Version tested: Xbox 360
My favourite moment in Guitar Hero: World Tour - just ahead of the evening I finally conquered Joe Satriani with unholy backwards-run fretboard skills that I have never been able to summon again - was when Jimi Hendrix suddenly appeared on stage and tapped my painstakingly created avatar on the shoulder after an exemplary performance of The Wind Cries Mary. Naturally, she freaked out, jumped up and down a bit and ran backwards off the stage.
Five years ago, I could not have imagined a digital Jimi Hendrix appearing in a rhythm-action videogame. For me, the endorsement of real-life artists (even ones who aren't dead, like Paul, Ringo, Slash and Matt Bellamy) cements Guitar Hero and Rock Band as a legitimate way of enjoying music in the eyes of the wider world, as well as in my own.
Guitar Hero 5's celebrity appearances aren't quite as thrilling - Kurt Cobain, Bellamy and Johnny Cash are fine and all, but they're not Hendrix - but in every other respect the game takes significant steps forward. It would be easy at this point for Neversoft to release glorified song packs ad infinitum, but instead the developer is continuing to show respect to Guitar Hero followers by broadening and polishing the series without overcomplicating or changing it.
Immediately noticeable is the toned-down visual style. Guitar Hero 5 is not as bright, loud and shiny as World Tour and its predecessors. The performance animations have just a little bit of grain to them and the colour palette is calmer. Characters no longer look like they're coated in Vaseline, the lighting effects are better, the rockers' character design and animation remain exemplary: they still own the stage with guitar-smashingly vibrant, energetic performances. Guitar Hero's art style has come across as self-consciously extreme in the past, but that criticism no longer applies.
Party Play multiplayer, the biggest new gameplay addition, is a revolution. Put the disc in, and within about twenty seconds the game starts playing random songs. You can join in with any instrument, whenever you like, with one button press: no menus, no arguing over songs, no having to back out in order to change the difficulty. The game can act as a jukebox whilst you're sitting around talking, or painting your living room, until You Give Love a Bad Name pops up and you bellow for five minutes. Such frictionless fun makes Rock Band's nightmare signing in and out seem archaic.
There are other multiplayer modes, too, a wealth of them, mostly geared towards having between four and eight players competing online. All songs are unlocked from the start, whether in quick-play or competitive multiplayer, and you can play them in an impossible variety of ways. Momentum ups the difficulty every time you hit a section perfectly; Elimination kills the lowest-scoring player on any particular section; Streakers is all about maintaining your cool as your streak counter climbs steadily higher. Setlists can include multiple different modes, and you can change everything from the lobby without having to quit out and start again.
Guitar Hero 5 also remembers all of your settings - difficulty, band line-up, right- or left-handedness - in single and multiplayer, which makes picking it up for a few quick songs less fiddly. Once you've picked your line-up, it stays that way until you change it again, so you never find yourself looking at Johnny Napalm's ugly face instead of your own custom-created singer in Career mode. If you play regularly with the same people you barely have to spend any time in menus, ever. You're only ever about four button presses away from a song.
The character creation and customisation tools are still brilliant. You can adjust every tiny detail of your rock star and all their various instruments, even replicate the custom pickups and Floyd-Rose tremolo on your own real-life guitar. It's a little heartbreaking that the faintly ridiculous Gibson-Activision lawsuit will prevent the iconic manufacturer from ever backing a Guitar Hero game again, but you can create an identical replica with a different brand on the headstock.
The single-player career has undergone a bit of a makeover. It's now unified across all instruments and across band and solo play. The tier system is familiar, but new venues unlock at a much faster pace; there are always at least ten or twenty songs to work on, so it's no longer possible to get stuck on one. It also doesn't suffer from the endless repetition that has always plagued Rock Band's World Tour mode, especially in the early stages.
Challenges add a new spin to songs in Career. Over and above the usual five-star rating system, there is an instrument-specific challenge for each that usually highlights a particular feature of the song. Guitar challenges might require you to tap all the solos, or use alternate strumming all the way through, or simply maintain a long streak. Vocalists might have to nail certain sections perfectly, or score as much as possible when in star power, and drummers might have to hit a certain percentage of kicks or perfect key drum rolls. You're rewarded with Gold, Platinum or Diamond depending on how well you do, bringing the possible stars to be gained from a song up from 5 to 8.
