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Guitar Hero II (PlayStation 2) artwork

Guitar Hero II (PlayStation 2) review

"Guitar Hero’s combination of fist-pumping music, vibrant characters, massive replay value, and immersive gameplay, had never come together so perfectly in a music game."

So you’ve cranked the amps to eleven, blew out the neighbors' eardrums, and appeased the gods of rock. You’re even thinking about getting a real guitar, taking some lessons, and possibly getting a band together. Well forget about it, because you’re just getting started. Bands are too much drama anyway.

The first Guitar Hero made “best of 2005” lists everywhere and blasted up the charts from cult-hit status to an outright phenomenon, and for good reason. Guitar Hero’s combination of fist-pumping music, vibrant characters, massive replay value, and immersive gameplay, had never come together so perfectly in a music game. If you happen to be one of the few stubborn or secluded people not jamming away, get out there and buy it already. I’ve even seen mothers in their 40’s tearing it up. Do you really want someone’s mom scoring more gaming cred than you?

Just like the first time around, Guitar Hero II is incredibly easy to pick up. Strap on the guitar-shaped controller, pick a song, and hold down the fret buttons as you strum out the notes. You have to play well and keep your rock meter filled, or risk getting booed off the stage. If you need a boost or want to shoot your score into the stratosphere, use Star Power and send your character on a guitar flipping, crowd pleasing rampage. Harmonix has really outdone itself this time. Guitar Hero II features 40 classics of rock ‘n’ roll, without a single repeat from the first game, and an additional 24 tracks from some of the developers’ favorite bands. With songs from Danzig, Cheap Trick, Kiss, Rage Against the Machine, Lamb of God, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Shadows Fall, and a ton more, every rocker out there should be satisfied. On a more personal note to Harmonix – thank you for not going emo on me.

Which character you choose to be still has no bearing on how the game is played, but some improvements have come our way. While fan favorites like Axel Steel, Judy Nails, and Johnny Napalm have returned, others faded in obscurity. Did anyone ever choose to be the Lenny Kravitz wannabe anyway? This means a few empty spots needed to be filled, so rounding out the cast is the rockabilly grease-monkey, Eddie Knox, the black-metal poster child, Lars Umlaut, goth girl, Pandora, the brooding vixen, Casey Lynch, and three unlockable characters as well. Pick a character, grab a guitar, and dive onto the beer-soaked stage of a rat-infested bar. You’ll have to play your way to the top, and there’s plenty of new guitars, outfits, and songs to buy along the way.

I know that a few people with freakish skills were hoping for a fifth, Master level of difficulty, but that hasn’t happened. Still, tracks don’t come much harder than the likes of Reverend Horton Heat or Suicidal Tendencies. For the rest of us average folk, our prayers have been answered with a new Training section. Now you can select portions of songs, adjust the track speed, and nail those tough solos without worrying about failing. You can even pull up a Stats screen to see exactly where your problem areas lie. Right on par with the Training section, if not even more welcome, are the easier hammer-ons and pull-offs (techniques for playing strings of notes without strumming). They were frustratingly inconsistent the first time around, but now heated solos flow like waves from your fingertips.

Guitar Hero II is available as a stand-alone game or as a package deal, and now there are three reasons to pick up that extra guitar in the package. The first multiplayer mode is the familiar Faceoff, where the track is split between the two players. After beating the game once on any difficulty, Pro Faceoff lays down the full track for both players to go head to head in an all-out display of skill. By far the most interesting is Co-op, in which one person plays lead guitar while the other plays bass or rhythm guitar, depending on the track. Every good band has to work together, so in Co-op mode, both players share the same score, rock-meter, note streak, and both have to activate star power simultaneously.

There is really only one downside, and it’s tragic enough that Guitar Hero II might have been a contender for a perfect score. The vocals simply are not what they should be. In the first Guitar Hero, I played nearly two days before realizing that all of the songs were covers. The production quality was that good. Now, the fact that these are covers hits you like a brick wrapped in barbed-wire by the second song. Something is wrong when it sounds like Billy Idol is singing Danzig songs. While most of the songs aren’t quite as bad, very few could pass for the originals. The power of Guitar Hero is its ability to make you believe that you are playing the songs. Without that belief, it’s all too apparent that you’re just a geek with a little, plastic guitar. On a positive note, all of the unlockable songs are performed by the original artists, and in a few cases, specifically for Guitar Hero II.

Guitar Hero II may have stumbled on the production quality, but everything else is absolutely top-notch. The soundtrack is filled with legends, so-bad-they’re-good favorites, and a full list of eye-opening newcomers. The excellent controls became even better, and perhaps with Training mode, I may finally get into the Expert bracket. Guitar Hero II is still addictively fun, still challenging, and still one of the best reasons to cram all of your friends into the same room. I think we may have another contender for the best of 2006.

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Staff review by Brian Rowe (November 14, 2006)

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