Review by AK_the_Twilight

"Broken wrists aside, Guitar Hero II still rocks."

During the 1990's, the rhythm game market was an uphill struggle. Sure, you had the avid techno-lovers of Dance Dance Revolution or the wacky rap style of Parappa the Rapper, but during the 90's, rhythm games fell into a niche market that was mostly populated with Japanese titles that were just lucky enough to get licensed in North America. Once the console market returned during the early 2000's, one of the rhythm game genre's most creative of companies, Harmonix, stepped up to the task of switching things up for the music game formula. Their grand creation, Guitar Hero, was a major contributor to the rebirth of rhythm games that took place in the new millennium. Soon, millions of PS2 owners were holding plastic guitars and jamming to some of rock's most legendary of songs. Not content with a single success, Harmonix moved forward with the console technology, releasing the sequel Guitar Hero II on the Xbox 360. Does this second round of rock satisfy?

If you've been living under a rock, here's how Guitar Hero works. You get yourself a guitar controller, each one having five fret buttons, a strummer, a whammy bar, a tilt sensor, and all of the amenities. As notes scroll across the board on-screen, the player must hold down the fret buttons while strumming the strummer in different combinations, all while earning points for hitting the right notes. Miss too many and the crowd will know, beginning to boo you off stage; miss enough and it's “song failed”. Longer notes can be used for extra points by using the whammy bar, and Star Power (a way to earn extra points or progress through the harder song parts) can be used by tilting the guitar upright. Since Guitar Hero's inception, the gameplay has long since been challenging and addictive. The controls are accessible enough for newcomers to join in, but retain enough versatility to pose a serious challenge. Expert techniques like hammer-ons and pull-offs take a ton of practice to nail, but once you successfully get them together, you'll find the Guitar Hero controls to be some of the best seen in the rhythm game genre.

A majority of the game takes place in the Career Mode. It's simple enough; after naming your band and selecting your rocker, you play through a list of songs. Succeed in completing them unlocks more songs to complete, allowing you to unlock more songs after completing more songs. Each performance is given a star rating from one to five, and additional difficulty settings offer plenty of content and challenge. The Career Mode is very straightforward, so it would've been better to have had a bit more flexibility in progressing and unlocking songs. In addition to the Career Mode, there is also a selection of other gameplay modes. Quickplay is great if you want to simply dive into a song for a fast round. Training Mode offers insight towards the more advanced of Guitar Hero techniques, with the included Practice Mode allowing you to play through a song at different speeds or in different sections. The multiplayer component has gotten a face lift, allowing for local multiplayer, but the lack of online play is discouraging, especially for an Xbox 360 title. The inclusion of downloadable content is a step ahead for the franchise, offering plenty of song packs, ranging from songs from the original PS2 Guitar Hero to independent bands that are just breaking into the rhythm game world. These are a great idea, especially since DLC has become so important to a game's lifespan. There isn't a ton of stuff to do in Guitar Hero II, but there's just enough diversity to keep gamers satisfied and the DLC does a great job in giving you reasons to rock out again.

If gameplay is the meat of a good rhythm game, the soundtrack is the potatoes. Guitar Hero II delivers when it comes to hard rock anthems and challenging riff design. You get a nice selection from 55 total songs, ranging across the decades with plenty of diversity. Famous songs from hard rock's past like “Carry on Wayward Son” by Kansas and “Freebird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd are present, along with newer hits like “Woman” by Wolfmother or “Beast and the Harlot” by Avenged Sevenfold. More songs can be purchased in the Store, using in game currency earned from successful performances. Every single one of the songs in Guitar Hero II poses some type of challenging gameplay like fast, repeated strums or finger-twisting chords, which based on the guitar-based controls, is a very good concept. But on the topic of difficulty, Guitar Hero II has some critical issues. The overall gameplay itself is challenging enough, but the leap from Medium difficulty to Hard is far too severe. It would've been much more tolerable if there was some balance between the two, an extra difficulty setting if at all possible. Yes, I know it takes practice and many people can run through every song on Expert if they so want, but for your average Guitar Hero, the difficulty jump will no doubt cause struggle and far too much challenge.

The presentation in Guitar Hero II is a fine, alternative mix of rock art and over-the-top animations. The menus have that in-your-face, rock-till-you-drop atmosphere and the alternative designs are interesting to say the least. In-game, the respective rockers animate well, illustrating each one's unique style, and the when Star Power is deployed, the animations can be just plain crazy. Seeing your rocker spin the guitar in incredibly abstract ways is just the beginning. The soundtrack is nearly all covers, which is a bit annoying. Hearing someone else try to sound like Rage Against the Machine's Zach de la Rocha or Nirvana's Kurt Cobain may get on your nerves quickly. The few official recordings like Jane's Addiction's “Stop!” and Primus's “John the Fisherman” are better, but the sound quality feels a bit stripped down. Some songs can sound pretty imbalanced in instrument, perhaps to emphasize the guitar sounds themselves, but it still can seem mildly distracting. The overall presentation grabs the style that makes you feel like a Guitar Hero, even if the audio quality isn't the absolute best you can find on the Xbox 360.

Pros
+ Solid soundtrack possesses plenty of guitar solos and challenging riffs
+ Cool presentation
+ Gameplay is purely and successfully Guitar Hero
+ DLC is diverse and well-implemented

Cons
- Difficulty curve is annoyingly steep
- No online multiplayer
- Soundtrack is mostly covers
- Not the best sound design

While the first Guitar Hero really set the stage (pardon the pun) for the future of music games, Guitar Hero II doesn't make as drastic of changes, instead piling on more content and modes. The difficulty curve is far too steep for a music game, the lack of online multiplayer is annoying, and the overall sound design feels lackluster compared to other music games on the market. However, it's hard to fault Harmonix when the gameplay is so addictive and the soundtrack so comprehensive, offering hours of rock-related fun. The inclusion of downloadable content extends the life considerably, and Harmonix has really done a fantastic job when it comes to supporting music games with such content. A wild presentation style doesn't hurt either. As the first solid sequel for one of gaming's biggest of franchises, Guitar Hero II has some nice progressions for the overall content and mode count, even if the gameplay itself isn't too much different than the original. If you have the perseverance, Guitar Hero II will provide a considerable amount of gaming fun. For everyone else, you may want to try it out yourself before you invest in more plastic guitars.


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 09/03/09

Game Release: Guitar Hero II (Game only) (US, 10/28/07)


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