Like it or not, 2009 will be known as, among other things, the year that Activision really stretched out the Hero franchise. Not counting the portable entries in the series, there will be six music-based titles from the publisher's Guitar Hero division. Despite that large of a number in just one year, the brand has tried to diversify itself in a number of ways. You have the traditional entry in the series with Guitar Hero 5. You also have band-specific versions of the game with Guitar Hero: Metallica and Guitar Hero: Van Halen coming before the end of the year. You have a compilation disc with Guitar Hero: Smash Hits. You even have a game that focuses on a completely new instrument with DJ Hero. Continuing on its theme of diversification, Band Hero is the first rhythm game to eschew a T rating in favor of an E10+ rating. Does the rating change make this game any different, or is it just the same game with a different skin and track list?
Band Hero can be thought of as Guitar Hero for the Top 40 crowd of gamers. There aren't as many songs that make you think of hard rock and guitar shredding. Instead of metal, you get pop rock and pop country songs mixed in with a little bit of everything else that got radio play. While you will see an occasion Rolling Stones track or something from Hinder, expect the track list to be populated with Hillary Duff, Taylor Swift, Duffy and Maroon 5 more than anything else.
Like Guitar Hero 5, the game features a plethora of modes on all of the major console versions. Career mode has you playing venue after venue, earning stars to unlock the next location. With all 65 songs open from the start, the only reason to go through the mode is to tackle the instrument-specific challenges to unlock new characters, equipment and clothes. This mode can be played offline and online and with any combination of instruments and difficulty levels, making it possible to have a four-player game going where everyone likes his or her role in the band.
You also have a proper multiplayer mode where you can participate in regular face-off modes or go for special goals, like longest note streak or playing until someone fails first. GHTunes returns with the opportunity to have players create and download their own original tunes or tweak what they find online. Finally, you have Party Play, which lets the game continuously play random tracks. If players wish to participate, all they have to do is select the instrument and difficulty level before jumping in to the track without pausing or restarting. There's no danger of failing here, but they can drop out if they wish and let the game continue playing on its own.
Just like before, the Wii version of the game has some extra modes and features that help make this the version to get. Sing Along mode is a karaoke version of the game, where the lyrics are displayed in big bold letters and are colored in at the appropriate times. There's no scoring system, but it provides a decent way to play the game if you don't know the song lyrics. You have the Mii Freestyle mode, which lets you jam out to a generic music style. After picking said style, you can throw down notes in any order and fashion you want. It still doesn't let you add vocals, making it feel like a more graphical version of GHTunes than anything else, but it gives you yet another opportunity to play with your Mii. It also has the ability to use your DS to control camera angles and lighting effects before sending the resulting music video off to other Band Hero users on your friends list. Roadie Battle has a combination of one player on guitar and one on a DS compete against another set of players with the same setup. Both guitarists try to compete on the same song while the DS players act as roadies by helping out their guitarists while sabotaging your opponent's guitarist. The mode gets quite frantic and fun for those who want to play but aren't exactly skilled with the plastic instruments.
There are two new additions for Band Hero that are also unique to the Wii version. The first is the interoperability between the Wii and DS versions of the game. In Career mode for the Wii, you can unlock Fan Challenges, which must be sent over to the DS version of the game to be completed. Once completed, the data can be sent back to the Wii in order to unlock outfits, accessories and characters. The other addition is DS Party Play, which is exactly the same as normal Party Play, except that you can change the playlist with the DS. You can have over 100 songs queued up in any order, and you can delete, add or change the order at any time. The system works well, especially if you receive requests at the party about what to play next or want something specific to set the mood.
The online multiplayer is solid. Once again, the developers opted to use the Wii system's Friend Codes, making it easy to find friends and jam out with them online. The game also connects online instantly and stays this way until the system turns off, making the Wii finally feel like it has an online system similar to both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in terms of functionality. When gameplay finally begins, there's no hint of lag regardless of which instrument is being played. All that's really lacking is voice chat, but considering how often you really want to talk during these types of games, the feature really isn't missed that much.
Band Hero has a few flaws, but the biggest issue is its identity. Take away the American Idol-like personality, and you have a game that feels too much like Guitar Hero 5. Having the same modes is fine, especially since the modes give the game tremendous depth, but it doesn't feel like the game added anything new to make it stand out as a separate product, which is a shame since this is being marketed as a different game series than Guitar Hero. What's worse is that the game liberally takes modes and items from the Guitar Hero series with little to no change. GHTunes and GHMix, for example, still have the Guitar Hero branding on it instead of Band Hero-specific branding. The same goes for the instruments included in the full band package sold in stores. The same set of characters that have appeared through the game series appear here as well, albeit a bit more sanitized to be more appropriate for a younger audience. Even the last two levels of the game are the same ones encountered in Guitar Hero 5, right down to the backgrounds. With all of the different levels already created for the game, it wouldn't have hurt to also change the last two levels.
