When the Guitar Hero series launched in 2005, it was the undisputable king of music games. It certainly wasn’t the first or only rhythm game in town, but it changed the genre in ways no one really saw coming. The idea of playing popular songs on a fake guitar may have appeared silly at first, but four years later, it seems totally natural to have a variety of plastic instruments cluttering up your living room. However, Guitar Hero has faltered in that time, with competition from the Rock Band series and an onslaught of sequels and spin-offs diluting the once-great franchise. Guitar Hero 5 is actually the fifth game in the series to come out in 2009 alone, including cell phone and arcade versions, and won’t even be the last. While I was expecting Guitar Hero 5 to be just another installment with marginal changes other than the setlist, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was, in fact, the most improved game in the series since Guitar Hero II.
From the outset, some of the changes in GH5 are apparent. There are still standard career, quickplay, competitive, and tutorial modes, there is also a party play option that throws the band members right in and gives them a random selection of tunes to play. The career itself is fairly standard, though it has been tweaked to make it more functional. Unlike Guitar Hero: Smash Hits, which came out earlier this summer, players no longer need to have separate solo and band careers. Now, one can start playing alone, with any combination of band members joining in for future play. Creating a character is also now possible right from the character select screen, regardless of whether you are playing alone or with others.
As you play through the initial available tracks, gradually unlocking more songs and additional venues, there are also some noticeable aesthetic changes that occur onscreen during the actual gameplay. All of the various notifications have been streamlined, with the star power meter and note streak counter now on the right side of each member’s section, and the performance indicator on the left. While this means that there is far less clutter on the screen, it can also make it more difficult to tell how you’re doing or how much star power you have stored up. This becomes further complicated with three or four band members playing at once, and those extra fractions of a second it takes for your eyes to scan the screen and find what you’re looking for can cause you to miss precious notes and mess up your streak. Despite this, everything looks very polished, but not over the top, and visually this is the best-looking Guitar Hero game yet.
Even though it is still called Guitar Hero, this is yet another full band game, with some definite improvements from World Tour and Smash Hits. Band members now have the ability to save one another if someone fails out of a song; this can be done by playing well and winning over the crowd. The more times a band member fails, or the more people who fail out at once, the harder it’s going to be to get them back into the game. This element makes Guitar Hero 5 feel more like a cooperative band experience, and while that should have been the case ever since last year’s World Tour, at least this problem has finally been rectified. Another interesting new feature that lends itself to cooperative play is that band members can split star power between other players if their own meter is full. This way, if you are waiting for all members to unleash their star power, playing a section of starred notes perfectly won’t let that extra power go to waste.
One of the most advertised additions to Guitar Hero 5 is the option to have up to four band members on whatever combination of instruments they would like. This could mean four drummers, four guitarists, four singers, or any variation preferable. While it is unlikely that many gamers have four plastic drum sets in their homes, this option is also available online, and should make for some interesting gameplay sessions. Unfortunately, having four lanes of notes as opposed to the previous maximum of three can really clutter up the screen, making it even harder to gauge the band’s performance without ruining your own.
Though all of the Guitar Hero regulars are present in GH5, as well as some famous real-life musicians (both living and deceased), I have always had more fun creating my own rock star. The character creator seems to have more options than previous installments, and the models aren’t as weird looking as they were in Smash Hits. Additionally, players now have the option to use their 360 Avatars in place of standard rockers. While it is definitely amusing to see your Avatar rocking out alongside Axel Steel and Izzy Sparks, this also creates a technical issue: clipping. The other characters will play right through your Avatar, which, while not a game-breaker, is certainly jarring and makes the whole package seem less complete.
The heart of any music game, of course, is the setlist, and Guitar Hero 5 is a mixed bag. Music taste is subjective, so while I was thrilled to find the likes of Bob Dylan, David Bowie, and the Rolling Stones, others will probably be more happy with newer groups Vampire Weekend and TV on the Radio. It seems like developer Neversoft tried really, hard to find something for everyone, but as a result, there’s a good chance that you won’t like a significant amount of the 85 songs available on the disc. Some, but not all, tracks from Guitar Hero World Tour and Smash Hits can be imported for a small fee, assuming you already own those games, which will give Guitar Hero fans more music to choose from. Weekly downloadable content will continue to be provided as well, meaning that theoretically, there will never be a shortage of new music for Guitar Hero 5.
It has been a while since I have really enjoyed a new Guitar Hero game, and after the lackluster release of Smash Hits a few months ago, I didn’t exactly have the highest hopes for Guitar Hero 5. However, I was happy to be proven wrong, and found GH5 to be a significant improvement and Neversoft’s best full band game yet. The franchise still has a way to go before it can truly be considered stellar, and most of its improvements and additions are things that have already been done within the genre. Still, there is no denying that it is the best Guitar Hero in years, and a big step up for the series.