes are all very well implemented and perfectly suited to improving the skill set of hardcore players.
On the graphics front, the visuals are the best they’ve ever been; though, that’s not saying a whole lot. Still, the characters are livelier than ever and the environments are varied and engaging. Animations are particularly good now, and singers’ lips synch up nicely with the songs. Controls are also much improved over previous versions. Note tracks are expertly laid out to mimic the songs, and the menu organization is very user-friendly. If you haven’t gotten a guitar controller in a while, you may want to check out the new peripheral. The guitars are very realistic-looking, are of much higher quality construction, and the slider bar functionality is even tighter.
Certainly, Guitar Hero 5 is the best title in the franchise’s illustrious history. Furthermore, it is undeniably the best music game ever made, as it synthesizes the best of the genre into one neat package. The only question is, is this the reawakening of a phenomenon, or just a beautiful swan song? I guess only time will tell.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.8 Graphics
Visuals are as good as they’ve ever been, but they’re still not why we play the game. 4.8 Control
Note tracks are tighter and the menu organization is just about perfect. 4.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
While the set list may not be as widely appealing as in other Guitar Hero titles, the sound quality is off the charts and the tunes are very fun to play! 4.5 Play Value
Despite the aging conventions of the genre, Guitar Hero 5 gets nearly everything right. There is a ton of gameplay packed into a decidedly user-friendly/hardcore-friendly package. 4.5 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.