It's safe to say that when Activision took over the Guitar Hero franchise, there were a few growing pains. Neversoft did an admirable job with Guitar Hero III, but it was upstaged by Harmonix's release of Rock Band. When Neversoft made the jump to a full band game with Guitar Hero: World Tour, it closed much of the gap with Harmonix, but Rock Band 2 still edged it out in a side-by-side comparison. With Activision's Bobby Kotick seemingly driving the franchise to pump out as many full-priced sequels as quickly as possible (versus Harmonix's value-priced track packs), many were left wondering if the Guitar Hero franchise would ever get its groove back. After getting some solid hands-on time with Guitar Hero 5 last week, it looks like it may have done just that.
At its core, the engine driving Guitar Hero 5 isn't much different than what players have come to expect from prior games. It's solid, workable and pretty much what you expect to see from a music game. Where the polish comes in is in the feature set surrounding the engine.
One of the biggest complaints that has been lodged against the Guitar Hero franchise is its inability to share content between versions. With limited exceptions, DLC for Guitar Hero II, Guitar Hero III and World Tour has only worked within the game that purchased it. Secondary titles such as Guitar Hero: Metallica and Smash Hits provided additional songs but did not offer any way to import content into the main game. In short, if you wanted to play an "ultimate playlist," you were stuck swapping discs just to find the song you liked. In comparison to Rock Band's integrated track list, the disc-swapping was tedious. Well, rock fans, your voices have been heard: You won't have to swap discs with Guitar Hero 5.
Not only does Guitar Hero 5 officially supports nearly all of the World Tour DLC (152 of the 158 available songs), but it also supports importing songs from the World Tour and Smash Hits discs. Like Rock Band, not every song will be supported due to licensing restrictions, but for the most part, your content should just work. You'll also have to pay a "re-licensing fee" to bring over the content, though that's not something Activision can help. Blame that one on the RIAA and its desire to make you pay additional fees just to use content that you already own. While Band Hero wasn't available for play, Activision announced that all DLC and imported disc-based content will also work with the upcoming Band Hero.
As we explored the Guitar Hero 5 demo stations, one thing that immediately caught our eye were the systems, which were set up with four guitars and four drum kits each. Within Guitar Hero 5, you are no longer limited to one singer, one lead guitar, one drummer and one bassist. If you want to rock out with four drummers, go right ahead. Want to have a showdown with four guitarists? You're on. While it may not seem like a huge innovation, we can already see how this little tweak is going to be a big hit, especially at parties. You no longer have to let a band slot go to waste just because nobody wants to be the singer.
Speaking of parties, another relatively minor update that's sure to have a massive impact is the new Party Play mode. Yes, there are plenty of hardcore players out there who check ScoreHero religiously and strive for the top of the leaderboards, but sometimes you just wanna rawk out with your friends. Until now, that has meant a somewhat annoying process of massive menu navigation and instrument juggling. No more. Guitar Hero 5 promises to offer seamless drop-in/drop-out jam sessions. Not only can you mix and match instruments, but you can also change settings on the fly in the middle of a song. Finding things a bit too easy? Crank it up a notch, all without disrupting your bandmates.
Band emphasis increases a bit for the score-hungry as well, with the addition of Band Moments. These sequences are highlighted on the charts as flaming notes. If everyone in the band hits the notes in sync, you'll receive a sweet score multiplier. On the flip side, failure has also been tweaked. If you wash out, it's no longer lights-out. Instead, so long as the rest of your team is playing well, you'll automatically get pulled back into the game.
If competition is more your thing, the competitive multiplayer has also been beefed up with the addition of a few new game modes. Streaker doles out bonuses based on your ability to keep a "streak" of correct notes going without a mistake while Perfectionist rewards whoever hits the most notes. If you're really good, you can take on Do or Die, which is a "three strikes and you're out" method of play; think of it as a combination of Streaker and Perfectionist. Momentum mode changes things up by messing with the difficulty. Starting on medium, the difficulty automatically increases as you do well and drops as you mess up. It might sound simple, but having the difficulty suddenly jump up in a long string of quick notes isn't a cakewalk. Call it unexpectedly challenging.
The challenges extend to the single-player mode, which appears to follow a path similar to what was seen in World Tour, but before each song, you're now presented with a song specific challenge. These challenges can be somewhat generic or they can be instrument specific, but successfully completing them will unlock various bonuses. It's a neat way of encouraging players to experiment with new instruments as well as upping the replay value.
Outside of the main game, Neversoft has also been tweaking and upgrading the Guitar Hero studio. The GH Mix section has been officially dubbed GH Mix 2.0 and now offers a streamlined interface along with much higher-quality song samples. The interface makes it easier to focus on actually composing a song rather than fighting with the menu system, and the new song samples help your work sound a bit more professional. There were some impressive consumer-produced entries with the original GH Mix, but even the best of the bunch sounded somewhat flat due to the quality of the available samples. GH Mix 2.0 aims to change that.
The song uploading part of the studio, GH Tunes, has seen the song sharing limit go from five to 50 (so the more ambitious types can now create and upload an entire album's worth of work). At the same time, the per-song time limit has been bumped from three to 10 minutes so you can go crazy with those awesome solo shreds.
Last, but not least, is the new guitar hardware. Following in the footsteps of the World Tour hardware, the new bundled guitar keeps a similar shape and weight, but the slider bar has been tweaked. There are now small ridges to designate the different "button" areas on the slider. As it featured both Guitar Hero and Band Hero branding, it's safe to say that the same hardware will be shipping with both games.Although our time with Guitar Hero 5 was limited, we left on a positive note. Whereas World Tour very much felt like a "me too" release in the shadow of Harmonix's Rock Band 2, Guitar Hero 5 appears to be a fully fleshed-out title in its own right. It is packed with polish and innovates where it counts, bringing new features to the stage that neither franchise has seen before. Topping it off with an 85 song tracklist and a free copy of Guitar Hero: Van Halen makes this a package that's sure to whet the appetite of any music game fan. Since the devil is in the details, we're going to withhold final judgment until next month, but for now, it looks like Neversoft may have just kicked things up to 11.
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