The Guitar Hero franchise has undoubtedly come a long way in its short time in the spotlight. What started out as a game in a niche market with a funky peripheral has turned into a worldwide hit, spawning a seemingly infinite number of sequels and spin-offs. The time has come for the latest true sequel in the franchise, and while it does a lot to propel the franchise forward, the genre as a whole is definitely beginning to show its age.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Guitar Hero 5 is that it was released without much fanfare or a great deal of anticipation from the gaming public. The first three Guitar Hero entries were major events, and when World Tour debuted, it created a stir by bringing the Rock Band full band concept into the fold of the elder franchise. Somewhere along the line, though, things started to lose steam (blame the multiple band-centric releases and the handful of DS editions), and thus GH5 slipped onto store shelves somewhat silently. Even so, sales of the game have been brisk, and that's likely due to the fact that this is probably one of the series' best entrants in a while.
The fundamentals of the franchise haven't changed, with the same gem-matching, phrase-warbling gameplay that has always been a staple. Thankfully, Activision and Neversoft have thrown in a couple of wrinkles to freshen up the experience a bit. First up is the inclusion of instrument-specific challenges in every song, which run the gamut from simply racking up a high score or sustaining note streaks to whammying the sustained notes for as long as possible or nailing particularly tricky vocal phrases. Each song has its own special challenge, and completing them satisfactorily not only earns you more stars but also bonus game content. Everything from new instruments and outfits to secret characters and game cheats are earned through this new system, giving players an added incentive to go back and replay songs again and again on different instruments in the hopes of unlocking all the game's additional goodies. For those looking for an extra dose of challenge, it doesn't get much better than this.
The other major addition to the title is the inclusion of Party Play mode, which allows players to jump in and out as they please. As the name implies, this is great for gatherings so you can set up a playlist in advance and let your friends simply wander over to an instrument, press start and jump right into a game whenever they want. Once they're done, just quit and the song continues on as normal until someone else jumps in to play. What really sells this mode is the fact that players can enjoy it on any combination of instruments, so there won't be any fighting over who's stuck singing or playing bass. If you want four shredding guitarists, then hop on and prepare to rock. If you'd prefer to relive every karaoke night ever and have four vocalists jump on Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name," then that's fine and dandy. Even better, each character sets his difficulty independently so newcomers and experts can all perform together without any complications. It's honestly one of those simple yet great additions the whole genre should consider copying in order to maintain relevance.
The only real flaw of Party Play and the game in general is that you may have a hard time finding songs everyone actually wants to try out. Sure, there are a handful of classics from acts everyone is likely to know (Queen, Nirvana, John Mellencamp), but there are also quite a few songs from lesser-known artists that not many people are familiar with. You may have heard of the Arctic Monkeys, but do you really know their music? How much do you really love Thrice?
In a lot of ways, this fairly uneven soundtrack is due to both Guitar Hero and Rock Band becoming victims of their own success. Both franchises have fought tooth and nail since their inception to book the biggest acts and the best songs, and consequently, the well is starting to run dry. Furthermore, the steady stream of DLC that's been available for both franchises has spoiled us with an embarrassment of riches, and there aren't a lot of songs that fans want but haven't played yet in some form or another. Oh sure, we're still all waiting for Led Zeppelin to come around, but when you think about it, what other big names are left that haven't made appearances?
The problem is partially offset by the ability to finally import songs players already own into the game. All your current Guitar Hero: World Tour DLC can make the jump for free, and most of the on-disc songs from both World Tour and Smash Hits are available for a small fee. If you're wondering just how convenient this is, then ask any Rock Band owner how nice it is to have all their songs instantly accessible, and you should get a good idea. While it doesn't alleviate the larger issue of the game having a fairly weak lineup, at least you can always go back to the hundreds of other songs that are available and find something you like.
There is another small controversy regarding GH5 that must be addressed, and that is the state of the guest characters, particularly the digital version of Kurt Cobain. By now, you've likely heard all about the way he is presented in the game, which has been construed by many to be disrespectful. ( http://worthplaying.com/article/2009/9/11/news/68297/ )During his initial appearances performing the Nirvana songs, Cobain is presented in a reverent and thoughtful manner, with his digital stage presence closely mimicking his real-life performances. The problem, however, comes when you use him as a playable character and jump into other songs. On these numbers, Kurt is bouncing around like a child hopped up on Pixy Stix and generally performing in ways which his real-life counterpart never would. While it's important to remember that this is just a game, many folks will rightly find such a presentation disrespectful, which it absolutely is. If you didn't grow up listening to Nirvana and the rest of the grunge bands of the early '90s, then the entire scene likely won't upset you much, but if you're the type who was crushed at the news of Cobain's suicide, then such a portrayal will likely leave a bad taste in your mouth.
In spite of all that, Guitar Hero 5 is a genuinely impressive title in nearly all other aspects. The new mechanics work extremely well, and the visuals have received a nice new coat of paint to really make performances pop and give you the feeling that you're watching actual concert footage instead of a simple video game. While the set list may underwhelm some, the songs are still mostly fun to play, even if you don't already know them by heart. I also get the feeling this may be the last genuine Guitar Hero sequel, but it's a game you're still likely to love, warts and all.Score: 9.0/10
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