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Guitar Hero Review

By Jeff Buckland, 2/24/2006

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If you kind of like the idea of a music-based "rhythm" game but are concerned with how Dance Dance Revolution (and its many clones) might make you look with all that strutting around, then have I got a game for you. Harmonix, creators of standard-PS2-controller-based music games Frequency and Amplitude have really outdone themselves to make Guitar Hero. They teamed up with game controller maker RedOctane to make this game and its unique guitar controller, and the overall package is a total blast to play - if you can get over the controller's weaknesses.

Guitar Hero has you taking the lead guitarist position of an up and coming band. Your mission will be to cover many guitar classics from the 70s on through the modern day with the rest of your band. Dozens of artists are included here, like Black Sabbath, Megadeth, Judas Priest, Deep Purple, White Zombie, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the Ramones. Even even more recent favorites like Franz Ferdinand, Audioslave, and Queens of the Stone Age are represented.

Your task will be to play through tiers of songs to get to the next tier (which usually includes tougher songs to play). This works the same way in both the career and in the regular game modes, although the career mode also throws in the ability to earn money. Your payday will increase the better you do on the guitar, and this cash can unlock various bits and pieces. But probably the biggest thing you can unlock is a secondary set of whole songs that are licensed from some great, although lesser-known bands worldwide.

The career mode also allows you to play a range of venues, starting at small clubs and finishing at huge stadiums (although I don't remember the last time I heard of a cover band hitting the American Airlines center!). While the display at the bottom of the screen will show the notes you need to play sliding towards you, much like Harmonix' previous game Amplitude did, you'll actually see your band taking up a majority of the screen, playing and smashing things. One nice thing I really liked is that the notes you play are shown on screen being played by your character accurately. Screw up, and he or she will screw up as well. And of course, if you screw up too much, you get booed off the stage and get kicked back to the menus to pick some other song.

So, how does this game actually, well, work? It comes with a guitar controller, which is a good size smaller than a real rhythm guitar. There's the strum bar that can be flicked up or down, and five fret buttons which much be held while you strum to get a note (and sometimes you'll need to hold more than one fret button to get the right note). You'll also be able to hold some notes and use the whammy bar on the guitar to "wave" your note around - this builds up a meter called Star Power, which you can then release to gain even more points for doing well. On the easiest difficulty, only three fret buttons are used. Medium difficulty steps that number up to four, while Hard and Expert will require you go to the fifth fret button pretty often.

As you play, hitting certain sequences of notes without error will increase your Star Power meter. You'll also get to fill this up when holding a note and using the whammy bar to tweak it. When the meter fills up, you can tilt the guitar upright and activate your Star Power, which will introduce a 2x multiplier to your score, and will also add in with any multipliers you've already got from hitting all notes in a streak without errors. Star power won't actually change the sound of the guitar, but your character on-screen will flip out and do all kinds of crazy things. Of course, you won't even get much of a chance to see that, because you'll be concentrating on the notes coming at you in the bottom of the screen.

While I won't post the full song list for Guitar Hero here, as it could be considered a spoiler for those who want to be surprised by the developers' selections, I can link to the song list here on Wikipedia for those who would rather see the music selection before buying. Do note, though, that the songs when played by your band sound quite a bit like the originals but they're not exactly the same, because the story here is that you're playing in a cover band rather than the real bands. Therefore, you won't hear the original recordings, but instead eerily similar tracks. The guitars sound pretty close to the original, as well as the drums, but you'll know these are just facsimiles once you start expecting the signature voices of Ozzy Osbourne or Chris Cornell and get someone who does a nice job but just can't mimic the real thing. It's kind of disappointing until you realize that the game would be very tough to develop using the original recordings, since the game does reproduce each musician (and the vocals) separately and then pieces them together as you play.

When it comes to actually winning at this game and scoring lots of error-free points, your success on the guitar controller really does take a lot of coordination and flexibility. The whole thing's plastic and so the neck, which is clearly the most breakable piece, winds up being very thick compared to a real guitar. To hold it and still press the fret buttons without any discomfort, big hands will be needed. Also, constantly flicking the strum bar up and down is noisy, so if you really want to get into the music, be prepared to turn up your TV to drown out all the clicking the controller generates.

Guitar Hero really adds some depth to this game by including four difficulty modes. Every song is played quite differently on each mode, although you'll find that even on expert all your movements still couldn't even remotely reproduce the sounds of these guitar legends. It really helps you give a lot of respect to the guitar masters over the years, but from the perspective of a video game you just paid $60 or more for, the fact that mastering the expert mode still doesn't guarantee success with a real guitar isn't terribly encouraging. Just so I make this clear: Guitar Hero is a fun game and can really generate some interest in some great rock classics, but it's nothing like playing a real guitar. You probably won't learn anything you can use in the real world by playing this game, so just enjoy it for what it is.

Most of my complaints about this game revolve around the controller itself. It's just too different from a real guitar for me to even be motivated to try and work on the Hard or Expert difficulties, and while plenty of people out there will do it just because it's a challenge, that's not enough for me. There are also quite a few songs I'd have rather seen on the track list, even though my love for classic rock only covers the bare essentials. I was surprised to realize that this is both good and bad. It's bad because I didn't have an instant knowledge or love for many of the songs. It's also good, though, because I found myself starting to like songs that I've heard many times but never would have enjoyed if I didn't have to try and belt them out on a plastic thing hooked to my PS2.

A two-player mode is included in Guitar Hero, but you'll need to dig up another guitar controller to really enjoy it. RedOctane has them on their website, but they charge way too much in my opinion for the extra controller - as of this writing, it's $40 for the black one and $50 for the red one. And also, the game can be done over a regular PS2 controller, but it's no good for the two-player mode since you really need an even playing field for two players to enjoy this one to its fullest.

Harmonix has another excellent game on their hands with Guitar Hero, but the reliance on an uncomfortable controller not only raises the game's price but it also is just sometimes too much effort to even want to play. It'd help if I was actually learning real guitar skills or something, but I can't even get that out of it. I've really had fun with the musical selection, but when it comes down to it, I felt that difficulties with the controller really held back my enjoyment of an otherwise great, original title.

Overall: 83%



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