Release Date: April 3, 2007
Isn't this the kind of game that subtitles were made for? Guitar Hero II for Xbox 360 is five months late to the market, enhanced in several key areas (but not enough to be a completely separate entity), and the first entry in the series to leave the last-gen confines of the PlayStation 2. This game demands a genre-specific subtitle like "Remix" or "Remastered;" and if all else fails, a shiny "Director's Cut" always does the trick.
No such luck — it's just Guitar Hero II. And sure enough, this is pretty much the same game that has been snatched up by well over a million gamers since last November. But as expected, it does feature a handful of key enhancements: 10 (mostly excellent) new tracks, a pristine white axe (based on the Gibson X-Plorer), and some online capabilities. Gamers who missed out on the original release should not hesitate to pick this up immediately, but how about those who already dropped a small fortune on the PS2 bundle(s)?
Well, I guess that depends. How obsessive are you?
While the gameplay in Guitar Hero is largely derivative of that of the Dance Dance Revolution games, the obvious and significant difference comes with the input device. Both games rely on external accessories, and both have players interpreting scrolling on-screen commands, but the sensation of playing a guitar seems so much more realistic than that of pulling off dance moves. The "dancing" in DDR in no way resembles actual club dancing, and while real guitars don't have brightly colored buttons, the euphoric feeling of pulling off a killer solo in Guitar Hero is like no other in gaming.
Guitar Hero II doesn't mess with the core gameplay that made its predecessor an absolute phenomenon. A couple of light enhancements add to the challenge and flexibility of the experience, but the name of the game is still nailing long strings of notes, laying down chunky chords, and knocking down hardcore solos while activating your stored-up Star Power (or Rock Juice, as I like to call it). Each of the four difficulty levels in Guitar Hero II delivers a markedly different experience, giving the single-player game a staggering amount of replayability as players advance their skill level.
Unlike its predecessor, Guitar Hero II provides the tools for players to identify and refine the weakest aspects of their play. The "More Stats" option that pops up after each finished track breaks down the song into several segments and offers completion percentages for each. Using this information, players can jump into the all-new Practice mode and jump directly to any segment of any unlocked song. If you're having trouble with one of the more intense segments, you can slow the song down to a crawl in Practice mode, while a metronome keeps the beat at the slower tempo. The skill-building experience is rounded out by a trio of interactive tutorials that teach everything from the basics to advanced techniques like hammer-ons and pull-offs.
The Career mode in Guitar Hero II functions similarly to that of its predecessor, but extra care has been put into enhancing the presentation and feel of the experience. Each stop on the "tour" brings you to a new place on the map, and locales as diverse as Warped Tour and Stonehenge (yes, that Stonehenge) are included. In the Xbox 360 version, each of the eight stops features five unique tracks to play, and the completion of all five unlocks an "encore" track, which is typically longer and more legendary than the ones that preceded it. As an added bonus for those who already played the PlayStation 2 version, the ordering of the tracks has been significantly altered to make way for the additional tracks and to offer a modified experience for those who have already been down this road.
As with any worthwhile rhythm game, the soundtrack is the real star of Guitar Hero II for Xbox 360. With 48 core tracks, the soundtrack is much more diverse than that of the original, covering several genres and eras with ease. Tracks like Nirvana's "Heart Shaped Box" and Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name" happily coexist with established classics like Kansas' "Carry on Wayward Son" and The Rolling Stones' "Can't You Hear Me Knocking?" In addition to the core tracks are 26 unlockable songs, which brings the grand total to a whopping 74 playable tracks. While you may not be able to sing along to most of these bonus songs (as many come from unknown artists), chances are you'll find at least a few to love.
Ten of those 74 wide-ranging tracks are exclusive to the Xbox 360 version of Guitar Hero II, and while Rancid's "Salvation" will hardly make you feel like a savior of rock, most are fantastic additions to the series. Toadies' "Possum Kingdom" is an immediately recognizable mid-'90s alt-rock track from a band that everyone has pretty much forgotten about, while Deep Purple's "Hush" and Rick Derringer's "Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo" are memorable blasts from the past that still hold up in 2007.
