Developer: Harmonix Music Systems
Release Date: July 14, 2007
Ah, the '80s. The era spawned so many pop culture phenomenon that haunt us even to this day: Back to the Future, Rubik's Cubes, The Cosby Show and, of course, all that "music" stuff — Michael Jackson, Guns 'n' Roses, AC/DC, the birth of MTV … you get the idea. Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the '80s, guilty of having one of the most unwieldy names I've seen in a long time, aims to remind gamers of this music by letting them rock out, as well as hopefully enticing non-gamer fans of '80s music into trying it out.
For some reason, GHERT80 (which, ironically enough, is perhaps the best acronym I've seen in a long time) is billed as an expansion pack to Guitar Hero 2, despite being A) developed for a console, which don't usually suffer expansions and B) entirely standalone. The reasoning behind this quickly becomes clear: It's Guitar Hero 2. It's not a new Guitar Hero game; it's Guitar Hero 2 with a lurid color scheme and new songs.
Whether or not this comes as a disappointment depends entirely on whether you've played the other games in the series, I suppose, but it's identical. Only the character models have changed into '80s representations, and several have been removed entirely. The menus, venues and general interface look, feel and act exactly the same. It's not necessarily a bad thing as if it ain't broke, don't fix it, but it's jarring nonetheless. No, the entire degree of originality in this release is relegated to the songs, which is the important part. In this respect, disappointment and praise go hand in hand. We'll deal with the latter first.
What's there is, by and large, rather good. There's a good mix of '80s music in GHERT80, it's all exquisitely note-charted as only Harmonix knows how and most of it is fairly recognizable from films of the period, if nothing else. Quiet Riot's "Metal Health," A Flock of Seagulls' "I Ran," The Vapors' "Turning Japanese" — I daresay that most people will recognize the songs on hearing them, even if they don't know the names. This leads to the first minor problem with the game, though: The music is, almost universally, U.S.-centric. Fans of the series outside of the U.S. will probably know the above songs and maybe eight of the others, if they're lucky. A lot of the bands listed didn't so much as chart outside of America, and it's a rather odd design choice, as there were a lot of prominent songs from the period that aren't included.
That brings us neatly to the second problem, which is highlighted mostly by what's missing — more specifically, lots and lots of bands. When you're basing a game on an era as rich in excellent music as the '80s, there's little excuse for missing out bands like Queen, Slayer, the aforementioned AC/DC and Guns 'n' Roses and many more besides (no Malmsteen? No Safety Dance?). It smacks a little of budgetary concerns, as a mere expansion pack presumably doesn't need those huge names. Considering the songs on offer are largely fun to play, it's a minor concern, but again, it's another tiny disappointment.
The third problem is also focused on what's missing from GHERT80, and in this case, it's the rest of the songs. The total number of tracks in the game: 30. Comparatively speaking, that's the same number as the original Guitar Hero had, not counting bonus songs. For an expansion pack, it's "acceptable," but nothing more, and perhaps not even that, given the price at which the game was released. The whole product smacks of frugality, really. The exact same assets are used as were in Guitar Hero 2 (right down to the special reward guitars), there are no real bonuses, few of the "huge" bands one might have hoped for and the number of songs is limited.
While we're on this gigantic rant, I'll point out that having a song finish with a fade-out in a Guitar Hero game is somewhat ridiculous and that the mixing occasionally feels a little off, as in one or two songs, the guitar sounds far too quiet and then far too loud, seemingly at random. I am willing to concede that the latter may simply be my TV, and that the former is because it's one of the few songs in the game that isn't a cover, but it's still entirely fourth-wall breaking in a game set entirely on stage. The covers themselves are generally pretty good, but a couple of songs are absolutely appalling. "Holy Diver," I'm looking at you.
Still, GHERT80 is not all bad. As has already been said, the included songs really are fun to play, and there are enough great little tracks in there that this disc is included in my thoughts whenever I feel like a game of Guitar Hero. Extreme's shred-heavy "Play With Me" is probably my favorite final song across all four GH games, and the variation of rhythms and note-chart styles in most of the other songs keeps the game fresh, although there's nothing quite as different as "Misirlou" or "Beast and the Harlot," which were featured in Guitar Hero 2 The difficulty level varies a bit; by and large, it's a little easier than GH2, which seems a little odd, with only a few songs being genuinely challenging, and most of the others are "hard" only by virtue of having a truly evil solo toward the end of an otherwise easy song.
This is about where I run out of things to say about Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the '80s, which emphasizes that earlier point: there's really nothing new here. It is truly just GH2 with a garish color scheme, some different character models, 30 new songs and nothing else. It feels incredibly bare, but as a song pack, it stands up surprisingly well. The major issue is the staggering price, but with Guitar Hero 3 now released, I imagine that will drop a little. If you're a long-standing fan of the series, then chances are you'll want to pick up GHERT80. Casual players may only want to pick it up if they like the music, but experienced players who want new songs should find some joy in this, even though the best that can really be said for it is that it's "OK."
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