There is no denying that the past year has been overrun with the music genre, which is starting to suffocate our poor helpless consoles. There have been no less than 10 Guitar Hero titles alone, 4 of which are from this year, and things get continually more claustrophobic when you factor in some considerable competition. As much as I love Guitar Hero, it has become arguably too much of a good thing.
However, Activision has attempted to set the record straight with Guitar Hero 5, an effort that reaches that defining point in a band’s career where things start to mature. But is it enough to secure a podium position in the charts?
Guitar Hero 5 represents the first true sequel since last year’s World Tour, and on the surface not much has changed. That is, until you realise that the game’s navigation system has received a much needed face lift, making it incredibly easy and hassle free to start a game. This is most evident from the new Party Play mode, which actively encourages the pick up and play mechanic that is absolutely crucial for heated party scenarios.
Ingeniously, Party Play is accessible right after you first fire up the game, as the main menu acts as a virtual juke box. Following the press of a button you are instantaneously given a random song to play, without having to trawl through an endless list of menus. All it asks of you is the instrument that you wish to use along with your chosen difficulty, and, before you know it, you are playing the very song that was being sampled on the main menu.
From here, any other band member that has a plastic instrument to hand can join in the fun without the song ever needing to come to an abrupt halt, and settings such as the difficulty can be tweaked in real time on demand.
No matter what you do in this mode, the music will always be blaring as people drop in and out, staying on a continuous shuffle of the game’s entire soundtrack, although you can manually select a song if you so desire. On paper it may not sound so remarkable, but it’s so incredibly intuitive that you have to wonder why this feature wasn’t featured in any music game before it.
Multiplayer is where Guitar Hero 5 really holds its own, thanks to an injection of variety and new gameplay possibilities. For the first time, the game allows any combination of instruments to be thrashed at once, meaning that if you have always wanted to form a band which comprises of four guitarists, or four drummers if you are feeling ambitious and have the floor space, then you are in luck.
To keep things simple, every mode in the game is managed through a redesigned and intrinsic lobby area, which lists every available player on the screen before commencing a match. It works in the same way as a typical online game where each user must set their status to ready before the match can begin, in this case requiring you to setup your instrument, difficulty setting and band avatar.
In a novel touch, you can customise the remaining computer controlled characters by assigning any member, be it the singer, vocalist, lead guitarist or bass player, to one of the game’s predetermined avatars or your own disfigured creation. This cosmetic setup will then remain throughout the entirety of the game in every single mode, which makes playing through the game much more immersive and tightly focused.
Along with the standard face off and pro face off battles, Guitar Hero 5 introduces a variety of new multiplayer modes, which reinforces its strong emphasis on band party play. Momentum, for example, cleverly adjusts the difficulty as you play through a song, so if you are excelling at a particular section the difficulty will ramp up all the way to expert, or down to beginner if you miss too many notes.
The downside to this otherwise enjoyable diversion is that the sudden change in speed to your performance can sometimes be quite jarring, particularly if you are accustomed to a specific difficulty. For example, I normally play on either the hard or expert levels, yet being forced to play at a lower, slower difficulty is actually more difficult for me.
For the more egotistical of players there is the Do or Die mode, which rewards the player that successively hits the highest amount of notes within a given checkpoint, whilst kicking the inferior player who is forced to stare at an empty void every time they lose a checkpoint. It’s an addictive mode that strives on your competitive nature, making for some truly intense battles in a more inventive way than the standard face offs.
The extensive list of new multiplayer modes can then be strung together into a Rockfest, which enables you to play through a progression of matches whereby you can customise a playlist (every track is now available from the start ready to play) and assign any mode to a given song – it’s all very well thought out and pleasingly flexible.
These multiplayer mechanics help to implement a new lease of life to an age old formula, which, for the first time in years, feels fresh and compelling. The gameplay is also notably more user friendly, as it is now possible for band members to be revived by other players if their fret work is a deplorable disgrace, although this of course was already possible in the not to be mentioned Rock Band.
Playing as a band is simply more fun and complete than it was in World Tour, and they have even fixed star power by assigning it to each individual player, rather having it build collectively for the entire band. In addition, “Band Moments” provide a shower of bonus points if every member can successfully nail an allotted section of the song together, resulting in a visual flaming effect in the same vein as star power. This results in a true sense of accomplishment, evoking the fact that you are actively participating: you really do feel fully connected as a band like never before.
