Release date: Available now
Who hasn’t dreamed of being on stage singing for thousands of adoring fans? It’s a fantasy that knows no age limit, no racial or gender barriers. But most of us are missing the one major element that would make that fantasy a reality: talent. And that’s where developer Neversoft’s Guitar Hero series comes in. Playing interactive music games, be they Guitar Hero, Rock Band, even vocal-only products such as Lips, gives even the tone-deaf player the opportunity to step up and be a superstar. Guitar Hero 5 takes the now-commonplace music-game mechanic and spruces it up a bit, giving us another good reason to drag out the plastic instruments and rock out until our hands cramp and our vocal cords turn to mush.
One of the first things I do when I play a new Guitar Hero or Rock Band game is to check out the tutorials. In the past, these how-to segments have been anywhere from boring to creative while still filling you in on the basics. The tutorials in GH5 are the most comprehensive that I’ve seen in the GH series. There are detailed sequences for all of the instruments in the game, including some valuable advice on how to keep the mind and body sharp while playing (guitarists and drummers should stretch often, drummers should have good posture, singers should drink room-temperature water to keep the vocal chords fresh, and everyone should take frequent breaks). But the most useful additions to the tutorials are the sections on reaching for the fifth fret button and alt-strumming, two techniques that are very important for guitar players about to make the terrifying leap from medium to hard difficulty.
The online multiplayer mode has received a major face lift. Gone are the head-to-head guitar battles and the old Faceoff mode. Pro Faceoff remains, joined by some excellent newcomers. Momentum adjusts your difficulty level as you play, forcing you to stop hiding in easy and medium and play to your ability if you want to succeed. In Streakers, the winner is the player who finishes a song with the longest note streak. Do or Die lets you miss three notes in a song before failing you out. Perfectionist rewards 100% performances with victory. And Rock Fest is the combination of them all, in which players vote on which mode to use before play begins.
The GH5 career-mode setlist includes 85 songs, more than twice the tunes than in GH3 (bonus songs excluded). The new list includes less metal and more modern rock, with most of the songs by bands that might not be familiar to most players. Gameplay-wise, nothing has changed; you’re still strumming, drumming or singing the notes as they scroll down or across the screen. The interface has been slightly but effectively redesigned, with the star-power meter and the multiplier display integrated into the note highway, allowing spectators to see more of the animations going on behind the notes. Dolby Digital support has also been added, giving players with digital audio hookups much better sound quality. The songs are divided among 14 venues that are unlocked as you progress through the setlist. Attached to each song is a challenge that, if completed, adds up to three stars to your performance (up to nine stars per song); the faster you pile up the stars, the faster the new venues are unlocked. And the end-of-venue encores from previous games have been replaced by manufacturer’s challenges, in which you can choose any song in the game to try to complete the tasks. But the coolest gameplay innovation in GH5 is the ability to use your Xbox Live avatar as a playable character. Just select your avatar in the Rock Star Creator, spend a few minutes customizing his or her instruments, then enter the game and watch as your trusty simulacrum rocks out onstage with Johnny Napalm, Lars Umlaut and the rest of the GH crew. And veteran players will be pleased to learn that all of the songs in the game are unlocked out of the box in Quickplay mode, so you won’t have to enter those tricky cheat codes to get access to your favorite tunes.
If there’s a fly in the GH5 ointment, its in the organization of the songs in Career mode. Whereas the difficulty level of the songs gradually increased in previous games, in GH5 the early songs have some fairly complex rhythms and other musical concepts; the easiest song in the setlist (“Comedown” by Bush) is song number 25, followed almost immediately by one of the most difficult (“Dancing With Myself” by Billy Idol), which features rapid notes and lots of syncopation. Also, ironically enough, the hardest part of the package to use is the one with the least amount of user support. GH Mix 2.0 allows you to use your guitars and drums to create original songs (including note charts) that you can upload to the rest of the GH community. Unfortunately, you need some knowledge of music theory and lots of patience to figure out how the application works. After some fooling around with settings and buttons, I was able to create some passable chord progressions, but without a user’s manual or even a tutorial I was stabbing in the dark, even with a degree in music education.
Ever since the original Rock Band was released, a lively fanboy debate has raged about which is the better music game. Guitar Hero started out as a single-player experience, and the franchise has practically perfected solo music gaming. Rock Band has always focused on getting groups of people together to play as a band, and its catalog of downloadable content is vast. I say, can’t we all just get along? Guitar Hero 5 is a giant step in that direction, merging an excellent single-player mechanic and a massive and diverse setlist with a streamlined interface and a multiplayer party mode that lets anybody jump in and play at any time. It’s easily the best game in the Guitar Hero series so far, and it deserves an honored place in your music-game collection.