As the game that launched a small accessory company from obscurity into super stardom, the Guitar Hero series has taken a path that isn't all that different from many bands that hit it big. Things started out with an "indie" release of the first title, with the game publishers struggling to get permission from bands to include their songs. The second release was a resounding hit, while the third saw the original publisher and developer split and reform as "competing bands" with the debut of Rock Band. The newest release in the Guitar Hero series, Guitar Hero Smash Hits, goes back to the well in order to update some classic tracks with the new engine.
Just like a band's "Greatest Hits" album, Guitar Hero Smash Hits doesn't ostensibly contain any new songs. Every track in the game has been pulled from prior releases in the series, including Guitar Hero, Guitar Hero II, Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the '80s and a single track from Guitar Hero: Aerosmith. What is different this time around, however, is the fact that the series' cachet has improved, so all of the tracks are either live performances or master recordings. There are no cover artists here. It's all the real deal, baby.
All of the old songs have also been updated to use the World Tour engine, so playing through with just the guitar is a thing of the past. Smash Hits not only supports a full band, but it also allows you to use your choice of instruments. If you already have a World Tour or Rock Band 2 band set around, there is no need to splurge on new hardware. The game is smart enough to detect your choice of hardware and automatically adjust itself for use. For example, when you plug in the Rock Band 2 drum set, Smash Hits only presents four drum pads instead of five.
Those who have the full World Tour instrument set will get to experience every song as it was intended, including new "slider" notes, which were introduced along with the new guitar hardware in World Tour, and the dual-pedal support for Expert+ drum set difficulty, which was introduced in Guitar Hero: Metallica. Despite all the fancy hardware support, there is one function missing that might disappoint some of the old-school hardcore looking for an extreme challenge: There is no longer an obvious way to play with just the standard controller. You can only use the Xbox controller in combination with a headset as a microphone. You cannot use it to sub in place of a guitar.
In all, there are 48 tracks to choose from in Smash Hits: 14 from Guitar Hero, 19 from Guitar Hero II, six from Rocks the '80s, eight from Guitar Hero III and one from Guitar Hero: Aerosmith. This is a little more than half of the tracks that shipped with World Tour. Every song is available from the outset, and there are no hidden unlockables.
In a bid to keep things fresh, developer Beenox Studios created new charts for all parts of the songs, not just the vocals and drums. This is something of a mixed blessing, as it helps to ensure that the content doesn't feel like too much of a retread. However, if you spent hours upon hours mastering some of the more difficult tracks in the original games, trying to "unlearn" some of the more complex bits takes a little work. Unfortunately, many of the new charts aren't nearly as challenging as their original incarnations; it's good for the mainstream players, but a bit of a disappointment for the Guitar Hero faithful.
Also disappointing is the complete and utter lack of support for DLC. Given that Smash Hits is built on the World Tour engine, it seemed like a no-brainer that Smash Hits would support the World Tour DLC content. Sadly, that is not the case. Not only does Smash Hits not support the World Tour DLC, but it also doesn't have any professional DLC of its own. Instead, it supports the Music Studio and GH Tunes feature, which consists entirely of user-created content.
Originally debuting in World Tour, the Music Studio allows players to create custom songs within the game and upload their tracks to the Internet via the in-game GH Tunes browser. Uploaded tracks can then be downloaded by other players around the world. Because the GH Tunes service is compatible within the franchise, songs created with World Tour can be played by Smash Hits players, and vice versa. This is good because it means that there is a large selection of user-created content available from the moment you pop the disc in the drive. Oddly enough, though, Smash Hits appears to use a different song cache than World Tour. This means that if you own both games and you download a track via GH Tunes in one game, it will not automatically appear in the other. Any songs downloaded from GH Tunes must be downloaded in each game individually.
Ultimately, it is the unnecessary segregation of content between the various games that hurts Smash Hits the most. On a technical level, Smash Hits is a well-polished piece of software that delivers exactly what it promises: 48 tracks of classic Guitar Hero goodness all wrapped up in a shiny new engine. If you've never played a Guitar Hero game before, it's a nice way to sample a variety of rock tracks, but as a full-priced title that targets the fans of the series, it is a bit lacking. Had Smash Hits been priced as a disc-based track pack, the quirks would be a lot easier to overlook.
One of the biggest advantages that Rock Band has over Guitar Hero is its integrated song store. No matter which track pack you purchase for Rock Band, all of the songs can be imported and used in the main game. Here, if your favorite tracks span more than one game, you are stuck swapping discs in the middle of a rock session. It's a bit jarring (not to mention annoying), and the net result is that players who are looking for a party game may opt for World Tour and its larger song list.
Going back to the music analogy from the start, Guitar Hero Smash Hits is akin to what we used to refer to as a band "selling out." Rather than put forth any real creative effort, it is a mere repackaging of existing content in an effort to earn some quick cash. The game is mainstream friendly, but likely to rub long-term fans in the wrong way. Still, fans are the forgiving sort, and ultimately, final judgment on the series will be reserved for Guitar Hero 5. Here's hoping that it'll have a little more meat on its proverbial bones.Score: 6.7/10
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