It’s hard to believe that Guitar Hero has only been around since November 2005 when you look at the dozen or so titles it has already spawned. The franchise has grown so large it has already made a significant cultural impact around the world. Some have even argued that the combination of music, a sense of timing and hand-eye co-ordination skills have aided music education in children and even the recovery of patients. But there is definitely no denying that Guitar Hero has influenced a massive shift in attitude between the music industry and video games. Back in 2005 the original Guitar Hero listed tracks were all performed as covers by studio musicians. Now later versions of the game not only contain proper recordings from the artists that made them famous, it even goes so far as to include rendered 3d models of famous music personalities as playable characters. More on that later.
Guitar Hero 5 features 85 songs by 83 different artists and introduces 30 new artists to the video-game franchise. The younger generation will also be glad to see that a quarter of these tracks are all less than 18 months old, making this fifth instalment a showcase of “todays” music. Whatever that is. But Guitar Hero 5 also includes classics from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s as well. From the finger picking nightmare of ‘Sultans of Swing’ by Dire Straits through to the bass heavy grooves of ‘Sex on Fire’ by Kings of Leon, there is something for almost everyone on disc. Personally the track-listing is probably the most inviting one seen in the series and includes Muse, A Perfect Circle, Queens of the Stone Age, The Smashing Pumpkins, The White Stripes, Wolfmother, Bush and Johnny Cash.
As already mentioned, the Guitar Hero franchise has become so popular that artists are clambering to be included in not only the track line-up, but as virtual versions of themselves too. Playing Career mode and accessing certain tracks will unlock their respective characters with Guitar Hero 5 including living legend Carlos Santana, the leggy-licious Shirley Manson (of Garbage), the Man in Black Johnny Cash and the stage-showboat Matthew Bellamy (of Muse). However it is the controversial appearance of Kurt Cobain that is causing the most attention. After more than three years of negotiations, it appears that people still aren’t happy with the posthumous representation of the Nirvana front-man. Considering that Cobain always hated the commercialisation of the music industry, you can kind of understand the outcry. Especially when you factor in the fact that you can then use Cobain to perform any track – including singing Stevie Wonder and Queen songs. Thankfully though, Neversoft has done a very admirable job of creating accurate avatars for each star and they not only look the part, but move and behave like their real-life personas as well.
One of the strangest new features in the avatar department however is the ability to use your Xbox Live ones on the 360 version of the game. And boy oh boy do they look ridiculous. Considering that Neversoft have included an impressive customer character creator in the game, it boggles my brain as to why anyone would opt to use their clunky, plastic looking Xbox Live avatar instead of an awesome heavy-metal rock-god in leather with fangs and an army helmet. But the option is a nice touch for families and kids who get a kick out of seeing their avatars rocking out. It’s also hilarious to watch your Hobbit-sized Xbox Live Avatar take to the stage.
For those who don’t use their Xbox Live one, customising your avatar in Guitar Hero is still one of the highlights and numero 5 has more features than ever before. It has always astounded me the attention to detail that Guitar Hero has allowed for with regards to the instrument customisation. Your guitar, bass, drum kit and microphone can all be customised from a massive list of actual recognised high-end brand names like Paul Reed Smith, Seymour Duncan, Zildjian and Audio-Technica. Even Ernie Ball, Line 6, Marshall Amplification, Tama and VOX all make appearances.
On the surface, Guitar Hero 5 is very much like World Tour. It allows for all of the four instruments to be used across all of the included tracks. But this time around, bands can have any line-up they want, including four guitarists, three bassists and a drummer or just two vocalists. Hell you can even have four drummers if you happen to have enough drum kits just lying around the house. To be honest it’s all getting a tad confusing with the game still being called Guitar Hero considering that people might be playing this game without a guitar controller in sight.
There are some new additions to the formula though. The best one is the drop-in / out gameplay that lets additional people join in at any stage in a song (perfect for those party moments when some idiot hears Bon Jovi playing and wants in on the action). Players can now also modify the difficulty mid-track as well, which is another newbie friendly feature that lets people adjust the skill level without forcing everyone else to quit and wait around.
The other main gameplay mechanics all remain intact from World Tour and previous games. The guitar, bass and drums all play exactly the same but with some little refinements here and there, including the addition of a band multiplier that rewards bands that manage to hit a string of special notes all in unison. The vocals seem to be vastly improved though and are now more responsive making singing a more rewarding experience. Guitar Hero 5 also includes a variety of instrument-based challenges throughout that may require a guitarist to use their whammy bar heavily or for a vocalist to recharge their Star Meter five times in one song. The guitar and bass challenges are fairly demanding and even when I scored 100% on Beck’s “Gamma Ray” on Medium I still failed to unlock the highest honour. The challenges simply unlock extra treats like costumes, accessories and instruments so they are not essential to the core of the gameplay, but still offer good distraction to those more seasoned players.
The game is also compatible with Guitar Hero World Tour and Guitar Hero Greatest Hits tracks as well, but it is important to note that a whopping 280mb download is required first! Of course players can also browse the in-game online music store too and download individual tracks or song packs. Each track is around 40mb (depending on track length) and will cost around 100 Microsoft points. Every track in the game also comes complete with handy trivia facts that you can impress friends at a party with – including one regarding the Beastie Boys and a strange New Zealand connection.
Overall this game delivers everything you would expect and shows that there is still life in the music/rhythm video game genre yet. However I do wonder how much longer the franchise can last. Being a guitarist myself I feel frustrated being tied down to simply mimicking a track exactly as I am told. When players are able to add their own creative flair to the favourite tracks I think we will see a whole new evolution to the genre. Imagine being able to improvise during The White Stripe’s ‘Blue Orchid’ by throwing in an extra scale or pausing for effect to let a bass riff drive through? Drummers and vocalists get to unleash their own creative madness with freeplay sections of a track so why are guitarists and bassists stuck doing exactly what is on screen? Guitar Hero is doing its best in this area with the amazingly detailed inbuilt GHMusic Studio that allows players to create their own tracks and post them online. When this creative aspect merges with the main core of the game, then we’ll have something that both musicians and casual gamers can appreciate. In the meantime (another track reference), Guitar Hero 5 still rocks the set and is a must buy for those getting a tad bored with World Tour.