"Unless you're the sort that isn't happy with anything but indie music, Guitar Hero 5 probably has more than a few selections that will appeal to your inner rock star. Some of the bands appearing here are new arrivals and some aren't, yet the songs included feel so perfect that I could scarcely believe they hadn't already been claimed by previous installments in the series."
After foolishly spending years ignoring anything that music and rhythm games had to offer after Amplitude, I recently took advantage of an opportunity to purchase Guitar Hero: Aerosmith and a wireless guitar for a combined total of less than $20. I've liked Aerosmith's music for years, plus the Guitar Hero games were supposed to be excellent. I was proud of my frugal self and I was looking forward to hours of bliss. Unfortunately, Guitar Hero: Aerosmith isn't an ideal ambassador for the overall franchise. As you've possibly heard, there are a lot of issues that you have to ignore if you want to have a good time with it. The whole experience left me underwhelmed, to say the least.
Every cloud has a silver lining, though. Mine was the fact that I now owned a perfectly good wireless guitar controller and Guitar Hero 5 was coming up on me faster than something very fast (sorry, not every game critic can pull a witty metaphor out of his ass whenever he feels like it). Shortly after arriving in stores, the game appeared as if by magic in my apartment, where my brother-in-law and I have since enjoyed playing it for hours at a time. As a result of all that practice, I went from being a total scrub to... well, not a guitar god, but something closer to proficient. I also learned what I'd been missing and I reached a profound conclusion: Guitar Hero is indeed excellent.
What I liked about Guitar Hero: Aerosmith was the thrill of moving my fingers around on the guitar controller like a madman. A good performance in that game meant that I'd done more than just tap a button with a vague sense of rhythm. And while I know that there's a lot more to playing a guitar than just pressing a few buttons and strumming on a plastic lever, I liked the way the game mimicked the experience more closely than a standard controller ever could. It felt like I was experiencing something truly special.
As it so happens, the very things that I liked about Guitar Hero: Aerosmith are also true of Guitar Hero 5. This shouldn't come as any particular surprise. What makes the two titles different is the way that the newest installment in the series doesn't feel like an attempt to get by with the least possible effort. The track list this time around is almost twice the size--with two or three times the memorable music--and the irritating video clips of Aerosmith band members spending a few seconds saying nothing worthwhile are gone now. The interface throughout is more polished, as well. Menus are simple but effective and attractive, while there also have been a few tweaks to the actual in-game presentation that make it easier to track your performance without looking far from the aisle at the center of the screen. From the title screen onward, it's clear that the developers wanted to present gamers with better content... and more of it!
Unless you're the sort that isn't happy with anything but indie music, Guitar Hero 5 probably has more than a few selections that will appeal to your inner rock star. Some of the bands appearing here are new arrivals and some aren't, yet the songs included feel so perfect that I could scarcely believe they hadn't already been claimed by previous installments in the series. Even when I didn't recognize a title, I'd begin playing it and suddenly I'd remember it from the many times I heard and liked it on the radio. Artists represented include Sublime, Kings of Leon, Megadeath, Bush, Johnny Cash, Rammstein, Kiss, The Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage and Nirvana, just to name a few.
Besides featuring an amazing roster of artists, Guitar Hero 5 provides tangible rewards for gamers that master the skills necessary to produce superior performances. You receive a rating between one and five stars for each song that you complete in the "Career" mode. These accrue and eventually unlock new venues--and more songs--that provide you with the opportunity to unlock new gear for your virtual band and even to recruit special characters. Among others, you'll be joined by Matthew Bellamy, the lead singer of Muse, as well as deceased legends such as Johnny Cash and Kurt Cobain. Some gamers have protested the inclusion of those last two icons, particularly since it can feel a bit odd to see Kurt Cobain's mouth moving to an Elton John or David Bowie song, but I personally felt that their availability serves as a nice tribute to the talents they showcased while alive. Besides, you're not going to regularly witness the bizarre disconnect between artists and music unless you choose to utilize a given character, so to me the complaints that I've seen online seem a bit like a kid repeatedly sticking his hand on a hot burner and then complaining each time he gets burnt.
Since Guitar Hero 5 is the evolution of a series that was last officially updated with Guitar Hero: World Tour, a title that introduced drums and vocals in an attempt to compete with Rock Band, the developers worked carefully to provide a system that should appeal to fans of that expanded format without alienating those who still believe that Guitar Hero should be about just guitar rock. When you begin playing--or when you access the appropriate menu afterwards--it's possible to choose the instrument that you wish to use, plus multiple players can get together and jam. Challenges posed throughout the "Campaign" mode ensure that all types of player have something to do, whether that means trying to finish a stage with a certain strumming style or hitting all of the notes while belting out a David Bowie gem. This means that you can't experience everything without the proper hardware, but even those who only have a guitar--like me--should find more than enough content to keep them busy for a long while.
One final game mechanic worth mentioning is the inclusion of a "Beginner" setting. That might sound like a nice change if you've tried Guitar Hero games in the past and found the experience to be excessively humbling, but difficulty levels in this newest installment could still benefit from further refinement. The real problem is that they're too uneven.
To illustrate my point, I need look no further than the included song by the Finnish metal group, Children of Bodom. On the "Easy" setting, I play the selection and I get slaughtered. My brother-in-law can clear it effortlessly on the same tier, yet on the "Medium" setting he doesn't get much more than a quarter of the way through it even though other songs give him no difficulty. Experimental gamers that we are, we decided to see how much easier the "Beginner" setting made things, and what we found was ridiculous. No longer is the player required to press different buttons while strumming. The game finds the chords automatically and just the occasional strum from you is more than enough to let you clear a stage. If for some reason you don't feel like putting forth that much effort, you can remain motionless while most of the song plays. Eventually, the screen will fade to warn you that you're about to fail, but if that happens you can just randomly press the lever a few times--without paying any attention to the music--and restore your meter to its full capacity. We have no toddlers in my household, but even if we did I am confident that my entire family would have no trouble with even the "toughest" songs in the game. I'm being completely serious.
Uneven difficulty settings aside, however, Guitar Hero 5 is an enjoyable entry in a series that shows no signs of disappearing from the public eye anytime soon. The variety and quality of the included music should delight numerous fans of popular rock music, plus the tangible rewards for playing well should keep you coming back even after you've cleared the entire soundtrack. If you've been watching the whole music game craze from a distance and thinking that maybe someday you'll give it a shot, there's no time like the present.
Staff review by Jason Venter (September 20, 2009)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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