It’s amazing what a little healthy competition can do to a rivalry. After creating the phenomenon of Guitar Hero and then backing it up with the polished Guitar Hero 2, the subsequent split between developers Red Octane and Harmonix brought about a number of evolutions to the successful music simulation genre including additional instruments and both strong online content matched by even stronger song support. But, it seemed that since the split, the Guitar Hero franchise has really taken back seat to Harmonix’s ever successful Rock Band franchise. With arguably better production quality, instrument quality, and a song list that mimics the runaway train that is iTunes, Rock Band has surely felt like the innovator with Guitar Hero only copying some of the great improvements brought to the table.
Now with four years under the belt of the music simulation genre and a slew of titles available on the market, it had seemed as if the series had peaked from creative ideas and the niche markets were the best to target. Games such as Guitar Hero Aerosmith, Van Halen, and Metallica, along with Rock Band AC/DC and The Beatles have brought about a musical arms race between the two companies where getting the next big band to sign on-board was tantamount to successful sales. And just when everyone thought that Harmonix’s masterpiece of Rock Band: The Beatles had tipped the scales, Activision pulled a fast one on us with their new and improved Guitar Hero 5, ripe with plenty of its own format innovations and a little more punch in the rivalry for music game sales.
Appealing to the Masses (Simplicity anyone?)
One of the most important parts of succeeding in an industry based around entertainment, such as the video game industry, is to understand the market you’re trying to sell to. In the case of music games, there are plenty of gamers of all backgrounds that enjoy the genre and the games’ abilities to top the sales charts are a testament to that. Thus, broadening the market to meet the needs of the masses is an important business strategy that is proportional to higher sales (in most cases). Just ask Nintendo who has seen their consoles go from last in the previous generation (GameCube) to first in the current one (Wii) by merely creating a simplistic, cost effective system that almost anyone can sit down and play.
Rock Band has seen a lot of success lately purely based on “wow” factor, where casual gamers see the game and instantly want to play it. Its ability to create a concert-style atmosphere had kept it on top of the casual market while still catering to the hardcore crowd through its depth, online options, and quality. Still, though, with many modern games, its complexity can scare away a large number of gamers and this is where Activision focused the most when creating Guitar Hero 5. By making the game simpler to navigate while sticking to the tried and true strategy of landing big time songs/bands, Guitar Hero 5 has really given Rock Band a run for its money in terms of quality and innovations.
Are you not much of a gamer but you’re looking for a game you can pop in and play right away? Guitar Hero 5 has this option by being able to jump immediately into any song you see on the title screen in the new Party Play mode. This is a seamless mode oriented around playing along, where players can join in or drop out at any time without stopping or restarting the song, change their difficulty level at any time, or even change the current track mid-song. This is the perfect answer to maximizing casual appeal as Guitar Hero 5 has made it even easier to play their game at a party or just in a family living room setting; rather than force you into customization of your band/members like the other titles we’ve seen, Guitar Hero 5 offers this as an option but in no way forces it upon you.
Another strong streamlining of the game’s gameplay involves the band menus for choosing your character. Any player can change their instrument, difficulty, or other options within this screen, making the process even more painless in multiplayer sessions. These miniature sub-menus actually greatly lessen the hassle that one typically faces if he/she wishes to change a small feature between gameplay and I found them very refreshing in their simplicity. Add the fact that any number of players can play the same instrument in one session and you’re sure to be enjoying the party experience even more this time around (eliminating the fight for the lead guitar position rather than the bass, for instance).
The simplicity of these features is one of the best and most refreshing evolutions (or maybe a devolution?) to the musical simulation genre as well as to videogames as a whole. I appreciate depth of customization but I can’t count the number of times I’ve turned on a game nowadays and after being barraged by mandatory tutorials, information entry, or options just thought to myself “why can’t I just play the game?” I applaud Neversoft/Red Octane’s efforts towards simplicity and believe that it has more than paid off.
For all you cheaters out there, Guitar Hero 5 also spares you the need of a code to unlock all of the songs in quick play by already making them all available from the get go. I appreciated the feature because it saved me from having to finish the career mode before trying some of the songs up to my level of guitar skill but at the same time, it kind of defeated the anticipation for me. Still, though, I feel that the inclusion of all the songs in quick play from the beginning is a plus for the series and it helps to further the game’s drive toward simplicity and pull even more gamers into the market.
If It Ain’t Broke…
As for the game itself, the core mechanics of Guitar Hero really haven’t changed much in this iteration, which isn’t really a bad thing. Sure, people may tire of the genre as this is the fifth installment to the series (not counting the numerous amounts of side iterations created) but there really is no better way to present the gameplay more effectively. Thus, with the solid gameplay intact, the best area of emphasis (aside from simplification or innovation) is most obviously the selection of songs. Fortunately, Red Octane has provided in this area as well.