The other major issue with the game has to do with the songs, in particular song censorship and song importing/exporting. Band Hero is being billed as a pop hits version of the Guitar Hero franchise and, as such, has gone with an E10+ rating over the T rating, which almost all rhythm games have nowadays. This is a great move if you want to get to those players who like the genre but have parents who feel some of the songs may not be appropriate for their kids. With that in mind, it's interesting to see some of the song choices and cuts made to some of the included tunes. The development team has seen fit to take radio edits of some songs and edit them even further. Fall Out Boy's "Sugar, We're Goin' Down" has its chorus about guns edited out, and the same goes for Don McLean's "American Pie," where the word whiskey is gone from every instance. While some may approve of those further edits, some songs aren't edited at all, like The Airborne Toxic Event's "Gasoline," which still references sex.
It's a strange double standard of events that is made even stranger when you consider that all of the downloadable content except for the Jimi Hendrix songs released for Guitar Hero: World Tour and Guitar Hero 5 is importable to this game, along with the songs legally exportable from those two games and Guitar Hero: Smash Hits. Better song selection on the disc wouldn't make the censorship much of an issue, but the full use of all available songs from DLC and discs makes you wonder if it was worth all of the effort when you can still play songs from bands like Metallica on a game that doesn't censor that content either.
Speaking of song exporting, you have the ability to export songs from Band Hero into Guitar Hero 5 and future songs in either franchise. The export list this time is the largest of any game in the series released so far, with 61 of the 65 available tracks available for export. Fans of Jesse McCartney's "Beautiful Soul," Aly & AJ's "Like Whoa," Hilary Duff's "So Yesterday" and Styx's "Mr. Roboto" are out of luck if they want to play those songs in a game outside of Band Hero. This does highlight one of the big issues the franchise has with songs as a whole. Namely, they keep securing songs for a disc but fail to ensure that the contract extends to future song exports. Some will argue that simply swapping discs will fix the issue, but with no proper disc-swapping feature like SingStar and Lips on their respective consoles, this will mean longer wait times and constantly trying to remember which mechanics are and aren't in the game you're now playing — not something you want in a party situation. For Wii owners, the current mechanic is the only solution available since the competing product, Rock Band, doesn't feature such a thing, but it would be great if the series could match what's being done with Rock Band on the more powerful consoles.
The graphics do a pretty impressive job of making the game interesting to look at. The character models, both created and pre-made, look great. The celebrity characters look just like their real-life counterparts, only done up in the Guitar Hero style. Their animations are excellent, and that includes lip movement for the singers. The series has always had a knack for nailing stage presence when it comes to certain songs, and it certainly shows here. Not all songs have a specific animation set, but songs like "Y.M.C.A." and "Kung Fu Fighting" show off the fact that the team knows how to make a song feel more alive when played. The environments look fine, with lots of activity going on and a pretty good art style to go with it. There are a few issues with the graphics, and they all occur in different areas of the game. The note highway is fine until the purple tinted notes show up. It becomes hard to tell if the hollow notes are on-screen or not, and it looks terrible when those hollow notes are star power notes. The details on the characters are fine, but the resolution on some elements is very low. Some tattoos and scribbles on cast members are too blurry to make it look like anything but colored splotches instead of something legible, making you wonder why there are long load times when creating characters and editing their features.
The environments are good until you get sparks appearing on the stage. When this happens, the sparks look flat because they seem to skip animation frames instead of moving smoothly like everything else. Finally, the crowd isn't rendered too well and has the same basic animation routines playing over and over again, no matter which part of the song is playing. This wouldn't be so noticeable if it weren't for the fact that the crowd seems thinned out, with plenty of space between each individual. On the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 you'll feel like you're playing to hundreds of people at any venue. On the Wii version, however, it'll seem like your crowd is numbering in the double digits instead.
The sound is quite good in this rhythm game entry. The music has good separation to it so even the old songs come out in full stereo. The effects when gaining star power and deploying it don't interfere with the song too much, letting bystanders enjoy your performance. The idea of letting the Wii Remote speaker play simultaneously with the regular speakers when you miss a note is a great one and really accentuates any mistakes you make. Aside from the aforementioned song censorship issues, there are two other negative things to say about the audio. For one, it seems like there's no volume consistency between the songs and the rest of the game. The volume for the company logos and opening movie, for example, play at a high enough volume that you want to turn down your volume to get it at a proper level. However, once gameplay begins, the songs played seem to be at a lower volume than everything else, forcing you to turn up your volume again to hear exactly what you're singing, drumming or strumming. There's also the issue that happens at the beginning of every song in some of the game's environments. Before the song begins, you hear an explosion happen in the game. The problem is that you never see the said explosion on-screen. It's not too bothersome until you start to play a slow song like "So Yesterday," which makes the effect feel completely out of place.
Make no mistake: Band Hero is a good game. The elements that made Guitar Hero 5 a good entry in the series also put this game in a positive light. This is especially true on the Wii iteration, which, despite being on less powerful hardware, is the strongest version of the game thanks to the exclusive modes that are quite fun for multiple players. It's still difficult to ignore the peculiar edits made to songs and the amount of blatantly recycled content from Guitar Hero 5. Fans of the series, especially younger ones, will be happy with this spin-off as long as they understand that this is ultimately a large track pack in a different package.
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