Guitar Hero expands its horizons
As evidenced by the surprisingly acceptable sales performance of some of the recent knock-off music game ventures, there definitely exists a sizable niche of those who wish to play Guitar Hero and Rock Band, but who either disapprove of the off-color lyrical nature of some of the included tracks or, uh, just don’t really like guitar or rock music. To date, however, we’ve yet to encounter even a single game of comparable quality to the industry leaders which caters to this growing segment of the market. Now, Activision seeks to break this trend with Band Hero, which embodies a big-budget migration of the wildly popular genre of videogames into the pop genre of music. (It might have been more accurate under the circumstances to label it Pop Hero, but perhaps that name isn’t quite so catchy.)
All things considered, Band Hero is basically Guitar Hero 5 with a shorter (by 25%) track list, a much milder tone and presentation, and a wider variety of popular music. That makes it a more appealing choice for mothers looking to jam with their youngsters or people who don’t appreciate a lot of genuine rock—but can it live up to the standards set by its predecessors?
5% Taylor Swift
Hardware-wise, Band Hero’s instruments are seemingly identical iterations of the Guitar Hero 5 peripherals we’ve all come to know and love, but in that regard, they warrant few complaints. The reliability woes which plagued the Rock Band line of accessories don’t seem to apply to RedOctane’s latest, and that’s perhaps the most important recommendation they can receive. Assembly took around five minutes before we were ready to rock—er, pop—and we’ve found very little that we don’t enjoy about the trifecta of faux-musicianship (drums, guitar/bass, and microphone). The drums and guitar are, of course, wireless, though they each require the insertion of a Wii remote (which, admittedly, is a bit of an annoyance). The microphone is wired and connects to one of the two USB ports on the back of the Wii. If you get everything unpacked and you seem to be missing your drumsticks, don’t fret (little music joke there); check the nifty compartment on the side of the set which effectively secures them in place when they aren’t being used (an excellent design point).
Loading up the software, the biggest and most evident change from the outset is a reworked interface. It’s still as simple as ever, but now it’s considerably… er, girlier, with purplish-pink tones lining the menus and any hint of sacrilegious graffiti conspicuously absent. It’s immediately obvious that the focus of this game has shifted, though the menu items will be familiar to anyone who spent time with Guitar Hero 5. On that note, the same great innovations that earned 5 its near-universal critical acceptance are inherited here, with every song (of the 65 total) in the game immediately available for play and plenty of cheats and other options openly provided with no need for silly button combinations and repeated visits to GameFAQs.
Speaking of songs, as you’ve already discerned, the song list is truly the biggest change worth mentioning in Band Hero. Whether or not it suits you, then, should be the first issue you address when considering a purchase. While there’s still a reasonable selection of older music on the track list, as well as plenty of genre diversity (to include a mentionable degree of rock music regardless—songs from Poison, Tonic, Everclear, and 3 Doors Down, among a short list of other popular rock artists, are included), the major difference between this and previous releases is the overall mitigation of rock influence (and near-eradication of anything classifying as hard rock or metal) in context with the total package.
Thus, if you fancy the likes of Taylor Swift, Hilary Duff, Fall Out Boy, Maroon 5, and any other variety of recent pop stars, Band Hero is for you. The song list is also specifically formulated to provide a more family-friendly experience—with very few (though still some) lyrical vulgarities of any type—so if you’re a mother searching for a Guitar Hero/Rock Band you can guiltlessly share with your preteens, Band Hero fits the bill. On the other hand, whether or not you can appreciate rocking out to tunes which so prominently rely on such artificiality and heavily-produced qualities of sound is something worth investigating. (What’s strange is the fact that the Nintendo DS version of the game, featuring just 30 songs total, arguably carries a stronger song list than this console-based counterpart.) Unless you fall squarely within the niche targeted by Band Hero’s formula, you’ll likely find the experience lacking the same sense of authenticity and grandeur typical of Band Hero’s pedigree.
Guitar Hero 5, just less guitar
Everything else is practically equivalent to Guitar Hero 5, and while that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it does pretty firmly establish Band Hero as a parallel branch of the Hero series rather than an evolution of the series. If you’ve yet to experience the refinements that were introduced in 5, you’ll appreciate them in Band Hero. The general philosophy is a move toward greater simplicity and accessibility—a focus on fun over all else—and that same philosophy permeates Band Hero’s design as well. As previously mentioned, all songs and a plethora of options and cheats are available right from the beginning, making it easy to pick up a copy of the game and start partying. The unlockable content, meanwhile, has been repopulated with additional outfits and characters and the like in exchange for anything pivotal to multiplayer enjoyment (such as songs).
