If you ever need proof that a franchise is not invincible, just look at Guitar Hero. In a relatively short four years, the series has gone from being the icon of music-based games, turning genre originator Konami into the perennial also-ran outside of Japan, to being a massive sales failure associated with several lawsuits, while the primary North American competing product, Rock Band, has only grown more profitable. The blame lies with the utter glut of releases in 2009 — eight by my count, three of which weren't on the main consoles that made the series famous. That's not even counting DJ Hero, which may represent Activision's worst nightmare: a critically acclaimed sales flop. The results weren't pretty, and Activision responded by dissolving its RedOctane division and the Guitar Hero team.
This year, there is just one Guitar Hero game (as far as we know), and it's returning to the heavy metal culture and themes of the past and bringing back the story. Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock is a desperate swing at fixing a broken series, but the ideas just might work.
First, let's look at some of the things that are being kept. Party Play is back from GH 5 so that it's nice, fast and easy to jump in and jam. Many of the previous entry's Career mode features, such as song-specific challenges, have been moved to the Quickplay mode, now called Quickplay+. The Wii version's Roadie mode, where Nintendo DS systems can influence the game, wasn't shown at E3 but is also coming back, and it supports all four DS systems. The core gameplay is largely identical to the design from World Tour.
One thing that's out is celebrity likenesses. The uproar over Kurt Cobain seems to have killed this element from the series. Also out is the non-plot of the last two main entries, and it's being replaced by a plot that is far more inspired by heavy metal than before. The timing is unfortunate, as it's the very next Guitar Hero title after the release of Brutal Legend, which had a high-fantasy-as-metal plot, was voiced by a famous rock star (in GH's case, Gene Simmons), and had a persistent and over-the-top sense of humor. The calls of "rip-off" have been very loud — especially since execs at Activision may have wanted to turn Brutal Legend into a Guitar Hero action game, thus prompting the title's move to EA.
While the plot is obviously sewn from the same steel strings, it's still something all its own. When the God of Rock is defeated while facing demons, his legendary guitar disappears and he turns into stone. Distinct rockers from around the world are called on to take on the powers of a Warrior of Rock to save the day. First, though, they need to earn their marks.
The venue-based areas of previous entries in the series have now been switched out to be associated with specific characters archetypes from past titles. Each rocker has a specific genre associated with him or her, so the groupings are more sensible than they've ever been. As players progress through the grouping and meet the stars objective associated with that group, they'll get a cut scene of their character evolving from an over-the-top rock archetype into a ludicrously over-the-top Warrior of Rock. The warrior form isn't purely about aesthetics, either; the rules can change heavily depending on the warrior form you take. For example, Lars Umlaut's warrior form can get a maximum multiplier of six instead of the series' traditional four. The result also changes the classic, sensible star system. Instead of being limited to a five-star maximum, you can now go up to 40. Unlocked Warrior forms are available in Quickplay+. Players can pick two earned perks to use at any time, and during the final stages, they'll unlock all of them at once, yielding insanely unfair advantages while facing the boss sets.
You're probably going to need them, even if you're the type who full-combos Through the Fire and Flames while blindfolded because this entry is also bringing back the exceptional level of difficulty of Guitar Hero III's set list. Let's just say that my highly trained button-observing eyes glazed over while staring at one of the final boss sets, but I somehow survived the entire thing due to the array of unlocked perks.
The set list also makes a return to being almost entirely rock, with none of the mainstream music that made GH 5 such a mess. Expect to see Anthrax, Ozzy (teamed up with Metallica for a live set, no less!), Slipknot and the return of Dragonforce, just to name a few. Neversoft made it clear that its priority was to bring back the fans of GH III, and so far, it looks like they're delivering.
Similarly, the guitar controller is going back in many ways. The fancy touch strip is gone (though older controllers will still be able to use it), and the ability to change the guitar's look without getting a new guitar is back, but instead of switching the faceplate, you can switch out the entire body of the guitar. All the electronics have been shifted into the neck (including that oh-so-convenient Select button bar for Star Power, and you simply clip in the body you want. While it's less portable than the take-apart guitar of GH III, it can provide some awesome original looks — including a Battle Axe design, which is a pre-order bonus. The Neversoft rep announced plans to offer more guitar bodies this time around, but a few in the crowd were incredulous since Activision didn't significantly follow through on this after GH III's release. The drum and microphone controllers are both unchanged this time around.
After five console releases that have flopped in one year, Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock has a lot to prove. Neversoft needs to show that the series is still viable, especially in the wake of two competitors showing their wares at E3. While most of the smartest elements of World Tour and GH 5 are returning, the game's goal is clearly to go forward by bringing back the over-the-top style of the classics and the hard rock soundtrack. This September, players will find out if this worked, and Activision will find out if it managed to save one of its signature series. So far, the odds are looking pretty good.
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