Guitar Hero II Reader Review
If there's one common psychological trait amongst all gamers, its our ability to take flights of fantasy at will and usually completely out of choice. For a lot of people, gaming is all about undertaking cathartic experiences to rid themselves of the frustrations of real life, leaving preconceptions at the door and to coin a Microsoft phrase, 'jumping in' to somebody else's universe. It's no small wonder that some of the most successful games of recent times are the titles that either envelop players completely in another realm (WoW), or simply emphasise aspects of their own lives that lend themselves naturally to wish fulfilment (SingStar). For many, the Guitar Hero series sits at the absolute pinnacle of that secondary pile, and with very good reason.
The key to the series' success is one of convincing physicality. Whilst using a traditional joypad, mouse or keyboard can certainly immerse you in any particular experience; it's never to the point of full believability. The physical barrier is always there, and no matter how hard your brain wanders into the gameworld, the part of you that's real and actually playing the game never experiences the same trickery. Similarly, using a microphone to warble your way through Singstar tunes or using a dancemat to lurch around in rhythm to remixed 90's europop is undoubtedly fun, but unless you've got the voice of a gospel singer or the moves of Michael Jackson (possibly both), it'll never convince you to choose an alternative career path.
Guitar Hero removes all of those barriers to believability by breaking down the physical constraints of traditional controllers and providing an experience that's at the very least akin to playing a proper guitar, with a difficulty curve that's as rewarding and technically pleasing as the real thing. Basic accomplishments are obtained fairly easily, but it takes dedication and practice to master the more complex tunes and a genuine talent for the same sort of fretwork produced by the artists themselves. It's easy to lose yourself in the delusion that you can actually play the songs presented before you, and the number of people that have taken up the real instrument as a result is a testament to its success. Funny how we never hear that sort of argument put forward as an advocate for videogaming in general isn't it?
So, down to business, Guitar Hero 2 for the Xbox 360 is essentially the same experience as previous versions, but with a few twists that elevate it above and beyond the PS2 title. There is little to criticise in the core mechanics of the game, and outside of a batch of faulty controllers, the 360 version responds in exactly the same manner as you may be used to. The design of the new X-Plorer guitar peripheral may leave a bit to be desired at first, with a tendency for the upper fin of the plastic instrument to stick in your forearm whilst you're playing, but with practice it becomes second nature and feels fine. The 360 version also retains all of the improvements made over the original, right down to the practice mode that lets you slow down and practice individual sections of each song, which proves invaluable for beating the harder solos.
Visually, the high definition capabilities of the 360 have leant themselves well to a reworking of the character and venue assets, emphasising the over-the-top, heavily stylised nature of the design work. Lighting has also been given an overhaul with some pleasing new effects, although as always it's difficult to notice any of this when playing normally, and unfortunately the majority of the synched animation and stage pyrotechnics will be lost on most solo protagonists. Watching the game being played at a party shows an entirely different side to the engine than simply staring at the note bar in the centre of the screen, and really brings the experience alive for those not wielding the plastic axe.
Of course if you do end up playing GHII at a party you certainly won't be stuck for choice of music. The 360 version increases the track count with eight new licensed songs, up to a whopping total of 74 overall. Iron Maiden classic 'The Trooper' is the standout addition here, perfectly fitting within the upper echelons of difficulty whilst being immensely fun to play. Downloadable content will be made available for the game shortly, but with a rumoured price of 500 MS points per 3-pack of songs it's a shame that this wont be more competitive, but then that would lessen the value of the inevitable GHIII, and I'm sure Activision will want to milk as much out of the franchise as possible. With Neversoft on-board to produce the third iteration, lets hope the spirit of the game remains intact, and we don't get some sort of 'youth culture' or skateboarding-inspired segue.
Not that they'll need to change it. Judging by the number of people already populating the online leaderboards there should be quite a bit of life left in the format just yet, with well over 30,000 high scores registered in the first day of release alone. For a £70 game that's a considerable achievement, and bodes well for future editions on the next-gen consoles.
For a game with such perfect dynamics, the biggest criticism that can realistically be levelled at GHII is the controversial aspect of song selection. Whilst this is a purely subjective matter, general consensus seems to rest with the fact that there are simply not enough standout tunes on the roster. Whether or not that's simply a casualty of an increased track count or just a bad selection is a different matter, but whatever the reason, there are definitely less memorable moments here than the first game. There is no real GHII equivalent of a 'More than a feeling', a song that no matter what you thought of it in real life, was fun to play no matter how many repetitions were necessary with multiplayer-loving friends. However, as always with matters such as these, your mileage may vary according to taste.
At the end of the day, without any of the core aspects of the game being altered, Guitar Hero is all about rocking out and showing off; and this version does nothing to change that fact. With the improved visuals, increased song count and the crucial addition of friend-bating online leaderboards, the 360 version is the best yet. Just don't beat my score on Hangar 18, I'll not be pleased.
9 / 10