Keep in mind that the move toward diminished rock influence also logically affects the gameplay. For starters, you’ll find yourself playing quasi-guitar parts more than ever before—keyboards, synth, and so on frequently substitute. On the whole, even on expert difficulty, the guitar parts are notably easier than in previous series installments, providing yet another reason for hesitation if you’re a franchise veteran.
But functionally, again, this is the same package. All the same game modes apply, which have been covered plenty of times before. Regardless, here’s a quick enumeration of the basic features:
Career – The basic run through the songs in the game separated by a series of venues. Here’s where you’ll find plenty of unlockable supplemental content such as the aforementioned characters and outfits. The additional gold/platinum/diamond one-per-song challenges that were made popular in Guitar Hero 5 (“Score X number of points”, “Hit X number of yellow notes”) serve as a fun extension to the usual hit-as-many-notes-as-possible gameplay. One minor addition here that’s definitely worth noting is Fan Requests—which we’ll cover in a moment.
Music Store – You can also transfer 69 of the Guitar Hero 5 songs to Band Hero.
GH Studio – Better than ever before, this is where you can create your own tunes (though it takes ages) and then upload them to the public server for others to download and rate. Of course, you can always just download songs that others have spent the time to make, which is fun—though the MIDI instruments don’t come close to approximating the quality of anything recorded live, of course. Some UI-related annoyances apply, such as the inability to search for a phrase within a song’s title (for instance, Zelda only reveals songs that start with the word), but it’s still leaps and bounds ahead of any sort of customization offered by competing games. Oh, just be sure you download Zelda Medley by CheesecakeMilita – it’s awesome.
Rock Star Creator
Competitive – Again, offering the same impressive breadth of options available to owners of Guitar Hero 5
Roadie Battle – The same DS/Wii competitive mode featured in GH5 for Wii
Mii Freestyle – Pick a group of Miis, choose a musical style, and then freestyle jam. You can record videos of your performances. Again, a returning feature from GH5—mostly a short-lived distraction.
Everything listed above is functionally identical to its Guitar Hero 5 counterpart, which probably isn’t too surprising considering that it’s only been two months since. However, there are two exceptions (additions) to Band Hero that are worth noting; both involve the use of a Nintendo DS.
While playing through Career Mode, you’ll encounter regular Fan Requests that will require you to link a Nintendo DS (with Band Hero game) and complete a specific challenge—a variation on the normal gameplay—on the DS, after which you’ll unlock a new collectible of some sort on the Wii version. It’s fun, though it hardly single-handedly warrants a purchase of the DS title, of course.
The other (more practical) feature is a part of DS Party Play, which made our time with the game a lot more enjoyable. This is an innovative feature which allows anyone in the room to pick up the DS (no Band Hero cartridge required) and link up to the Wii game, after which they can control the song list to their liking while others are still playing. This effectively eliminates the downtime between gigs, meaning there are far fewer opportunities to wuss out and leave while your buddies argue over what to rock out to next: Jesse McCartney or Katrina and The Waves. Or, if you’re particularly creative like us, this makes it easy and fun to sporadically condemn whoever’s holding an instrument to a surprise double-header featuring The Spice Girls via Wannabe twice back-to-back.
All things considered
This amounts to over a dozen different Guitar Hero titles in just around two and a half years, so one has to question whether or not the series has reached its saturation point. Even with all of the welcomed refinements of Guitar Hero 5 in hand along with the couple of additional features mentioned above, this is ultimately little more than a glorified Guitar Hero 5 song pack which just so happens to transcend the usual musical genre of the series. The fact that it’s selling at full price in spite of this is probably the biggest issue at hand here. However, this is truly the first franchise entry to date which is targeted directly at the pop/top 40/family-oriented niche audience—so that certainly counts for something.
Of course, this isn’t the only game on the block that’s attempted to fill this hole in the market. Releasing parallel to Band Hero is the equally unoffensive Lego Rock Band, but Lego includes still fewer overall songs and retains the genre-centric rock focus which has defined nearly all popular games of this type to date—so it’s really a different style of product. There’s also a thin selection of second-rate offerings from other companies seeking a piece of the plastic musical instrument pie, but none of those approaches the same level of quality as either the Rock Band or Guitar Hero series of games.
So, all things considered, if you’re in the market for a pop-centric concert simulation music game targeted at young teens or families looking to jam, Band Hero is your current best option. It isn’t perfect, and it certainly isn’t revolutionary, but it is the first and only fully-featured fusion of the popular formula with the top 40 format.