Version tested: PlayStation 3
If you're still wondering what Band Hero actually is - and I certainly was until about two months ago, when Activision started giving demonstrations - it's a pop-centric, family-friendly reskin of the excellent Guitar Hero 5. It's presumably been given a different name so that it doesn't encroach upon GH5's already-vast audience, or the image of the brand, because it's a bit like an evil twin - it's got all the features and all the technical quality of its sibling, but none of the soul.
It puts all of Guitar Hero 5's best and most time-saving features on proud display. Jump-in, jump-out Party Play is still in effect, and you can still create your own playlists for it. The game still remembers everyone's instrument, difficulty level and preferred character so that you barely have to spend any time in menus. The unified career is still structured around different arenas, opening up five or six songs at a time to try your hand. There are still Challenges that motivate you to play all the different instruments rather than sticking to one, and to experiment with your technique.
Good as all these features are, though, and as crucial as they are to the Guitar Hero 5's enjoyability and integrity, they make rather less impact second time around. Band Hero brings absolutely nothing new to the table save a rather perplexing makeover. The menus are all enveloped in neon pinks and purples, bright and clean-looking without so much as a smear of Guitar Hero's likeable scuzz. At the end of a song, YOU ROCK flashes up in diamanté. It's so plainly For Girls that it's faintly embarrassing - as if women who haven't picked up a plastic guitar before are going to be convinced that the idea isn't so ridiculous after all thanks to a change in colour scheme and the inclusion of Avril Lavigne.
As a by-product of this makeover, the on-stage performances have lost all of their verve. It's quite, quite horrible to watch Judy Nails simpering along to No Doubt in a mall, or Johnny Napalm strumming amiably away to Big Country, mohawkless and emasculated. The dudes on-stage, apart from the singer, do practically nothing except stand there and play instruments; the singer, meanwhile, prances left and right of the mic and makes the occasional hand gesture. It's not as if you'll be exactly mesmerised by the toned-down note charts, either, so you can't help but notice the lack of life.
Activision has craftily packaged Band Hero with the nicest set of plastic instruments yet made. If you want a nice new plastic Strat with a sunburst faceplate, metal pretend tuning pegs and a much-improved tap bar with little grooves to guide your fingers, or a new metal drumkit with a detachable control panel that's much more solid, reliable and aesthetically pleasing than World Tour's, the only way to get them is to buy a Band Hero kit. Asking people to pay upwards of £130 for a band kit they almost certainly don't need just for the sake of improved instruments that can't be bought separately really is taking the piss out of consumers. At least you can access the Guitar Hero: World Tour DLC store.
Probably a good thing, too, since apart from the bundling cynicism, and the questionable style-change, it's the track list that really makes me wince at Band Hero. In teaming Guitar Hero gameplay with this kind of music, Activision seems to have missed the point of rhythm-action games. They're supposed to make you feel superhuman, part of the music, a synaesthesic god creating fantastic lights and noises by interpreting patterns with lightning-fast fingers, all of which is impossible when the drum track you're playing along to is a synthesised beat from a godawful American pop song from 2005. I've spent more hours and money on dreadful music from the SingStore than anyone else in my acquaintance, except perhaps Ellie, and have a keen appreciation for guiltily enjoyable pop, but plastic guitars and the Village People is not a winning combination.
The problem is that everyone except the singer feels somewhat superfluous. The music has to match up to the nature of the gameplay in a successful rhythm game, and 80 per cent of Band Hero's track list is comprised of vocal-centric songs that don't translate well to dancing patterns of light and living-room showmanship. SingStar already exists to give us an outlet for singing along to embarrassing pop, and it has a much bigger, better selection of songs.
Whether you're capable of enjoying Band Hero comes down to why you play rhythm-action in the first place. If you play for the music or the challenge, there's nothing here for you. If, however, you play socially - as a family, with friends - with people who have little interest in the music and no talent for the plastic instruments, if the thought of breaking out the plastic axes to play Spice Girls doesn't bother you at all and if you've no access to the SingStore, then these are 70-odd tracks you might enjoy set in a rock-solid rhythm-action framework. It's certainly an awful lot better than the other attempts at pop rhythm games that have sprung up on the Wii, with their dreadful karaoke versions of the songs and useless controls and note-charting.
If you love Guitar Hero, on the other hand, the only reason to buy it would be for the improved instruments, and surely nobody has that much money and that little sense of consumer dignity in tandem. Band Hero is a technically solid product pitched at a demographic that does presumably exist - people who don't like Guitar Hero's music, but still want to play along - but it sets a dangerous precedent. Where Guitar Hero 5 hauled the series up to a quality plateau, adding a load of features that fans of the series can really appreciate, Band Hero is nothing more or less than a reskin. And even though it's a reskin of a superb game, the lack of concern for the credibility of the music and presentation can't help but cheapen it.
6 / 10