I was most compelled by two new cuts released within the last year: "Life Wasted" from Pearl Jam and "Dead!" by My Chemical Romance. While not (yet) a single, "Dead!" (based on the master track) is a perfect example of what makes Guitar Hero such brilliant fun. Its intensely up-tempo chord banging quickly gives way to a ridiculously difficult solo (at least on Hard and Expert), and the whole thing wraps up in just over three minutes. When I first heard the track last fall, I mentally pegged it as a perfect candidate for the series but never actually expected it to happen, considering its unlikely nature as a single. Kudos to Harmonix for further expanding the boundaries of an already diverse selection of tracks.
Aside from the increased emphasis on training and skill building, the greatest upgrade to Guitar Hero II over its predecessor is in the form of additional multiplayer modes. As unique and addicting as the original game was, the lone two-player mode was incredibly underwhelming. It's tough to keep up momentum in a song when you only play a handful of notes at a time (with several gaps in between). Most of the people I played with were more content to simply switch off in one of the single-player modes to see who could get a higher score.
While that tepid Face-Off mode is still available, the two additional multiplayer options make Guitar Hero II a much friendlier party game for those with a second guitar. Every song in Guitar Hero II has a second backing track (either bass or rhythm guitar), and in Cooperative mode, the two intertwine, with both players working toward the same goal. This even applies to the activation of Star Power, as both players must tilt their X-Plorers toward the sky to get the full benefit of that glorious juice. Pro Face-Off mode, unlocked after completing the Career mode, essentially eliminates the need to switch off with a single guitar, as both players can play the entire track and see who truly rocks the hardest.
The Xbox 360 is arguably the most online-friendly console to date, so it comes as a bit of a surprise that Guitar Hero II does not feature support for online multiplayer. While it's true that the PlayStation 2 version also did not have this capability, the additional months of development and increased cost of the title almost require such a mode. If Dance Dance Revolution Universe can seamlessly replicate the rhythm experience via Xbox Live, then Guitar Hero II should also be equipped to handle it. Online leaderboards are a nice touch, though, and the possibilities held within downloadable content are seemingly endless, assuming that RedOctane eventually moves beyond simply repackaging tracks from the original Guitar Hero.
Achievement junkies take note — Guitar Hero II features 50 such badges of honor (or shame) that will challenge even the hardest of the hardcore players. Decently skilled players will be able to pick up a few hundred points without too much sweat, but beyond that — good luck. Many of the points are tied to completing (and mastering) Expert mode, and Achievements for 1,000-note streaks and earning 500,000 points in a song seem damn near impossible to this humble gamer. Nearly 300 Achievement points are tied directly to cooperative mode, so be prepared to sink another $60 for a second guitar if earning more than half of the total points is important to you.
This takes us right into the discussion of the Gibson X-Plorer replica included with the Guitar Hero II bundle for Xbox 360. The body of the guitar is much larger than that of the old Mini Gibson SG controller, but the neck is both shorter and skinnier than that previous model. Rectangular fret buttons replace the partially rounded ones of the past, and a d-pad and Xbox Guide Button are firmly nestled alongside the smaller Start and Back buttons on the body.
Due to Microsoft's draconian policies regarding third-party wireless controllers, the X-Plorer is wired via a USB connection, complete with an entirely unnecessary breakaway cable. Based on my experiences, the entire cable comes out when tugged. For a wired controller, though, that $60 price tag for an additional guitar seems awfully extreme. I'm sure Rock Band will break all cost records for a complete gameplay experience, but at this point, $150 for a game and two guitars is a definite bank breaker.
Dollars aside, Guitar Hero II is a sequel that improves upon its predecessor in every conceivable way, and the Xbox 360 version sweetens the pot with additional songs and light online functionality. It might be a tough sell for those who already bought the PlayStation 2 bundle, but gamers who abstained from the second entry in the best rhythm gaming franchise around should absolutely pick up this enhanced iteration of the brilliant, long-lasting experience known as Guitar Hero II.
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