Despite a strong distaste for all those rhythm-clicking games ever since I saw people dancing on Dance Dance Revolution mats, I was always tempted to have a go at Guitar Hero since I love to play the real guitar. With Guitar Hero 2 getting an Xbox 360 release, I finally had an excuse to see whether this could in any way compare to the experience of playing a real six string.
For those unfamiliar, Guitar Hero follows the same lines as all other rhythm-clickers out there, in a disrespectful way even kind of like Bug Bash: something pops up in a specific button location, and you score points by pressing the button on the exact right time. While Bug Bash is an annoyingly stupid game, the ‘real games’ in the genre are quite inventive in what they request you to do. DDR uses mats with squares you have to jump on in time, hence making you dance, and Guitar Hero conveniently ships with a fake plastic guitar with colored buttons on the fretboard.
As you play to songs, a fretboard scrolls down the screen in front of you, showing notes of 5 different colors you have to play exactly when they hit the line at the bottom of the screen. To play, just like a real guitar, you fret the note by pressing the button, and then hit the strum bar to mimic hitting the strings with a pick. While most guitar players are already laughing on the floor as they read this, the system works surprisingly well. Further adding to the ‘realism’, the game allows advanced hammer-on and pull-off techniques, to play more notes in a row without strumming again, simply by hitting or releasing fret buttons while a note is still ringing. And finally, a whammy bar, or tremolo bar for insiders, is present so you can modulate long notes into wailing screams. In the end, it’s a guitar, with no strings attached in the most literal of ways.
While you might be tempted to think you’re going to look like an idiot playing a plastic guitar, it’s not that bad. Sure, you still do look like an idiot probably when you’re starting out with the game, but once you get that rockin’ feeling in your veins the laughs will die down soon as your audience sees you ripping those solos apart. Chances are they will cast some awkward glances at the guitar though: while the whammy bar issues have been acknowledged by developer Red Octane, your reviewer got several complaints from onlookers as well about the build quality of the rest of the guitar. While it’s a sturdy beast in itself, the buttons and strum bar emit loud and clear clicks every time you press or hit them, which was distracting enough from a 5.1 stereo blowing at full force for people to notice. Another minor point of criticism about the guitar is that it has zilch to do with a real guitar, it’s a full foot (30cm) shorter than a real-world Stratocaster, and weighs in at a third of its full wooden counterparts. As a game toy however, it suffices, although it would be a good idea for Red Octane to address the ominous clicking in future hardware updates.
The game itself is rather top notch quality, and not only in comparison. A wide selection of over 70 songs in varying genres need to be played, and they need to be played bad. Every song can be played on Easy, Medium, Hard and Expert modes, and the learning curve is quite delicately set up to be rather close to perfect. On easy mode you’ll only be required to use the lower 3 buttons on the fretboard, while Medium adds the blue button as well, and Hard and Expert employ all 5 buttons, forcing you to move positions and use that pinky to full effect. Apart from this base difference, more notes and intricate arrangements appear on higher difficulties, all combining to facilitate smooth progression as your fretting hand becomes more agile.
You won’t be playing all songs right away though, as you need to unlock the more advanced songs either by advancing in one of the four career modes or buying them in the in-game store. Career mode organizes the songs in groups of five, of which you have to beat 4 or 5 depending on the difficulty, before you unlock the next group. On medium or higher difficulties, you also have to play encores, or hidden unlockables, before you can progress, adding further to your repertoire and career score. Also on medium or higher, you earn in-game money which can then be used to purchase new guitars, finishes, bonus songs and characters. The songs are also more or less organized in increasing difficulty, ensuring that you’re ready to take on a next difficulty level once you finished the previous career.
The songs themselves are a nicely crafted collection. While most are covers, the quality is extremely high and they can rarely be distinguished from the real thing. Also notable is the variation that is present: while you might expect the game to be filled to the brim with wailing guitar solos the game is not all about hard rock and metal, as you also get to play more bluesy songs and even some ventures into the heavier kinds of metal. It’s also this variation which keeps the game entertaining, and while most people won’t know most of the songs beforehand, the inclusion of bands like Rage Against The Machine, Pearl Jam, Rolling Stones and Van Halen will be enjoyable for everyone. Being able to jam Guns ‘n Roses’ Sweet Child O’ Mine or the unforgettable riffs in Killing in the Name Of makes the game a lasting experience for all you air guitar enthusiasts out there. And given the Xbox 360’s online capabilities, the game won’t even end once you can play all the included songs on Expert with the guitar in your neck, since a bucketload of downloadable songs will be released on the Marketplace for you to purchase, making the game’s lasting appeal even higher.
While there is no online support in the game apart from show-off leaderboards, the game does boast some magnificent local multiplayer modes. Have friends bring over their guitars, and then jam to the tunes together as you take on either the rhythm, lead or bass parts in turns. If you manage to get a few guitars assembled in your friend group, this could easily be the party game for years to come, as you form your band together without having to rent a dedicated practice room and purchase expensive equipment.
Graphically, the game is of course a PS2 port, so don’t expect any Gears or GRAW2 level graphics. It has however been nicely upgraded, and the game as a whole is excellently presented with lots of heavy riffs pumping in the sketchy stylish menu screens. In game you’ll be focused mainly on your fretboard, but you’ll be seeing a live registration of your band playing on the rest of the screen. A nicely varied collection of stages, progressively being unlocked as you advance in the career, brings you from stages in school gyms and damp cellars onto rock clubs, stadiums and even Stonehenge. It’s all well presented, and well executed, putting nice finishing gloss on a game that’s in general already excellent for its terrific gameplay.
Concluding it all, Guitar Hero II has turned out to be one of the best experiences to be had so far on the Xbox 360. Even if you are skeptical about the kind of games to begin with, it won’t be long before you’ll get sucked into the game completely, humming to the tunes when not playing while practicing the fingerwork. While the game is an expensive affair if you have to buy the reusable guitar, it is absolutely a highly recommended game for anyone with the slightest affection for music. Even the most fanatical guitar music hater will not be able to resist rocking to the rhythms and pick up that guitar to show you how it must be done. If you got the money, you won’t regret spending it here and then waste weeks, if not months, jamming to this excellent game.
Final Score: 9 out of 10 - Very Good (How do we rate games?)