I’ve heard complaints from other critics that the variety is actually a bad thing because the amount of songs you like is nullified by the overwhelming amount that you don’t; I really can’t see any weight to these criticisms. Sure, I’m a little picky about my musical tastes and in most any iteration of a music title, there are a large amount of songs I either don’t like or can’t stand. However, I feel that there are a fair amount of classic titles from any genre that I appreciate despite them not being my taste of music. Guitar Hero 5 succeeds better than any music game to date at pulling the largest group of recognizable/timeless classics from every era and I found the song list to be probably one of the strongest of any music game to date (barring downloadable content).
Career mode follows the same format as recent games with the Guitar Hero name, such as Guitar Hero: Metallica and Guitar Hero: Smash Hits where the stars that bands earn from finishing songs are used to unlock the next venue of songs (I personally find this format better than the sporadic song unlocking from Rock Band and Guitar Hero: World Tour). However, high scores are not the only thing that will earn you stars in this game as each song has its own separate challenge. Challenges require different instruments and different goals such as excessive whammying or the total number of bass drum notes successfully hit. Each challenge plays similar to the total score meter where a record meter in the bottom left hand corner of the screen gradually fills up as you perform the necessary act to fulfill the challenge. Each challenge also has 2-3 levels of completion—silver, gold, and platinum level—which are awarded successively according to the amount of times you cater to the challenge. Thus, there are a total of 7-8 stars that can be earned from each song, 5 for performance and 2-3 for its challenge, making for a strong arcade-like addition to the game’s format.
All of the other features from previous Guitar Hero titles are also available within the game, including GHStudio, where players can make their own songs. This time around, however, the whole studio is even denser featuring higher quality sound effects in larger numbers and the ability to produce longer songs. I must say, I’ve never really been tempted enough to create anything worthwhile but I always enjoy the feature for the ability to try out the work of the more dedicated fans. This feature is really just a nice way to extend the gameplay further by allowing for a strongly supported community based track editor.
Rock Star Creator is another mainstay of the series that is almost a necessity nowadays and this feature allows you to create your own band members according to your tastes (as we’ve seen in Rock Band titles as well). However, this time around, players will actually be able to use their avatars onstage as well (assuming they even took the avatars seriously in the first place). I can’t really say this is a reason to buy the Xbox version over the PS3 one if you own both systems but what I will say is to buy the game for whichever system you own instruments for.
Icing on the Cake
Guitar Hero 5 features a few other improvements to further improve the series’ appeal including a complete revamp to the game’s appearance as well as some other in-game facelifts and gameplay improvements to make for an incredible experience. First of all, many of the features from Rock Band have finally been either adopted or modified in this game, including individual star power meters for each band member as well as Band Moments, where perfection by all members within sections of songs leads to higher multipliers. Also noteworthy is the fact that fallen players are revived by the others playing well (rather than having to use star power like in Rock Band). Once revived, players don’t have a certain amount of strikes before they lose, either, which I feel adds to the flow of the gameplay.
New and improved competitive multiplayer options have also been added to the mix, featuring a large amount of extra modes both on and off the internet. Face-off and Pro Face-off are the usual competitive modes; Momentum changes players’ difficulty setting mid-song according to their level of performance; Streakers is completely based around achieving higher note streaks through individual sections; Do or Die is a 3-strikes-you’re-out mode where missing a note within a section warrants a strike; Elimination eliminates the weakest link (score-wise) of each section until only one remains; Perfectionist involves hitting every note in the song or failure. Any of these modes can be accessed via the RockFest multiplayer mode, where players vote on the type of mode to play, similar to recent first person shooters, and all of them can be played with up to 4 (local) and 8 (online) players in either Competitive or Team Competitive Modes. As with any multiplayer, density of options is a huge plus and Guitar Hero 5 goes above and beyond to bring players the most options we’ve seen yet.
Finally, players can use the trusty codes on the back of the game manuals from either Guitar Hero: World Tour or Guitar Hero: Smash Hits to import songs to Guitar Hero 5. This, of course, comes at a price of 280 Microsoft Points ($3.50) for World Tour and 160 points ($2.00) for Smash Hits. At first I was a little annoyed that I was being charged for this but got over it as I continued to love the vast number of improvements in Guitar Hero 5; if you owned either of the previous two games, the price is well worth it.
I’ve got to say, after only 4 years since the music simulation genre started and literally less than a year between World Tour and Guitar Hero 5’s release, I thought I was getting tired of the music genre, especially on the Guitar Hero side of things. However, Neversoft and Red Octane have created such a masterpiece in this title with such emphasis on simplicity that it’s hard not to get back into the genre. Everything about the game is either polished or innovated and the vast track list only enhances the appeal. I’m happy to be loving a music game again and I’m sure to be playing this one for some time. Recommended.