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Guitar Hero (PlayStation 2) artwork

Guitar Hero (PlayStation 2) review

"Lately I�ve seen the same question popping up in print and online; what is a hardcore gamer? Are there a certain number of games to play, or does the guy who�s forsaken sunshine and society for World of Warcraft qualify? Does the top Halo 2 player deserve it more than the top Madden player? Do I have to eat Pocky and learn Japanese? I don�t think there can be an exact definition, but I do have my own prerequisite. "

Lately I--ve seen the same question popping up in print and online; what is a hardcore gamer? Are there a certain number of games to play, or does the guy who--s forsaken sunshine and society for World of Warcraft qualify? Does the top Halo 2 player deserve it more than the top Madden player? Do I have to eat Pocky and learn Japanese? I don--t think there can be an exact definition, but I do have my own prerequisite.

The truly hardcore should own at least one piece of gaming history they can rightfully feel ashamed to show to the average gamers. Perhaps it--s a Sega 32X, a Virtual Boy, a memory card devoted to Barbie games, or even a pair of DDR pads (but only if strapped down to plywood or made of metal). If you find yourself lacking something to keep your friends laughing and to fend off potential mates, you need to drop some cash for the glory that is Guitar Hero.

It--s unfortunate that my beloved genre, the music game, has been so underrepresented stateside. I blame the peripherals. It--s easy enough to feel cool tapping buttons to the beat of Parappa, but throw someone on a DDR machine in a crowded bowling alley and it--s a whole different story. The guitar shaped controller of Guitar Hero doesn--t exactly up the coolness-factor, but I can--t imagine playing the game any other way. A quality product from Red Octane, the packed-in controller is the size of a travel guitar, with five buttons on the fret board, a toggle for strumming, and even a working whammy bar.

As a song plays, beats corresponding to the fret buttons scroll down the screen. In true guitar fashion you have to strum out the notes while holding the buttons, including held notes and multi-button chords. Things start out simply enough, with mainly single notes and only four buttons being used, but wait until that fifth button starts popping up. You--ll be wishing for a sixth finger. As a nice touch, the guitar track only plays if you play, so if you mess up everyone can hear it. Miss too many notes and your rock meter falls, getting you booed off the stage. By playing well and tweaking the whammy bar just right, you--ll build up some star power. Release it by sticking your guitar straight to the sky and watch your character drive the crowd nuts with some guitar-twirling acrobatics.

It really doesn--t matter how a music game plays if it doesn--t have the songs to back it up, and Guitar Hero certainly delivers. Like their previous releases, Harmonix went all out in securing the rights to actual songs, instead of coming up with some generic tunes. There--s a good range of music, including classics from Hendrix and Deep Purple, headbangers from White Zombie and Megadeth, and some true punk anthems from The Ramones and Bad Religion. In an odd turn, all of the songs are performed by studio musicians, rather than being the original recordings. I certainly can--t complain though, as the production quality is amazing. I played for nearly two hours before realizing the songs were covers.

In Career Mode you start of by choosing a character and guitar to represent you. Neither affects the way the game is played. It--s just a matter of personal style. Like most of the music legends, you--ll start off at the bottom, playing in a basement; one of four venues leading up to the final arena. Complete four out of five songs on the set list and you move to the next venue. Out of the Easy, Medium, Hard, and Expert difficulties, I chose Medium. After getting through the first three songs without much trouble, I figured I had Guitar Hero dialed. Yeah, right. The difficulty ramped up quickly, testing every ounce of coordination, note-comprehension, and dexterity I had. The note patterns of each song get significantly more complex as the difficulty goes up, so there is plenty of replay value. Try playing an opening song on Hard and get ready to sit back in bewilderment. I--d tell you about Expert, but I can barely make it past the intros. While I managed to get to the Arena on Medium, you have to realize there is a huge difference between acing a set and fumbling your way through.

After each song in Career Mode you get paid an amount of cash based upon a five-star review. With this cash you can buy new guitar styles, guitar paintjobs, two characters like the Grim Ripper, special making-of videos, and a wide assortment of songs. I was a little disappointed with the unlockable songs though. It seems like Harmonix used this section to showcase their favorite lesser-known bands. While there is nothing wrong with a little self-indulgence, I would really like to have seen some familiar music from bands like AC/DC, Aerosmith, Metallica, or Pennywise.

The first words that come to mind when describing Guitar Hero graphically are smooth and colorful. The graphics aren--t mind-blowing by any means, but they don--t need to be. 90% of the time you--ll be too busy watching the notes to pay attention to anything else. The backgrounds are exploding with color, and the camera moves around to get some dramatic angles on the show. All of the characters have their own playing styles, quirks, and stage antics. The other band members even get switched up to reflect the instruments and singers of the songs. It--s the little touches like these that really make Guitar Hero come alive.

It feels a bit ironic to call a game that uses a fake, plastic guitar the coolest thing to come around in recent memory, but it--s absolutely true. Sure it feels a bit silly at first, but I guarantee that in short time you--ll forget about your inhibitions and start rocking out. Whether it--s just a little head bopping or Townsend-style jumpkicks, it--ll happen. Once you start working in hammer-ons and pull-offs (techniques for playing quick successions of notes without strumming), it seriously feels like you--re playing the real thing. It won--t teach you to play the guitar, but it--s probably the closest you--ll ever get to feeling like a true rockstar.

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Staff review by Brian Rowe (December 19, 2005)

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