The Challenges make you really pay attention to a song's construction and add an extra level of challenge, both for high-end and intermediate players. You find yourself suddenly acutely aware of your note streak and your playing technique. Instead of trying to make it through a very difficult song, you can go back and attempt a Challenge on an easier one instead and still feel like you're achieving something. It adds breadth and variety to the solo gameplay; I wouldn't have thought there were this many ways to play a plastic guitar. Guitar Hero has always excelled on top-end difficulty, and this adds an extra layer for players who want more challenge without disadvantaging those who don't.
The actual gameplay differences between Rock Band and Guitar Hero are quite subtle, and only really relevant in the upper echelons of play. On Hard and Expert it becomes clear that Rock Band likes you to memorise simpler patterns and perform them flawlessly, whereas Guitar Hero prefers to have you barely managing your way through brain-melting note charts. The hit window for hammer-ons and pull-offs is more generous, the charts dance around the screen more. On Rock Band you can 98 per cent a song and still not achieve five stars because you broke your streak somewhere in the middle; Guitar Hero rewards you for your prowess more than your consistency, pushing the scoring balance more towards hit percentage than streak length.
Which one you prefer comes purely down to personal taste. Unless you just don't like Guitar Hero's way of doing things (and if you're any kind of rhythm-action player, you'll know by now) there is absolutely nothing to criticise about the note charts. Songs are transformed wondrously into challenging levels whose note patterns always, always feel like a true representation of what the music is doing. There's never a moment of disconnect, no awkward or artificially difficult sections that remind you that you're playing a plastic guitar. Neversoft is mastery of its tools is complete.
The song selection itself, for me, strikes the right balance between long-overdue, well-known guitar classics (Smells Like Teen Spirit, Plug In Baby, Sympathy for the Devil), songs I'd never heard before in my life but quickly grew to enjoy (Streamline Woman, Young Funk), unexpected personal favourites (Du Hast, A-Punk, Wannabe in LA) and comic relief (Play That Funky Music, Hungry Like the Wolf). All of them are great fun for drummers and guitarists, but there are inevitably a few that most vocalists won't go anywhere near, and bass still isn't quite as accomplished as it could be.
It's a shame that all the songs have to be radio versions, too - "(blank) the unborn in the wooooomb!" growl Iron Maiden in 2 Minutes to Midnight, the Gorillaz' line about ass-cracks in Feel Good Inc is left unfinished, poor little Blink-182 can't even get "drunk" with their best friends in Rock Show - but otherwise they are, as is now expected, completely intact. Even all 13 minutes and 40 seconds of live Peter Frampton.
It's a relief that Activision hasn't seen fit to release a whole new set of instruments with Guitar Hero 5, letting us use the ones we already have instead, but on other compatibility issues the publisher has been less than generous. World Tour DLC is compatible with Guitar Hero 5, which is only to be expected, but only 35 of World Tour's on-disc songs work with the sequel, and you have to pay a premium to download them. It's not really acceptable, and is the only touch of cynicism evident in the game.
The four things that give Guitar Hero 5 a considerable edge over its competitors are the flexible, challenging difficulty, peerless customisation, music creation tools and, above all, frictionless, sans-menu multiplayer. As far as song selection goes, it's a matter of personal taste, but the sheer breadth of Guitar Hero 5's offering means that there has to be something you like. If anything, excessive breadth is the track list's weakness - there are bound to be so many songs you haven't heard of that familiarising yourself with them is a bit of a mountain to climb.
It would be terribly fashionable to be able to moan about how Guitar Hero is running itself into the ground whilst Activision counts its money, but there wouldn't be a scrap of truth in it. There's just nothing wrong with Guitar Hero 5: no horrible new art direction or gimmicky new features (3's guitar battles still haven't quite been forgiven), no backwards moves, no ill-advised changes to a winning formula. And yet, Neversoft has refused to let the series go stale, broadening the multiplayer and single-player options to give you more game for your money. Indeed, the developer is only creating problems for itself: how can Guitar Hero possibly get any better?
9 / 10