Review: All the rock n' roll, none of the sex and drugs.
You know, Americans get hosed. Seriously, for being the world's melting pot, we sure get the short end of the stick when it comes to inventive games, not to mention games with big specialized controllers. Heck, the idea of an interactive music game is fairly new to us, mostly beginning this generation with games such as Samba De Amigo and Donkey Konga; where as Japanese gamers have been rocking out with their own guitar series, Guitar Freaks. Well, the good folks at Harmonix (the folks behind the cult classics Frequency and Amplitude) and Red Octane (known for their reliable Dance Dance Revolution dance pads) realized just how shallow the American guitar simulation market was, and decided to throw us a proverbial life-saver in the familiar shape of a mighty axe. Now it's our turn to flick out our pocket-lighters and rock out. With Guitar Hero, players can strap on the mother of all game controllers and rock till the stars fall out of the sky causing a fiery apocalyptic havoc that one LSD tripping rocker could only dream of? either that, or rock on until their neighbors call the cops on them for being too loud, whichever comes first.
The first thing most folks will notice about Guitar Hero is the awesome mini Gibson SG controller. The mini SG features five colored fret buttons on the neck, a strumming switch (think of an elongated light switch that snaps back into place when you release it), movable whammy bar, and volume and gain knobs (which cleverly work as start and select buttons). Sure, the game can be played using a regular controller with each fret mapped to the shoulder buttons and X, but where's the fun in that? Nothing really beats the feel of strumming out a 100+ line combo on something that feels like a real guitar. The controller also comes with an adjustable shoulder strap for that authentic look (but it's really there so you can jump around while playing). Heck, the package even has some decals to throw on there, but really, now, I can't imagine a single self-dignified soul putting stickers on a plastic guitar.
The guitar is a sturdy apparatus. The fret buttons feel good, though a little cheap when playing some of the harder songs. Also, they take a little getting used to. I know a few people who have played the game complained that their fingers got tired after the first three or four songs, but that all goes away after a few days of playing. One problem I noticed was with the middle fret button. It has a raised notch in it, which is there to help the user find his or her hand position on the guitar, but after so many songs, the notch begins to wear on your finger. Again, this problem went away after a few days of playing. The whammy bar is a great extra. It can be turned in any direction, but it only presses down in one direction. Still, all that said, the mini SG stands as a testament to Red Octane's ability to make long-lasting quality controllers.
The game's mechanics are fairly simple to grasp. There is a 3D bar on screen with different colored tracks and a line of circles at the bottom. As the bar moves along, colored bumps on the bar will move over the circles. When this happens, the player needs to hold the corresponding colored fret buttons and strum. It sounds a little complex, but it is actually very intuitive. When the player successfully plays a note, a gauge in the lower right hand portion of the screen will move right, if they miss a note, the gauge sways to the left. This gauge is called the Rock Gauge. When it is green, the player is playing very well, when it's yellow, the player needs to step up his or her game, and when it's red, it's time to change careers. To make things even more interesting, the good folks at Red Octane have included the use of hammer-ons and pull-offs. To the guitar uninitiated, hammer-ons are where the player presses one button, strums, then without strumming again, moves down the neck of the guitar, pressing the next button at the next note. Pull-offs are the exact opposite, having the player hold a series of buttons, strum once, then pull off each finger as the next note needs to be played. While this technique is useless in earlier stages, it is a complete necessity later on in the game, when guitar solos throw notes at you so fast, you'll swear that the guitar is catching fire. With five fret buttons and four usable fingers, the action gets rather intense in the later difficulties, but the game features a very kind learning curve. In the easy stages, only three fret buttons are ever used. Normal adds one more fret button and the introduction of chords (two buttons being played at once), and Hard adds in the last fret button. Expert builds on everything before it, and makes the guitar positions much more realistic. One thing that I have been asked more times than I can count, and I must make this absolutely clear, Guitar Hero WILL NOT teach you to play guitar. With only five fret buttons, there is no way to get the full effect of truly playing guitar. However, for people who have never played guitar before, it will at least give them a good lesson in how to hold the weapon.
