Review / Guitar Hero 5 (Xbox 360)

Ahhh, Guitar Hero. The 5th installment is here (nevermind that there are 13 Guitar Hero games, DS included). By this time the releases of new games feel kind of like when I saw Bon Jovi in concert and they took their fourth encore – We all pretty much know what’s about to happen next but we should get excited anyway. In our review of Guitar Hero: Smash Hits, the point was made that it lacked innovation. But a few of the new features this time around answer that challenge, making it more than just a new tracklist. After all, this isn’t just like updating rosters for your annual sports games.

When I got my hands on Guitar Hero 5 I immediately called up my best friend, who we will call Garfunkel. He’s got all the music gaming gear we needed and despite all of the instruments bearing a Rock Band label the game kindly said, “Hey, man. It’s cool. Let’s jam.”

And already I was about to experience the best feature of the game. We hit the power button, the main logo appeared, I strapped on my axe, took a quick swig from my adult beverage, and turned back towards the TV screen. To my most honest surprise and pleasant wonder, Garfunkel had already pressed a single button to start the Party Play mode and had begun rocking the drums to “Jailbreak” by Thin Lizzy. The game had gone from zero on the Xbox dashboard to 130 beats per minute in about 16 seconds. The Party Play mode is, in a word, seamless. Three button presses is all you need to jump in on the instrument you want at the difficulty you want. Experimentation with the mode only made it more fun. Garfunkel and I spent a while just hopping from one track to another, changing difficulty on the fly at no risk of failing or pausing someone else’s fun. It’s truly the way a music game should function if everyone in the room just wants to hang and be passive about what’s playing on the TV screen.

The character selection was another treat. A bunch of the veteran rock heroes were there (Judy Nails, my personal favorite), ready to rock your living room like they were born to do. You can pick which one you want on the peripheral you’re toting, but then you can assign more of the familiar faces to back you up on the big stage. During the performances they all look incredible, fluid movement and anti-aliasing out the wazoo making for a straight-up beautiful presentation whenever your eyes aren’t glued to the play track. Custom character building has all the bells and whistles you could want, with enough physical, clothing and color options to make any kind of rockstar you’d like. Still, the best part is the inclusion of the Xbox Live Avatars. Garfunkel’s little guy, with a black suit on his bod and a fedora on his big-ass head, had a better stage presence than most bands I’ve seen live. The avatar did look a bit alien standing next to the svelte Pandora and the scowling Johnny Napalm – but even so he looked awesome and energized, bringing another touch of fun to the whole experience.

Now I need to say something about Kurt Cobain’s appearance in the game since Courtney Love made a fuss. It was the highlight of the career mode, to work for an hour or so and earn “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the tracklist. Before the song starts a digital Cobain steps to the mic, and I felt something I can only describe as “overwhelming awesome,” the kind of awesome you felt when you played Guitar Hero your first time.┬áThe grunge anthem was easily the most fun song to play and part of it was because the Seattle legend was right there with me, or rather I was there with him. It was excellent, tasteful at very least. But then it got weird after that; Cobain becomes a playable character and if you’d like, you can force his likeness to sing lead on “Ex-Girlfriend” by No Doubt. At that point, I decided to just avoid any chance of tarnishing the music icon for myself.

Since they came out with the whole-band multiplayer style, I’ve always thought of music games as more cooperative than competitive. But GH5 nailed the co-op, so Garfunkel and I had to give the competitive a shot. There are 6 different modes to measure against each other, team variations of each that require a minimum of 2-on-2, and another mode that picks two of those modes randomly for the players to vote on. The most unique was Momentum, in which the players start on Medium difficulty, and if they have enough success they bump up to Hard and eventually to Expert. If at any point you start missing a number of notes, the game demotes you back down a step. It’s dynamic and challenges you responsively, fitting best with players who normally play on Hard.

While the effort was made and the variety was nice, there was kind of a hitch. Garfunkel and I tried each mode a few times and came to one conclusion: Garfunkel is a better plastic guitarist than I am. Didn’t really matter how you scored us, he was always just a little bit better than me. I was aware of this fact before, and so it seems that the competitive modes were useful and fun only if the percentages they give after each song you play cooperatively have your skill levels dead even.

Career mode is almost the same functionally as it has been in the past with one little upgrade. Each song has an appropriate challenge to go along with it, such as keep a streak going for so long or earn and use so much Star Power. Succeeding in the challenges will earn you more characters, instruments, costume pieces, and even cheat modes to play around with. It gives the more hardcore players something extra to shoot for. Other than that, it’s just play all the songs to unlock more songs. Thankfully all the songs are available on quickplay immediately, but this renders the career mode a little more pointless.

Honestly, the worth of any music game can be boiled down to the setlist in the end. Because if you don’t get to rock out to some songs you like, it just won’t be fun no matter how great the presentation and format are. For Garfunkel and me, there was about one song out of every five that we were glad to be playing and the others we just kind of trudged through. Since everyone has different tastes, my advice would be to check the song titles to make sure before you pick this one up. But if you have DLC from previous generations, then you’d probably be quite pleased with getting to use those tracks in the Party Mode.

+ Party Mode is incredible and fluid; makes it worth buying
+ When you love the song, you love the game
+ Beautiful visuals for characters and avatars

– Tracklist left something to be desired
– Competitive modes aren’t anything special
– Career mode is only worth the time for the hardcore