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Guitar Hero (PlayStation 2) artwork

Guitar Hero (PlayStation 2) review

"Simulations - even Guitar Hero - are seen as fake. While most genres are judged on creativity as works of "fiction", most sport and rhythm-based games are "non-fiction" and are judged on how close they come to the real thing. Dance Dance Revolution and DrumMania use interactive peripherals - a dancing platform and a drum set. But watch people play DDR by stomping their feet on directional arrows and it looks like they're doing step aerobics; or, watch DrumMania experts fever..."

Simulations - even Guitar Hero - are seen as fake. While most genres are judged on creativity as works of "fiction", most sport and rhythm-based games are "non-fiction" and are judged on how close they come to the real thing. Dance Dance Revolution and DrumMania use interactive peripherals - a dancing platform and a drum set. But watch people play DDR by stomping their feet on directional arrows and it looks like they're doing step aerobics; or, watch DrumMania experts feverishly bash thin rubber pads, and you will wonder why they don't just get a real drum set or play the one they already own. In fact, the same could be said about Guitar Hero - even one loading screen in the game encourages, "At some point, you should seriously consider getting a guitar." But Guitar Hero does something that those games do not. It fully understands its origins and honors the electric guitar with vigor and absolute integrity.

Everyone wants to be a rock star. The screaming fans. The seven-digit contracts. The rock-hard abs. Fame and fortune is just one guitar away from a dream. But how can a game capture something as intangible as a "rock star"? How can a mere slab of zeros and ones bring out the Jimi Hendrix in all of us?

Well, Guitar Hero won't make you feel completely like Jimi Hendrix, but it comes pretty darn close. The dream of being a rock star is extremely personal to the Harmonix staff. Many of the game's programmers, project managers, and producers have been (and some still are) in a band and know how it feels to be driven only by the adrenaline of the crowd.

From the tutorial voiceovers, the unlockables, the venues, down to even the loading screens, nearly every opportunity has been taken to infuse Guitar Hero with rock energy. Song titles on the selection screen are written like lyrics on a scrap of loose-leaf. Saving screens have a poster, on a brick wall, of a suit-and-tie congressman covering his ears, and loading screens sound witty comments on the ways of the rocker: "If a band member insists on wearing a white belt, kick them out immediately." How true. How true. The game also allows you to choose from one of six default rockers with names like Pandora or Axel Steel, but Harmonix knows that just because you happen to select a rock star won't make you feel like one.

You need a guitar. But you will be skeptical. The guitar peripheral looks like one of those xylophones you played in kindergarten but even less persuasive. It is plastic. It has a flimsy strap. It comes packaged with stickers. There are no strings. And the fret buttons on the guitar's neck are colored red, orange, yellow, green, and blue - one Care Bear short of a rainbow. How cute.

But after a few hours, you will forget just how ridiculous you look. Don't worry if you have never touched or seen a musical instrument in your life. If you played Harmonix's Amplitude or Freq, the gameplay is immediately familiar - small capsules representing the five fret buttons zoom toward you. Once they reach the bottom of the screen, you simply hold down the right fret button and strum the guitar to blast the capsules to smithereens. Blasting them at the right time makes the crowd go wild and your rock meter climbs. And at the very end, an imaginary critic gives you a rating from one to five stars. If you still don't understand it all, going through the hands-on tutorial is worth its weight in gold - it's easy to grasp and the voiceover is actually interested in what's it's saying.

In short, Guitar Hero cares. The music selection is essentially an ode to rock. While it's not going to win any awards on genre variety, the game has songs that you actually want to play. In fact, you will probably recognize a few melodies, despite not knowing their names. Most of the songs are not performed by the original artists, but the new vocals don't take anything away from "Take Me Out" by Franz Ferdinand, "Crossroads" by Cream, and "No One Knows" by Queens of the Stone Age. If you're not familiar with "rock culture", then think of the game as an introduction, a sampler to different rock palettes. Guitar Hero attentively diversifies classics with "Fat Lip" and "I Wanna Be Sedated", and their appreciation will probably rub off on you.

As you move from one difficulty to the next, you will experience a natural progression that is only marred by the lack of a practice mode. Since you have to use your thumb to grip the neck, your four remaining fingers will have to work to span the five fret buttons. That causes a lot of awkward fingering, especially with your pinky, which doesn't get much notice. The learning curve, however, is quite generous, and you can use your star power to get out of tight places. Blasting a sequence of star-shaped capsules builds your star meter, which is used to amplify your guitar riffs, restoring your rock meter. In a stroke of genius, activating star power has you tilt the guitar upright - away from your body.

Rock my world, baby!

Unfortunately, the game doesn't allow you to practice specific section of songs. While you probably won't experience any difficulties early on, there are a few riffs in Expert that will rip your hands off. The only way to practice a song, however, is to play the damn thing all over again. When Jimi Hendrix had problems hitting a riff (amongst other things), he doesn't go back to the beginning. And while this may be a small gripe, it's enough to get on your nerves.

A few other blemishes also restrict you from feeling like a guitar player. For one, the rock meter abruptly goes from red to yellow to green - whenever you go up to another color, the crowd goes wild, and whenever you fall, you get a torrent of boos. So if you are struggling in between two colors, you will get a schizophrenic audience. Boooo! Yay! Booo! Yay! And if you look closely at the crowd, you will notice that it's comprised of only four different characters. Seeing sixteen identical people head-banging in unison is like having a drug overdose.

Thankfully, Guitar Hero more than makes up for some of its shortcomings by being one of the best party games around. Don't get confused. The multiplayer experience is actually bland - it's just one overly simplistic versus mode - and you will have to dish out another forty bucks for the second guitar. Despite this, Guitar Hero has the immediate presence and casual cool for a party. Friends will want to watch you play or try it out for themselves. It would have been nice if there was a Soundtrack mode so you can listen to the songs without having to play the game, but regardless, Guitar Hero creates the perfect party atmosphere.

And while you're having so much fun, you will forget one thing: Guitar Hero respects the guitar. The soundtrack embodies rock history so well that you won't have to buy one of those TimeLife compilations. Each seemingly insignificant artistic touch will make you notic the effort missing from other simulations. And like any musical instrument, Guitar Hero has an air of seduction. Find yourself bored and you will magically wander over to the guitar, glance at it, and accept with little hesitation. Guitar Hero is the guitar. And that's real.

draqq_zyxx's avatar
Featured community review by draqq_zyxx (January 10, 2006)

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