Another year, another sequel, but no matter how smoothly the hit factory churns them out, it's not hard to suspect there could be a problem with Guitar Hero 5. Not with the track listing, of course: Activision's signed as judicious a line-up as it ever has, with a mix of family favourites and chic esoterica. And not with the note-tracking either - by now, Neversoft's nearly every bit as sharp as Harmonix at transferring squealing arpeggios and thumping power chords into tight neon chunks of scrolling light.
It's not even with compatibility, as the company's wisely foregone the option to have its offices surrounded by lynch mobs, letting you use all your Guitar Hero World Tour DLC purchases on the new game, ensuring that you've got a fairly staggering wealth of songs at your disposal from the word go. So the potential problem with Guitar Hero 5 isn't with the Guitar Hero bit at all. It's with the number at the end.
There are few game developers who don't find themselves struggling a little when it comes to the fifth instalment: the big ideas aren't new anymore, the kinks have been worked out, and it's hard to see where to go next. With the crucial instruments catered for - no, keyboards aren't that crucial - all the fans of the series really need at this point is more DLC, and possibly an appearance by Prince, who still won't sign up. That puts the developers in a tricky position: they have to come up with something clever to make people want a new version of a game they've probably already got a couple of times, without making it look like they're resorting to abject gimmickry.
From what we've seen, however, Guitar Hero 5 is aging with grace. Neversoft's strategy on this outing is to embrace social gaming, which initially seems like a fairly redundant idea, as World Tour was hardly a title exclusively targeted at bookish hermits and crippled introverts in the first place. This time, however, the developer's aiming to hit you right in the party gland, with an exploded range of band line-up options, and a new competitive multiplayer mode.
If you're an early adopter or a completist, and thus find yourself with a half-dozen plastic guitars stacked in your closet, Guitar Hero 5 is going to make you feel a little less of an idiot, then. Flexibility is the key to the game's approach this time around, with the new Party Play mode allowing you to plug in any bizarre permutation of instruments you fancy. Three guitars and a drummer? For sure. Four singers and no backup? Barbershop yourself blue. Nothing but drummers? You're a freak, but you'll also find yourself entirely accommodated. Proudly supporting "zero to four players", Party Play is more than happy to let you plug in no controllers at all and just use the system as a kind of jukebox, leaping in with two drummers and two vocalists when you finally hear something you want to join in on.
Moving away from the line-up experimentation, the new RockFest mode offers a competitive take on multiplayer (supporting four local players and eight online) with five different challenges. The examples we're shown are Momentum, a kind of musical snakes-and-ladders score rush which sees players moving up a difficulty level every time they get a twenty-note streak and falling back down every time they miss three; Elimination, a jangly spin on the Burnout favourite which sees the lowest scorer eliminated with every minute that passes until the winner is going solo (think of it as a kind of Destiny's Child simulator); and Streakers, where players only score points once a streak has started, which means the fat-fingered and uber-clutzish are going to get to the end of a round looking very silly indeed. The final two modes are apparently Do-or-Die, which kicks you out briefly whenever you bodge a note, and Perfectionist, where you only pick up points on the trickier sections of a song.
In motion, RockFest seems surprisingly well-balanced in its ability to keep the top spot moving between a handful of players, and since Momentum at least hinges on the concept of adaptive difficulty, weaker participants will always have a chance to get back into the game no matter how badly they mangled their last chorus.
Guitar Hero 5 will ship with "over 85 tracks" - I'm guessing this means it will have 86? - on the disk, and a further 175 available from World Tour's music store on day one, with Neversoft apparently investigating the possibility of making World Tour's bundled songs available too. The new line-up isn't looking bad, either, with Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" adding a touch of rumble-voiced class to proceedings, while Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower", The Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil", and "Sex on Fire" from Kings of Leon stand out as the main highlights beyond that. Other artists announced include Stevie Wonder, Vampire Weekend, The White Stripes, The Beastie Boys and, er...Santana. In keeping with the shift from competitive to more social play, all the songs will be unlocked at the start of the game, too.
Guitar Hero 5's hardly a revolution, then, but it seems like a nice set of options, suggesting that one of the more party-friendly titles of recent years has just got a little bit better. Neversoft continues to command its rock armada with skill and judgement - the question, come September, is how well it will face off against a full-on attack from Harmonix's rather expensive yellow submarine.
Guitar Hero 5 is due out for PS2, PS3, Wii and Xbox 360 in September.