The main career mode has also had a revamp, which uses Guitar Hero: Metallica’s star rated system as a solid foundation. Once again, you play through a succession of increasingly elaborate venues that feature a selection of songs to play through as a gig, with progression being determined by the number of stars you achieve for each performance. This worked well for Guitar Hero: Metallica and Greatest Hits, as it meant you could skip over the more troublesome songs and concentrate on perfecting the star ratings for tracks that you want to play, so the decision to carry this system forward is very welcome indeed.
What really defines the career mode however is its new streamlined approach. There is now only one set path you can take, meaning that the co-op careers and multiple difficulties are no longer separate entities. It’s all played out in one cohesive experience, which again makes the game more accessible and eliminates the frustration of getting to a point in the career only to find you cannot complete a song, resulting in the need to restart the whole game on an easier difficulty.
To add some further variety, every song in the career mode contains a unique set of bonus challenges to achieve, ranging from score targets to whacking your whammy bar as much as possible, which in turn provides foreseeable replay value.
The adaptive create a rock star tool from World Tour also makes a triumphant return, enabling you to craft your very own puppet of worrying proportions. The customisation is as thorough as ever, making it entirely possible to spend inordinate amounts of time tinkering with the settings that mould your creation, and you can even use your official Xbox 360 avatar if you want to look as out of place as possible.
Once again, Activision has resorted to celebrity endorsement, this time incorporating the likenesses of Shirley Manson, Matthew Bellamy and Carlos Santana, along with the late Johnny Cash and Kurt Cobain. Yes that’s right, their corpses have been miraculously reincarnated, which for some fans has crossed the line of bad taste. Kurt Cobain’s digital avatar certainly hasn’t washed well with Nirvana or Courtney Love, either. Despite the controversy, each celebrity cameo is conveyed in a convincing fashion, with personalised signature moves all motion captured to perfection.
In fact, the graphics of the game have been restyled with a brush of raucous realism at long last. Gone are the days where characters sported ungainly proportions welded out of a cartoon. Instead, the game looks modern and suitably down to earth, which is reflected in the accurate likenesses for each celebrity.
Music taste is obviously wildly subjective, but the soundtrack found in Guitar Hero 5 is a diverse mix of rock classics and contemporary hits. Many artists make their digital debut here, such as Kings of Leon, Bob Dylan and The White Stripes. At 85 songs which cover 82 artists, there is certainly something for everyone, but the variety on offer is arguably diverse to a fault: on one side of the coin there’s Elton John, and on the other there’s the horrendous belching vocals of Children of Bodom, which would make nearly anyone’s ears bleed.
Nevertheless, there are still more than enough breakthrough hits that should suit most people who have even the faintest interest in rock music. Songs like Plug in Baby by Muse and Sultans of Swing by Dire straits are absolutely sublime to play.
Whilst a strong setlist is one thing, the separation of music between different games is still a sore point. What we need is some sort of revolution that allows us to store all of these tracks into one easy to manage storage place: afterall, others have managed it right? Well, Activision has attempted to conform, but unfortunately their solution isn’t terribly worthwhile at the moment.
Currently, you can import several songs from World Tour and Greatest Hits, but there is only a limited selection of 35 and 21 songs respectively that will work due to licensing issues. What’s more, you have to pay £2.99/$3.50 just to import songs you have previously bought on disc, which doesn’t do well in crushing cries that Activision are milking your money. Downloadable content for World Tour is fully compatible, however.
Overall, Guitar Hero 5 is a thoroughly enjoyable entry to the series, and is quite possibly the best Guitar Hero to date. The foundations for future titles have now been perfected, making Guitar Hero 5 the most refined and accessible addition to the series so far – now all it needs is a content distribution system on par with Rock Band’s extensive library.
The new realistic sheen is far more suiting, with celebrity likenesses becoming ever more convincing.
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Innovative new gameplay features make the experience even more enjoyable, and the party play mode works remarkably well.
Master recordings of the solid soundtrack sound great throughout, but it goes out of its way to suit all tastes a bit too much in some cases.
The game's 85 songs will keep you busy, but the variety can be a blessing as well as a curse. Additional challenges and aforementioned multiplayer modes keep the game alive however.
Guitar Hero has started to become somewhat stale in recent installments, but this fifth version prsents a refreshing take on the music genre, with its abundance of party play options and all round accessibility.