The game is plenty of fun just utilizing the techniques above, but things get even more interesting thanks to the ?Star Power? system. Every now and then, a string of notes will show up in the shape of stars. As long as all the notes are played correctly, another meter in the lower right hand corner of the screen will fill up. When the meter is at the half-way mark, the player can then tilt the guitar upright (or press select, but tilting it upright just feels so much cooler) and activate the star power mode. When in star power mode, all notes are worth twice as much as normal, and the Rock Gauge rises faster than usual. The nice thing about Star Power is that it adds a layer of strategy to the game. If the player is good at a song and feels confident, he or she can choose to use the Star Power mode during the easier to play portions of the songs where the points can really add up. Less experienced players can choose to use the Star Power mode as an aid during the harder guitar solos, giving them an extra push to successfully complete the song.
Sadly, the whammy bar is rendered useless for most of the game. It can only be used during long held notes, which usually aren't long enough to make it worthwhile. The whammy bar's real use shows when trying to raise the Star Power gauge. If one of the star shaped notes is a held note, the faster the whammy bar is pressed during the said note, the more the Star Power gauge will be filled. Otherwise, the whammy bar is mostly there to show off.
Guitar Hero consists of three modes. The first is the Career mode. This is where the player unlocks a set of five songs at a time. When a certain number of songs in a set are beaten, another set and another stage (venue) are opened up. The game consists of six such sets, giving a total of 30 popular songs. After each song, the performance is rated and money is awarded based on how well the player did. The money can then be used to unlock more songs (17 more songs, to be exact, each from a different independent artist), behind-the-scenes videos, new characters, and new guitars. Unfortunately, the new guitars and new characters add nothing to the gameplay, and all unlockables only work for one given difficulty setting. This means that all songs, characters, and guitars will need to be unlocked multiple times for each difficulty. The characters and guitars are just pointless, being nothing more than eye candy for the background animations, which, due to the nature of the game, the player won't have time to watch.
The game also has a free play mode, which is pretty much the Career mode with the first 30 songs already unlocked and no monetary reward for completing songs. The other 17 songs will be available once they are unlocked in any difficulty of Career mode. Also, the user doesn't get to choose the character, guitar, or stage in free play mode.
Multiplayer, the third mode, is a fun diversion if you can spare the extra $40 for another guitar (because it's just not right to play Guitar Hero with a PS2 controller). Multiplayer pits players against each other in an epic battle of axework. Each player has his or her own score counter and Star Power meters, but the Rock Gauge is now placed in the middle of the screen. The gauge tilts towards the character that is winning at that point in the game. One difference in the multiplayer is that no matter how bad either player is performing, the song still continues until the end. The winner is obviously the player with the highest score at the end of the song.
Despite the fact that the main focal point of the game is the bar with the raised notes, Harmonix put some quality effort into the background effects. The game does a good job of accurately portraying what the listener is hearing through its pseudo-cartoony style. For instance, the lead singer will change depending on which song is being played. If the player is playing a song with a female lead singer, then a girl will be on stage singing, whereas if the lead singer is a guy, the game will reflect this. Another nice touch is that the band members move in synch with the music. The drummer is almost always on his mark, as are the back-up guitarists. The main character will strum every time the player strums, and will miss notes when the player misses notes. The effect, while somewhat robotic, is still very believable and helps set the mood of the game. Basically, nothing is in the background that shouldn't be there.
Obviously sound is what this game is all about, and there is ample sound to go around. The game features a total of 47 songs, ranging from Joan Jett, to Helmet, to good ?ol Black Sabbath- there's even some Megadeth thrown in for good measure. Granted, there's still room for more rock (Aerosmith isn't even in there, for one) but the song list that is available is quite fitting for a wannabe-rocker. Besides, all things considered, if this turns out to be a big hit for Harmonix (as it is shaping up to be), we can rest assured a Guitar Hero 2 isn't too far away, though no official word has been released as of yet.
One interesting thing to note about the songs in Guitar Hero is that they are all covers. While that may sound like a bad thing at first, it makes perfect since, seeing as the band in the game is a cover band. Sometimes it's obvious that the original band isn't playing, but while the singer is clearly not original (which is certainly not to say the singing is bad), the instrumentals are so good, a casual player would hardly notice. The people actually performing the music sound very professional, and deserve a big kudos.
One nice thing about Guitar Hero, and really any music game, is that it never really ends. Players will need to practice songs in the Free Play mode if they intend to ever beat every song on Career mode. This actually leads to the only problem I had with Guitar Hero- song practice. Unlike Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Hero doesn't let the player jump to a tricky spot of a song, so practice can be harder than it needs to be. Otherwise Guitar Hero is a darn-near flawless game.