Guitar Hero II Review

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Publisher: Red Octane/Activision
Developer: Harmonix

Platform: PlayStation 2
Reviewed on PlayStation 2

Last year, publisher Red Octane and developer Harmonix had an unexpected phenomenon on their hands with the first Guitar Hero. Chances are pretty high that everyone has, willingly or not, air-guitared at some point. Maybe it was at a concert. Maybe it was in your bedroom. Maybe it was an embarrassing appearance on Conan. However it happened, Guitar Hero fulfills every wannabe guitar player's dreams, allowing you to play extremely difficult songs with a plastic, almost-three-quarter-size guitar controller, some patience, and the blinds closed. As great as the original was and still is, the next incarnation is both more difficult while being friendlier to novices. A few dubious song choices aside, Guitar Hero II is everything a sequel should be.

Kevin Rice

The Songs

Any music-based game lives and dies by the songs. The set list from the original game, while not perfect, was full of memorable songs and riffs that weren't too dependent on familiarity with the song. While primarily keyboard bands like The Edgar Winters Group seemed out of place, most of the music was at least recognizable, and the vast majority was instantly identifiable. From Joan Jett's "I Love Rock 'N Roll" to the closing "Bark at the Moon" from Ozzy, the whole game had a familiar vibe. Who doesn't know "Smoke on the Water," "More Than A Feeling," "Higher Ground," and most of the other tracks? The game even had Pantera.

This is the sequel's first, and perhaps only, folly. While it opens with Motley Crue's "Shout at the Devil" and closes with the excruciatingly long, full version of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird" (you'll never chant for its nine minutes again), some of the songs, particularly the harder songs, are crap. "Freya" by The Sword? Any song at all by Lamb of God?

I understand this is a game about playing guitar, but given some of the other choice cuts (from bands such as Jane's Addiction, Rush, The Police, Kansas, Alice In Chains, Rage Against The Machine, The Stray Cats and Matthew Sweet), these death/dark/speed (or whatever it's called now) metal band choices are out of place and quite frankly, they're difficult on a technical level instead of a musical level. Yes, they're fast and hard to play, but there's pretty much no impetus to repeat and master them. You slave your way through these songs like an MMO player killing rats and snakes for a few weeks to level up.

The bigger question is one of licensing. How are bands like AC/DC, Iron Maiden, and Led Zeppelin left out of the game while bands like Aerosmith, The Rolling Stones, and Rush are included? This is a huge game, and introduces many people to a song they may have never heard such as The Pretenders' "Tattooed Love Boys." You'd think one huge name band would beget another, sort of like that old hair-coloring commercial.

The Gameplay

That's about as negative as it gets – there are some annoying and out of place song choices. Everything else about the game is spot-on, and in most cases, improved. The overall game is more difficult this time, which would seem to discourage newer players, but more about that in a moment.

In Career Mode (the meat of the game), you're once again presented with Easy, Medium, Hard, and Expert selections. Easy and Medium are as they were in the original game: these are the modes where new players learn their chops, hoping to become the ultimate Guitar Hero. Once you're through Medium, though, Hard is the old game's Expert and the new Expert is on a whole new plane. You'll unlock plenty in Medium, but the changes are purely aesthetic: new guitars and guitar finishes, new characters and new outfits for those characters. There are also well over a dozen independent songs to unlock, with only a few bands returning from the original game.

But the real feeling of conquering the game comes from defeating the upper two difficulty levels, and both of them require a lot of coordination, a lot of practice, and a patient significant other. The game now includes three-fingered chords. If you thought stretching your hand to hit a two-note chord pushed it, especially when it involved a slide, try it with three fingers. Fun? Absolutely, but it takes practice.

Even some of the early songs are challenging at the Hard level. You can't just fly through the first three or four sets to get to a challenging song anymore. Additionally, many of the songs are unlocked as Encore songs. (These are the same ones unlocked in Medium, so do those first). After you finish a four-song set, the crowd demands a fifth song, and you'd better play it if you'd like to advance.

If you get stuck, though, Practice Mode is the saving grace for the solo player trying to rip through the game. Here, you can pick your start and stop point in any song and repeat that section as often as you like. You can even slow the songs down so that those impossibly fast solos make a sort of sense. It'd be nice if these could be looped (to continue repeating until you chose to stop). As it stands, once you're at the end of whatever part of a song you opted to practice, you have to reload it to practice again. Even so, it's still a godsend for the fast solos, especially on songs you're just not very familiar with.

Bring a Friend (With His Own Plastic Guitar)

The multiplayer was fun in the original, assuming you were playing with someone else that was addicted to the game and at the same level of skill you had attained. Otherwise, arguments ensued about parts and difficulty levels.

Now, your significant other (I'm avoiding wife/girlfriend even though Guitar Hero is a male-dominated game) can get off the couch and look like an idiot with you. In addition to the original game's Face Off Mode in which two players trade riffs on the same song, there's a Cooperative Mode where one player plays the lead while the other player plays either the rhythm guitar or the bass (this is song dependent). Even better, each player can set his or her difficulty level. For example, I can play the lead guitar on Hard while my girlfriend plays the bass line on Easy. This makes the game more accessible and a better party game, assuming you've got two guitar controllers.

After you complete certain milestones, a new Pro Face Off mode opens where two players who both think they are the one true Guitar Hero will play the lead simultaneously, competitively trying to hit every note and aggregate Star Power. This is perfect for your Guitar Hero playing friends – just don't bore everyone else on the couch with it.

The Other Stuff

There are other little touches that show that the team at Harmonix listened to the critics. While you're still not going to use this game to show off your PS2's graphical prowess, the game itself has received a graphical upgrade, and will play in progressive scan-mode if you have an HD TV.

The animations are more detailed and more varied, and the effects while you're on the stage are more pronounced. Expect a lot of strobe lights, some mock stage caricatures like a giant dragon, and some more surreal effects like a spaceship beaming you off the stage on the Stonehenge set. You'll even notice that after Spinal Tap's "Tonight I'm Gonna Love You Tonight", the drummer explodes. It's an excellent humorous touch (at least for fans of the movie).

In Closing

The unlikely hero here is the game itself. The cultural icon that Guitar Hero became was a surprise to many. Now it has commercials during Monday Night Football. The development team seems to have responded to player suggestions, even if they ignored some of my song suggestions, such as "XTC vs. Adam Ant" by They Might Be Giants or anything off AC/DC's Back In Black CD. Those requests will probably continue to fall on deaf ears. Beyond the rumors of an Xbox 360 Guitar Hero release with downloadable content, the developer was recently acquired by MTV Games. While Activision, through its subsidiary Red Octane, still owns the rights to the name Guitar Hero, I really hope MTV doesn't expect me to rock out to "She Bangs" and "Video Killed the Radio Star".

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on November 15, 2006 6:24 PM.

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