Review by Dorkmaster Flek

Reviewed: 11/07/06

Red Octane and Harmonix have created a new gem of music game series.

You may have heard of music/rhythm game developer Harmonix. They're the fantastic (and under-appreciated) studio behind the underground hits Frequency and Amplitude, as well as the slightly more well-known Karaoke Revolution series. If you haven't heard of them, however, it's time to start paying attention. Because while their games have always fared well with the critics, they've never developed more than a small but admittedly devout following...until now. Guitar Hero, their latest entry in the music game genre, has become a certified hit with both the critics and the masses, boasting sales of over a million copies since the game debuted in November 2005, and with good reason. It combines a stellar presentation with the secret dream of so many people: to be a rock star. To jam with some of the best guitar players of all time, to shred like nobody's business, to wail with such virtuosity that the heads of everyone in the room simply explode from an overload of pure awesomeness. This, my friends, is a dream that you can now live, and all without leaving your house.

The basic gameplay premise is simple. You hold a plastic replica of a Gibson SG guitar (roughly 75% scale). There is a "strum bar" which you use for strumming instead of strings, and there are 5 fret buttons which take the place of actual frets on a guitar (we'll get to the other features). You have a "rock meter" on screen which serves as your life bar. If it gets too low, you fail the stage. You are faced with a scrolling panel on the screen on which coloured notes corresponding to the 5 coloured fret buttons scroll towards you. When a note reaches the thick bar that serves as the target area, the note must be played. This is done by holding down the correct fret button and pressing the strum bar to trigger the note. You can press the strum bar either up or down, just like the real thing. Also like the real thing, you can hold the fret buttons down long before the notes hit as long as you strum at the correct time. Simple, yes? Well, there is a bit more to it than that, but that's the basic idea. The other thing you'll encounter is long notes. These are notes with a solid line extending from the note, which signify that you should continue to hold down the fret button after strumming the note for a sustained sound. You'll also have to eventually deal with two-note "chords" which require you to hold both corresponding fret buttons down when you strum the note. If you've ever played Konami's Guitar Freaks, you'll know exactly what to expect.

These gameplay ideas are built upon with more subtle nuances, however. For example, you can hold down any or all of the fret buttons that are "lower" (i.e. further away from the body) than the one you're currently playing, just like a real guitar. This comes in very handy during certain passages where, for example, you have repeated notes on the lowest fret (the green one) with a few inter-spaced notes on higher frets. You can simply keep the lowest fret button held down the entire time and hit the higher ones as needed. However, this cannot be done for the aforementioned two-note chords. When playing those, you must hold down only those required buttons. You also have a whammy bar at your disposal on the guitar controller as well. Similar to a real guitar, the whammy bar bends the pitch of the guitar up and down as you move it back and forth. This actually bends the pitch of the guitar track in the game, so it's not just for show. It also increases the score you get from sustained notes if you whammy while holding them.

Finally, we have "star power". While you're playing, you'll see certain notes that are shaped like stars instead of the normal circles. If you hit all the notes in a string of these star notes, you'll fill up 1/4 of your star power meter. This is a meter on the right side of the screen showing, you guessed it, your star power. Additionally, if you have a long sustained note that is a star note, you can whammy while sustaining the note to further increase your star power. Once you have 1/2 of your bar filled or more, you can activate your star power by either hitting the select button on the body of the guitar (the boring way) or tilting the guitar neck up vertically for a second and "rocking out" (the awesome way). Your star power will then slowly drain away until the bar is empty. What does star power do? Well, to answer that you need to understand the scoring system. It's easy: each note is worth 50 points. Logically, the two-note chords are worth double that. When you hit 10 notes in a row, you get a score multiplier that multiplies the amount each note is worth, first by 2, then 3 and stopping at 4. If you miss a note and break your combo, the multiplier resets. When you activate your star power, it doubles your current multiplier as long as it's active. In addition, the amount of rock meter you lose for missing a note is reduced quite a bit, and the amount you gain for hitting notes is drastically increased. This feature makes star power a strategic element that you can either save to carry you through the tough parts you can't quite get yet, or hit it when you have a section with a lot of notes and a combo going to maximize your score.

The basic gameplay is further enhanced by the addition of more advanced guitar techniques called hammer-ons and pull-offs. A hammer-on is where you strum a note on the fretboard and then press down, or "hammer on", a higher fret on the same string without strumming again, instantly transitioning to the higher note. A pull-off is the same thing, except in reverse. Here you play a higher note and "pull off" to a lower fret. This ability is included in the game, however it is a slightly limited form. When performing hammer-ons, you must keep the lower fret held down while you press the higher fret button. For pull-offs, you are required to be already holding the lower fret button when you release the higher one. Additionally, you are only able to hammer-on/pull-off notes that do not have the usual black rim circle on the note graphic. These white rimmed notes signify that you can use hammer-ons/pull-offs to hit them. This is different from a real guitar, where you can actually physically release the string a hit a different fret because the physics of the string vibrating still work. Because of this, this technique is very difficult to use in the faster solo passages where it should be the most helpful. Indeed, the top players of the game actually strum almost every note, rarely if ever using hammer-ons/pull-offs.

