Guitar Hero 5 Review
It's been years since the first Guitar Hero was released, and the music game industry hasn't ever been bigger than this. After some slightly disappointing sales during the Holiday 2008 season, both Harmonix, creators of Rock Band, and Neversoft, the new stewards of the Guitar Hero franchise (under Activision's direction) have changed up their game to deliver two entirely different music games within just eight days of each other this year.
Guitar Hero 5 looks a hell of a lot like its predecessor, GH: World Tour, but it adds some very welcome new features to bring new people into the world of cheap plastic instruments even more readily - while also adding new challenges for those Expert-difficulty players who can't stop until they get five stars. The biggest of these features is what's called Party Play where any player can pick up any instrument - even if someone's already on it - and jump right in, even mid-song, on any difficulty. This can lead to wacky stuff like your friends bring over their drumsets for a simultaneous four-drummer battle, or a few of your lady friends all singing at the same time, each at a different octave, and still doing well (unlike in the past when they'd all sing into the same mic and the game was unable to handle it).
With 85 songs across a very diverse range of rock, GH5 sports one of the better soundtracks I've seen from any of these games. They've carefully chosen songs that so far I'm finding to be more fun to play than in past music games, and while opinions generally will certainly differ on this, I've found a hell of a good time playing even songs like 3 Doors Down's "Kryptonite" - which I was never really into when it was on the radio. So for that reason, just perusing the game's setlist and adding up the number of songs you know and like just doesn't quite do it - you've got to play them to know whether you like them.
The one instrument that's had the biggest rework this year is the microphone. First, you'll need to keep your controller handy, as that's what you use to activate Star Power now. But beyond that, you'll see a progress bar on every "phrase" in the song, allowing you to see in real-time how well you're doing on it. That allows for finer control of what percent of the vocals you got correct, which also makes it harder to get 100% since you can't just get most of the notes in any given phrase to get full credit. Neversoft has also added a new karaoke-style text scrolling mode, but it doesn't really make it easy to tell if you're at the right pitch. Finally, playing with more than one person on the mic can get a little confusing, as the game does track each singer's pitch, but it doesn't seem to display it on-screen. That's something that the harmonies in the imminent The Beatles: Rock Band seems to be doing right.
While GH5 has the series' signature career mode with tiers of songs and new bonus challenges to complete (that work on all difficulties, not just the tougher ones), I'm having plenty of fun just going through and improving my performance of songs in Quickplay mode, while letting friends jump in and out whenever they feel like. That's a great way to add too the game's accessibility, where you don't have to pop back to the menu just to add a player. It's also nice if there's a song on the setlist someone doesn't want to play: if you've got that one party pooper who just refuses to do this one song, just vote them out by picking it anyway and having them drop out for just that one song, then rejoin.
All that being said, Guitar Hero 5 is starting to feel like it's past its point of relevance. For me, I've spent at least $150 in the Rock Band 2 store and have a pretty solid setlist of at least 200 songs to choose from. GH5 is able to play almost all DLC songs bought during the World Tour era and can import some songs from both World Tour and Smash Hits (it costs a few bucks and only works if you still have your original manual kicking around with the unique code printed on it), but the list of importable tracks from each of these games is very incomplete and misses a lot of my favorites from each of them. While I appreciate that the developers added new bonus challenges to every one of these songs specifically for use in GH5, there are so many great tracks missing that it just doesn't feel right. For some, this will still be great, though, as the Party Play option really does make for some easy gameplay with family and friends, and anything that adds new tracks to the list is probably worth trying.
Along with the playable characters that have become a major part of the Guitar Hero franchise, Neversoft has added plenty of other ways to show your individuality. You can make custom characters with an unprecedented (for music games, at least) level of options for their looks and style, and even Microsoft's Xbox 360 Avatars are playable in-game too. But then there are the real musicians, both alive and dead, that Activision has licensed: Shirley Manson of Garbage, Johnny Cash, Kurt Cobain, Matt Bellamy of Muse, and Carlos Santana. Unlike with the real-life musicians in World Tour, though, any of these characters can play any instrument. So yes, if you really want to, you can put Johnny Cash on drums, Cobain on bass, Shirley Manson on guitar, and Carlos Santana on vocals. For some, this is likely to be a bit shameful and maybe a little disrespectful - especially of those musicians who have passed on - but for others it'll be an over-the-top blast. Personally, I'd go with more of the former than the latter.
Neversoft has expanded and reworked some of the extra features, too, like the new music editor as well as online play. But by far its best feature has to be Party Play: right now, it's simply the easiest game to set up with a random bunch of people. Two girls who insist on singing instead of playing instruments? No problem. People worried about failing? You can't in Party mode. Everyone absolutely refuses to drum? You can still get four people in. Yes, the new setlist is great, yes the career mode is basic but works fine, and yes, the new on-stage representations of many characters is both great and simultaneously iffy. But Guitar Hero 5 is the best game in the franchise yet, and the only thing that'll keep me from playing it six months from now is that I've got so many tracks already bought in Rock Band 2. GH5 is not too little, but it may wind up being too late.