Since launching in 2005, there have been over a dozen installments in the Guitar Hero series, which some have used as a prime example of Activision’s dedication to exploiting their most popular franchises. As one might expect, the numerous sequels and spinoffs affected the quality of the games, and the competition from Rock Band meant that Guitar Hero was no longer the only music game in town. The series came back strong this year with Guitar Hero 5, released just over two months ago, which was the best Guitar Hero game since GHII in 2006. Now Activision is trying to address a market that, until recently, had never been specifically addressed in the music genre: gamers too young to enjoy the Teen-rated lyrics of the regular Guitar Hero series. Band Hero, with an E10+ rating and songs that both teenyboppers and their parents will enjoy, is definitely a fun option for family-friendly gaming. However, the fact that the game is exactly like GH5 in almost every way makes it feel more like an expansion with a coat of paint, not a brand new series.
Despite being the first in what I can only imagine will be a long line of games with the Band Hero name, the game is instantly recognizable as soon as you turn it on. Once again, you are given the option to immediately jump into party play mode, where all of the songs are unlocked and you can create your own setlist. This is a great option for when you have company over, and once again you can make the instrument set-up whatever you like, provided you have the peripherals. Four drums? Why not? Four microphones? Sure! While using four of the same instrument may not be as fun or practical as the standard guitar, bass, drums, and microphone set-up, the party play’s setlist option is still great.
The career mode, as always, is the heart of the game. Once again, you will become a member of an ambitious band that makes its way up the charts and eventually becomes a worldwide phenomenon. The tour has been tweaked for a younger audience; it starts in a mall, and the regular characters from the series have been cleaned up a bit. Though it might be strange to see Casey Lynch not wearing a bra and tight leather pants, the makeovers suit the game, and are one of the few changes to be found in Band Hero. Only three or four songs from each venue have to be played to open up the next one, but the tracks have additional challenges that are specific to certain instruments, or require two or more band members to complete. The bonus challenges are a good incentive to go back and replay songs in the career mode, and can help make single-player and multiplayer experiences feel different. With 65 songs on the disc, Band Hero has twenty less songs than GH5, and since you don’t have to play every single track to advance in the career, the game can technically be beaten in just a few hours.
Rounding out the gameplay options are the tutorials, the option to create your own rock star, the music store, and GHTunes, where you can make your own tracks. Since there is absolutely nothing new, gameplay-wise, in Band Hero, you will only need the tutorials if you have never played a game in the series before, and everything else remains the same as well. The music store allows you to purchase and download new songs without having to leave the game, and the character creator lets you make a budding rock star from scratch. The competitive modes also return, and while it’s not quite as fun as playing together as a band, playing against another gamer helps to add variety to the gameplay.
The new aesthetic from Guitar Hero 5 is carried over to Band Hero as well. The notes, highway, star power meter, and multiplier all look exactly the same, meaning that I have the same qualms that I did two months ago. While the game looks very streamlined, it is still hard to gauge how much stored star power you have at times without taking your eyes of the notes flowing down the highway; out of the corner of your eye, three-quarters full and completely full gauges can look pretty much the same. This isn’t a major issue, but can still be annoying, especially if you’re trying to complete a star power-based challenge, or break your note streak while darting your eyes to the side. Additionally, it would have been nice to see some change from a game that just came out. As a result, Band Hero doesn’t really have a distinct identity, and merely feels like a clone of the latest game in the Guitar Hero series.
What does stand out, however, is the setlist, which is leaps and bounds better than I expected. Sure, some of the songs were painful to play, and I could certainly go the rest of my life without ever hearing The All-American Rejects, Aly & AJ, or Fall Out Boy again. However, developer Neversoft did a fantastic job of making sure to include songs that people over the age of 12 would enjoy, such as Don McLean’s “American Pie”, the Pat Benatar 1980s anthem “Love is a Battlefield”, and “Happy Together” by The Turtles, one of the sweetest songs ever written. I was really happy with the selections overall, especially since the career mode made it pretty easy to skip the tracks I didn’t want to hear. Almost all of the songs can be exported to Guitar Hero 5 for a small fee, eliminating the need to swap out discs at your next party.
Band Hero also introduces more musicians as playable characters, like the members of No Doubt and Taylor Swift. Oddly, Taylor Swift was barely recognizable, despite being a hugely advertised part of the game; her face simply didn’t resemble her real-life counterpart, and if the game hadn’t told me, I probably wouldn’t have known who it was. On the other hand, Gwen Stefani’s on-stage actions mirrored her concert performances very well. All of the unlockable musicians are playable on any song, as is your Xbox Live Avatar. Though playing with Avatars led to some clipping issues in GH5, this wasn’t an issue in Band Hero, though it did seem like Avatars weren’t interacting with the other band members at all in this game.
Just as I enjoyed making my way through Guitar Hero 5’s career, I also had fun going on a world tour in Band Hero—more fun than I expected, given I’m 26 years old and therefore well outside of the game’s target demographic. Neversoft did a good job of not dumbing the game down while trying to appeal to a younger audience, and as a result both new gamers and longtime fans will be able to enjoy Band Hero. Despite having a new name, however, this is still clearly a Guitar Hero game, and it’s a little frustrating to see the second full-priced game in the series on store shelves within two months. If Activision does continue the Band Hero franchise, more should be done to distinguish it from the other Hero games, or else it will never be seen as more than just a clone.