So now I've talked at length about the gameplay (which is critical in a music/rhythm game to be sure), but what about the actual songs that you'll be playing? A game like this can live or die on its track list alone. Fortunately, Harmonix knows this and they've licensed 30 tracks from various old and new bands, in addition to including 17 unlockable bonus tracks from smaller indie bands, including several that have Harmonix staff as members. The tracks include such legendary classics as Smoke on the Water, Crossroads, Jimmy Hendrix's Spanish Castle Magic, I Love Rock and Roll, some great metal tracks from Megadeth (Symphony of Destruction), Pantera (Cowboys From Hell), Black Sabbath (Iron Man) and Ozzie Osbourne (Bark at the Moon), and some modern tunes from The Queens of the Stone Age (No One Knows), Red Hot Chili Peppers (Higher Ground) and The Ramones (I Wanna Be Sedated), along with some Queen (Killer Queen) and David Bowie (Ziggy Stardust) thrown in for good measure. In short, a fantastic lineup of old and new rock music. Of course, you can always find people to complain that "Song XYZ" wasn't in the game, but what matters is that what IS there is great. There are a few notable exceptions (no Metallica, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin for example), but this isn't because they didn't try. Quite the opposite, they're still bugging all of those bands for tracks for future games. The issue is that the band or the label refuses to license tracks to them. So if you want to see those bands in future games, start bugging them about it!

They also hired the experts at Wavegroup Studio to faithfully recreate all of the licensed tracks for the game. That's right, every licensed track you hear in this game is a cover. If you've seen this game before or played it at a friend's house, I bet you didn't notice that when you first played it. That's because the covers in this game are some of the best you'll ever hear. The only issue is the vocals in some of the tracks which give away the fact that the song is a cover, but they're still very good. The instrumentation on the other hand, is absolutely perfect. You would never guess that they were covers until the vocalist actually came in, if at all. This is augmented by the (with few exceptions) excellent note charts on all difficulty levels, which make you play notes in a way that feels like you're really playing the song. It's obvious that Harmonix and Wavegroup put a ton of effort into recreating the feeling and experience of playing these songs.

The graphics in a game like this don't matter nearly as much as the sound/gameplay does, but what is here is very solid indeed. You're treated to a fully rendered band on stage while you're playing, and the characters actually sync up with the music very well, especially your guitar character. Their hands move across the fret board and the strum realistically in time with the music. They also have various animations as they dance around stage while you're playing, as well as a special animation that occurs when you activate your star power. These range from cool (the Grim Ripper, or Death with a scythe guitar, makes his guitar hover in front of him while continuing to pluck the strings through his "Unholy Powers (TM)") to downright funny (Judy Nails, a female alternative rocker, spins her guitar like a top and smashes it like The Who when she finishes a song). The audience members also cheer you on as you play, depending on how well you're doing, and will actually clap along with the beat when your star power is active. All this provides a nice display for people who are watching you play, so they're not just staring at the scrolling notes like you. It also makes it fun to watch others play, as you can be entertained by the onstage antics of the band. The loading screen comments are also particularly funny, featuring lines like "Don't let the drummer handle the money" (and you wonder why there's no Metallica in the game?) and "They don't really want you to play Free Bird, they're just heckling you". That last line is particularly funny because Free Bird is a playable song in Guitar Hero II, but that's for another review.

There are also several different venues you'll play in, ranging from the basement of a friends house all the way up a massive stadium with coloured lighting and backdrops of dragons breathing fire. The venues are varied and very cool. They all have unique personalities and feel different to play in. You'll unlock more venues as you work through career mode. Speaking of unlocking, you can use the money you earn in career mode to unlock new guitars and skins in the unlock shop, as well as the aforementioned bonus tracks, two bonus characters and three "Behind the Scenes" videos detailing the creation of the characters and venues, as well as the actual recording of the tracks. It's very cool to actually see the people who perform the songs in the game doing their thing and it gives you great respect for what they went through to make this game what it is. All in all, the overall presentation is stellar and really puts this game over the top of other entries in the genre.

In addition to jamming in career and free play modes, you can also play multiplayer with a friend for some heads up action. In what's known as "face off mode" now, you and a second player take turns trading licks from any of the songs and see who comes out on top. It's good fun, however one notable shortcoming here is that both players must play on the same difficulty. This makes it not so fun to play with somebody who is just starting out when you're working on the expert difficulty level. This is a minor shortcoming however, as the main focus of the game is the lead guitar role and the single player mode.

Overall, Guitar Hero is a solid and extremely fun concept coupled with a stellar presentation and tons of replay value, as you can continually try to best your scores and get higher ratings on the songs that are giving you trouble. It is not totally without issues, however. As stated before, a few of the vocal covers aren't quite up to snuff with the rest of the songs, and the multiplayer options are somewhat limited. The gameplay issues with hammer-ons and pull-offs aside, the most notable omission is a practise mode of sorts. It can be very frustrating to get 3/4 of the way through a song only to fail repeatedly at a tough solo section and having to replay the entire song in order to work on it. These small issues keep this game from earning a perfect 10 rating from me, however if you are at all a fan of music/rhythm games, I wholeheartedly recommend Guitar Hero. Despite its few shortcomings, it remains one of the funnest games I've ever played.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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