I honestly have no idea how many Guitar Hero spin-offs exist at this point, as I stopped counting some time ago. All I know is that just about every month, a new game with the Hero tag shows up on store shelves, and I struggle to figure out how to describe the same old product in a brand new way for the umpteenth time. With that in mind, Activision presents Band Hero, the same game you've been playing for the past half decade, but this time tailor-made for tweens. Sure, all the bells and whistles that accompany the franchise have made it into this edition, but unless you, like, totally hate your parents for not understanding you and junk, you probably won't get a whole lot out of this game.
Band Hero takes the established medium of the GH franchise and adds a thick layer of bubblegum pop. The set list reads like the daily rundown of tracks on the local Top 40 radio station, and all the characters and venues have been watered down so much that they're barely recognizable. For instance, punk rocker Johnny Napalm now bears a striking resemblance to Mike Dirnt, Green Day's bassist. Nothing against Dirnt, but when your edgiest character looks like an aging rocker who would probably rather go to bed after a show than hang out with groupies, you aren't exactly winning any street cred. If there's any doubt in your mind that Band Hero is going to play it safe, then it's totally dispelled when you step into the very first venue, a mall tour. Yep, there's definitely not going to be anything here that pushes forward the genre by leaps and bounds.
Musical taste is subjective, so I won't sit here and say the song selection is good or bad, but it does have a very specific audience in mind. The bulk of the game's tracks consist of acts like Hillary Duff, Taylor Swift and Ally & AJ — basically the songs that people expect to hear on the weekends when Ryan Seacrest counts down the hits. Throw in some chart toppers of the past 30 years and a handful of oldies, and the end result is a game that is definitely meant to be played by a family — a method for hipster parents to connect with the kids who wish they could just be left alone to play Modern Warfare 2. The music will likely be a big hit at middle school slumber parties, but I doubt it will win many of the genre's more traditional fans.
On the flip side, the game does showcase the Guitar Hero 5 interface, which can significantly raise the interest level for an otherwise mediocre game. First off, Party Play returns, allowing you to jump in an out of songs as you wish and tinker with difficulty levels and band composition on the fly. Want a purely karaoke night? Plug in four microphones and belt out the hits at the top of your lungs. Prefer to shred a face-melting guitar solo? Everyone in the band can live out his or her fantasy of being Keith Richards, if that's the way you want to play it. What was easily one of the best innovations in GH 5 has returned totally intact, and that is a truly welcome sign.
Band Hero also retains the instrument-specific challenges in career mode so you have extra incentive to play songs better at higher difficulties. Some challenges are extremely straightforward, tasking you with getting the highest score or note streak possible, while others are a bit more exotic, requiring you hit as many yellow notes as you can or performing certain key sections flawlessly. This addition may be the game's saving grace, as it takes your focus away from whether or not you like a particular song and places it on the more technical aspects of playing the music. I know it sounds strange to say that it's wise for a game to draw your attention away from the track, but in the case of a game with a set list that many people won't like, it makes the entire endeavor considerably more enjoyable.
The game also supports extras such as the Music Studio and GH Tunes, as well as allowing you to import and export songs across a couple of games in the franchise. Additionally, Band Hero features the slicker, cleaner GH 5 interface, cutting out some of the clutter and delivering crisper animations. Finally, in a family-friendly twist, not only does the game allow each player to build up and deploy Star Power independently, but if a bandmate fails out, you can now also bring him back by performing well yourself. No longer will players feel trapped if there's no Star Power to unleash, and now it's not a frantic race to see if you can make it to the end of a song before the game fails you out. It's a small thing, but it's a much-needed improvement to the series.
The driving theme behind Band Hero seems to be an attempt to make it more marketable and friendly to a younger audience. This doesn't necessarily make it a worse game, but it does make it feel extremely different. Folks who have spent most of their plastic instrument lives taking on major anthems from the likes of The Who and Metallica will find little to love here, as most of the songs fall into the same musical formulas over and over again. On the other hand, gamers who've never heard of the bands in the other games and would really rather sing along to Taylor Swift are going to be elated, as this game will be right up their alley. This isn't your father's Guitar Hero, but it never claimed to be in the first place.
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