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PS2 Review - 'Guitar Hero'

by Joe Keiser on Nov. 28, 2005 @ 1:00 a.m. PST

Guitar Hero combines the best of rhythm game action with classic American music. The game puts you at center stage of your very own rock band, featuring unique characters, a selection of Gibson electric guitars to play and concert venues that grow in size as your music career progress. The title includes over 30 licensed rock songs including tracks originally made famous by such artists as Ozzy Osbourne, David Bowie, Boston, Sum 41, Audioslave, White Zombie, Franz Ferdinand, and The Ramones.

Genre: Puzzle/Rhythm
Publisher: Red Octane
Developer: Harmonix
Release Date: November 7, 2005

Harmonix just might be my favorite developer currently in the business. See, this is a company that was not created to make videogames, but to build products that show the less musically inclined how wonderful making music is. Every video game they've made that has adhered to this philosophy has been a pleasure to play, and if you haven't touched their older, underrated gems – Frequency, Amplitude, and Karaoke Revolution – I highly encourage you to do so.

But I can't recommend any of these products as much as I recommend Guitar Hero, their latest game. It represents the highest height of their design philosophy and the greatest trust that has ever been placed in them by a publisher, and the result absolutely cannot be missed.

In their previous works, Harmonix's games were somewhat limited by their interface. Their earliest titles used the standard PS2 controller to implement what was at heart a rather simple rhythm game. Their aesthetic charm and impeccably chosen music nevertheless still managed to entrance the player, enough for Konami to entrust them with Karaoke Revolution – the microphone-driven masterpiece of party gaming. With Guitar Hero, though, all boundaries are gone. The game comes with a large plastic guitar controller, designed specifically for use with the game. It eliminates all the abstraction that may have kept a player from being totally absorbed by their previous games. In short, it no longer feels like you're playing a reasonable facsimile of music-making – you are playing the song, you are rocking out. The guitar controller is integral to the experience, and represents a huge step forward for their games.

Guitar Hero is an exceedingly simple game. Colored markers roll out towards the player, who then holds down the correspondingly-colored fret button on the guitar. When the marker reaches the target, the player taps the strum stick – the markers then disappear, the next guitar notes in the song play, and points are doled out. If the marker is followed by a line, the fret buttons are supposed to be held down for as line as that line is on screen – but the guitar also has a "whammy" bar, which can be used during these long notes to distort the music. Turn the guitar vertical (tip: you'll do it accidentally, when you get really into it), and you can also enter star mode, which doubles your point bonuses. You'll get star power for this mode as a matter of course - that's the vast majority of the game, but that is absolutely all it needs.

Harmonix understands something about their games – at the absolute most basic level, making music is inherently this simple. Hold down some buttons and move your hand according to what a book or screen tells you and you're performing a song. They know that it's not actually as simple as the mechanics of such a thing imply, but that it feels great to do this. Guitar Hero captures this perfectly. When the notes are flying frantically toward you, and you're hitting them, and you're making music – it doesn't matter that the game is simple, because the experience is so emotionally charged, and because doing this "simple" task is actually quite difficult. Easy to learn, difficult to master, indeed.

The presentation and aesthetics knock the whole thing out of the park. The song list, easily the most important part of this type of game, is just about perfect. Guitar Hero is about rocking, and the soundtrack rocks in every decade. From Judas Priest to Queen to Franz Ferdinand and Queens of the Stone Age, there is something for everyone with a pulse. What's more, every song, even if it's not really your cup of tea, has an awesome guitar track that is an absolute blast to play. If you're from Boston, this game should be a particular treat for you, as most of the unlockable bonus songs represent the best of the local scene of that city; even if you're not from there, some of those songs should charm you anyway.

The graphics and visual presentation are reminiscent of Karaoke Revolution – the models are exaggerated and the levels range from the early, no-name venues to the sold-out stadium concert – but it all looks great. Even the loading screen goes to eleven, with tips for the game and the hard rock lifestyle. The animations are especially energetic – at the end of a song, when your character beats his guitar into the stage, it's hard not to follow suit. Of course, you'll likely be too focused on the notes and the music to look at anything but that. The rest of the graphics are just for the rest of your friends waiting for their turn to play.

If you have such inclined friends (and after showing them this game a few times, you likely will), the game turns from a delightful air guitar session into the centerpiece of the party. Sell your blood for two guitar controllers and this game absolutely sizzles. Multiplayer mode turns each song into a guitar duel, with each player playing similar parts of the song individually, only teaming up for the most face-rocking moments of the track. It will get heated, but if it was easy to lose the whole evening in single player, you will give up the night to the multiplayer. This game was made for everybody, so this game was made for partying.

This game is so much fun alone and parties can get so competitive that those things alone would be enough to give it incredible replayability. The unlockables are pure gravy, but they're all great nevertheless – from new guitars to new characters to new songs, it's likely you'll want everything, so it's a good thing you were playing this game anyway.

Finding flaw with this game is pretty difficult. It could be said that the song list could stand to be longer, but that could likely be said regardless of how many songs are present, you will want to play this game so much. Besides, the songs that are here are excellent and worth playing many, many times. The price will probably sting, but it's a necessity given the solid construction of the proprietary guitar controller, which is absolutely the reason this game works so well.

And it does work well. It works so, so well. I'm a musically-deficient doofus, but Harmonix's games have given me a way to experience how intense and joyous making music can be. None of their games have captured this experience better than Guitar Hero. Let's be perfectly frank here; games this good come out very rarely, and when they do it feels like a gift. Guitar Hero is the gift of a great game and the gift of music. It is the gift of rocking your walls clean off your house. Get it for yourself, and get it for the people you love most, and you will be annoying your neighbors for weeks.

And I can guarantee it will never feel better.

Score: 9.7/10

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