Version tested: Xbox 360
For a game promising "warriors", it's ironic to note that the sixth major instalment in the Guitar Hero series marks a significant retreat in its scrap with Rock Band.
The direction and focus make it clear: rather than try to compete with Harmonix in pushing the creative boundaries of the genre, Warriors of Rock settles for the safer ground of something more akin to a homecoming tour.
But retreat isn't necessarily defeat. World Tour matched Rock Band instrument for instrument, but with Harmonix about to unleash a "pro" guitar and keyboard, Neversoft has (probably very sensibly) elected not to give chase. Instead, Warriors of Rock represents an unabashed primal scream to core fans on a comfortably familiar stage.
The headline change this year comes in career mode. Now called Quest, this seeks to liven up the traditional structure with the Brütal Legend-lite story of the "battle to save rock", portentously narrated by Gene Simmons and punctuated by melodramatic set-pieces.
To an extent, it succeeds. The now-familiar cast of Guitar Hero misfits gets a set of songs and perfunctory narrative vignette each. Once the player has earned enough stars in a given set, the character transforms into their supernatural alter ego, with special powers.
These apply performance-enhancers to increase score multipliers, the effectiveness of star power and so on, with increasing emphasis on tearing through tracks to harvest as many rewards as possible.
Complete the opening four sets and the game's gloriously absurd stand-out sequence is unlocked. In a continuous set lasting half an hour, the liberation of the Legendary guitar is dramatised through a performance of the entirety of Rush's 1976 concept album "2112", complete with a script voiced by the band itself.
It's a silly as it sounds, but pitch-perfect for the tone of the game, and a clever and enjoyable break from the typically rigid career structure. When was the last time you saw a band perform on a floating island beneath a 100-foot-tall, bright red, naked man?
When Neversoft revealed its intentions with this mode, many understandably questioned the creative sanity of adding narrative to Guitar Hero. The "2112" section highlights what is possible given the right material.
Sadly, with the exception of the final 'boss' sequence – immensely challenging, but nowhere near as daft – the remainder of Quest Mode can feel a disengaging slog to level up the remaining four characters.
As always, individual appreciation of songs will vary, but the structural conceit, which by design should compel you to press on regardless, reveals itself outside of these two epic sections to be wafer-thin and, ultimately, potential unfulfilled.
Speaking of the set list, the 90-plus songs included again represent excellent value for money. However, there's also a very conscious move away from the something-for-everyone approach and back to the heavy metal, hard rock vibe that is in Guitar Hero's DNA. Emblematic of this, Guitar Hero 5's back-of-the-box pull quote, "THE HOTTEST ROCK'N'ROLL SONGS", becomes "JOIN THE QUEST TO SAVE ROCK" in Warriors.
On the one hand, this perhaps limits the appeal of the game. But it has also allowed Neversoft to focus on the series' strengths and produce a tracklist in which songs justify their inclusion on gameplay merit rather than mainstream friendliness.
On a personal level and as someone with a preference for guitar, Warriors is full of songs I've never heard, will likely never purchase, but love to play in-game. Highlights include the beautiful strum-free arpeggios of Slash's "Ghost", and the falling-to-knees, sex-face solo-noodling of Queensryche's "Jet City Woman".
In gameplay terms, the content provides an important contrast with recent band-specific releases. A veteran axe-wielder can stroll through Expert in The Beatles: Rock Band while half-asleep. Warriors of Rock's toughest tracks are brutal, tendon-savaging marathons that will leave you gasping for breath.
As with previous instalments, generous input windows are essential in providing those magic "how the f*** did I play that?" moments, without ever making you feel you're cheating.
The final track in Quest Mode, a new arrangement of Megadeth's "Sudden Death" composed exclusively for the game, is Neversoft's gift to a fanbase which, over five years, has effectively mastered an instrument. Albeit a plastic, pretend one.
Unless you hate the tracks, longevity shouldn't be an issue. There is of course all the local and multiplayer support you'd expect, the full multi-track recording and jamming suite and extensive character-creation tools.
A first run-through of the lengthy Quest Mode only achieves 55 per cent completion, opening up the top tier of evil bastard-hard tracks (Dragonforce et al), while resetting the demands for each character's set, requiring you to use unlocked power to gain more stars and "dominate" each section.
There's also a new QuickPlay+ mode, offering a vast array of instrument-specific challenges to complete and bonuses to unlock. As with Guitar Hero 5, at their best challenges work by encouraging you to consider the structure of a song in a different way (such as your strumming style) and, in the end, offer a far stronger reason to replay than the embryonic Quest Mode manages. And if leaderboard-bragging is no longer sufficient, new social networking support allows you to spam Facebook and Twitter with your achievements.
As with Guitar Hero 5, the general standard of note-charts across all instruments is exemplary, skilfully capturing the feel and, therefore, fantasy of each. And with training modes galore, songs unlocked in QuickPlay from the off and the drop-in-drop-out Party Play Mode retained, the experience is as accessible as ever.
There are now 40 million Guitar Hero and Rock Band compatible guitars in the world. Nevertheless, Activision boss Bobby Kotick has decided the world needs yet another. This year's model, complete with removable, customisable body (but lacking the 'touch buttons' higher up the fret board) is in no sense quiet – more like a suit of armour falling down a stone staircase – but it looks stylish and feels great to use.
I've always preferred Guitar Hero's guitars to the Rock Band versions and this simply cements my preference. If you are the Imelda Marcos of toy guitar collectors, you won't go far wrong.
Presentation is top-notch throughout. The various cut-scenes in Quest Mode are stylish and well-animated, lip-syncing is convincing, and performances are snappily direct, with an infectious if clichéd sense of humour.
It's revealing that Warriors' most famous track, Bohemian Rhapsody, is the one that most clearly highlights its limitations. The Queen song also features in the upcoming Rock Band 3, where it will benefit from the keyboard and vocal harmonies. That's not to say Guitar Hero's take isn't great fun (it really is); just lacking in ambition.
How successful Rock Band 3's bold advances prove, we will soon see. Either way, for the first time, there is now clear water between these two giants of the genre in their style and focus.
As yet another developer relinquishes duties on the series Harmonix created, it's anyone's guess where it will go from here. For now, Neversoft is at least playing us out with one we all know.
7 / 10
Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock is available now for PS3, Wii and Xbox 360.