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Guitar Hero: Smash Hits Review

By Jeff Buckland, 6/30/2009

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In the long-running line of Guitar Hero games that get released, it's easy to start seeing them as the same game with a different track list. After all, the two releases this month make a total of six Guitar Hero games released on major console platforms in the last year. In the case of Smash Hits, a new track list really is about the only new thing added, but it's the ability to play classic GH songs with all of the modernized features of the latest games that Activision is banking on.

Smash Hits takes songs from older Guitar Hero games from the very first up through last year's Aerosmith, and brings them squarely into 2009 with the full band play that was introduced late last year as well as the list of features (drumming over, Expert+ for drums, sections for that goofy touch panel on the World Tour guitars) that have been creeping into the franchise since Neversoft took over back in 2007. And this time, it's 100% master tracks, something that may be a plus for fans of the past games that loved the music but hated the cover bands of Guitar Hero's formative days.

So while you'll be able to make your own customized rocker or use the group of characters the series is known for (Pandora, Axel, and so on), and play a wide selection of generally pretty good tunes, you'll quickly realize there are no new features in Smash Hits. So in that case, there's no reason the songs in this game couldn't have just been released as World Tour DLC (which would've been compatible with the upcoming GH5) for mixed setlists with other, newer GH tracks. Here, you'll get 48 songs for the low, low price of $60 (or $50 on the Wii), which admittedly is cheaper than the usual DLC price tag on a dollars-per-song basis, but it also means you'll have to accept a "Psychobilly Freakout"-quality song for every "More Than a Feeling".

Now, the selection of music for a game like this is obviously subjective, but the developers - Beenox for this game, not Neversoft - seemed to have this need to cover the full catalog of past Guitar Hero games, no matter how bad some of the stuff was. So yes, you'll get to enjoy Judas Priest's "Electric Eye" from Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s, and then trudge through five more songs from the same game, including the excruciating Poison song "Nothin' But a Good Time". The one Aerosmith song they selected to include here, "Back in the Saddle", wasn't even one of the band's biggest hits and I can't imagine it being any huge favorite over the much better selection available in the original game.

Admittedly, quite a few better choices are in here as well: Alice in Chains' "Them Bones", Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name", Joan Jett's "I Love Rock and Roll", and Ozzy Osbourne's "Bark at the Moon" are all in-game along with quite a few more great picks. Oh, and I thought it was funny that Living Colour's "Cult of Personality" was pulled in from GH2 - should there be any one-hit wonders in a game that supposedly celebrates legendary songs? At least all of the songs are fully unlocked right from the start in the Quickplay mode, and while the same Career mode "get this number of stars to unlock the next tier of songs" unlocking system seen in GH: Metallica is back for this game, the Career mode is so shallow that you might as well just jump into Band Quickplay anyway. And for a lot of gamers, that's just fine, but those of us wanting some kind of goal while still playing any song we want, we'll just have to wait for GH5 and its more open, less linear system of giving players optional, tiered challengers to complete on a given song.

Some gamers are serious about their note charts, often going to lengths to analyze why one developer is better than another at creating note progressions that make more sense to either real musicians or at least gamers who play on Expert. And in that respect, many gamers are talking trash about Beenox's note chart creation here, but I just don't see what makes this so much worse than other recent music games because there's just no way to accurately represent the huge number of chords and strums on a real guitar when you've got five buttons and a single strum bar - until that barrier is broken, playing guitar in these games is pretty damn fake. One thing I should mention is that Beenox completely redid the note charts for all instruments on all songs, including the guitar tracks, so if you have any muscle memory of classic songs from past Guitar Hero games, you'll have something new to learn - or you might get upset that it's not exactly like it was. For the most part the difficulty level in these changes has gone up, as Expert today is quite a bit tougher than it was four years ago.

So while I don't find Beenox's redone note charts to necessarily be a glaring issue, their choice of songs is kind of frustrating. They can't make everyone happy with any given setlist, but I was hoping that a compilation of the most popular songs pulled from a selection of hundreds over the years would give me a better ratio of songs I actually want to play (versus songs I don't) than most other music games. But for me, that ratio turned out to be about the same for Smash Hits.

Beyond that, the GHTunes music editor has been copied over from World Tour and while I still find it to be vastly inferior to even decent casual music software on the PC and essentially useless for anyone who wants to really make music and share it with anyone other than Guitar Hero players, some will enjoy its inclusion here. Unfortunately, the ability to play downloadable songs is completely gone. Also, there is no way to export these songs from Smash Hits into any other Guitar Hero, past or future. Then again, Harmonix didn't intend on having Rock Band export its tracks to the sequel when they first launched the game, and that ability was added later, so I'm hoping that Activision gets on the ball with this in time for Guitar Hero 5 in a few months.

So while we wait for GH5 and The Beatles to hit this September and we continue to buy tracks for the major two games released last year, it may be tempting to pop down to the store to pick up Smash Hits - but I highly recommend you drop by Wikipedia to see the track list first, because thatlist of songs is about the only unique feature that this game has. If you've got the controllers already bought and the friends sitting around that are willing to play at least half of these songs either for the first time or in the new, updated way, then by all means go for it. If any of those conditions fail, though, you might want to wait three months for the next major iteration in Guitar Hero.

Overall: 75%



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