Version tested: Xbox 360
It's an widely accepted fact that the most popular games of all time reach such status through their simplicity. Tetris, Super Mario Bros. and countless others fall into this category, as does much of the rhythm action genre. But it's taken until now, dance mats aside, for a peripheral-based music game to really set people's imaginations and pulses racing. Without being too patronising, Guitar Hero is an extremely simple concept that even a child can pick up within minutes but that even the most fleet-fingered gamer will never truly master.
It's a game that offers an incredibly empowering experience, putting you in the shoes of some of your axe-wielding heroes and provides more of a sense of satisfaction for nailing a tough passage than any other game we can think of. It's a game that is as unending as your desire to improve on your previous performances, work your way up through the difficulties and eventually clear Expert mode with your head held high. We've had Guitar Hero in some shape or form since Christmas 2005 and we've played it pretty much every day since then - that's how good a game it is. More to the point, we were still running around like kids on Christmas morning when we heard we'd be getting code for this slightly updated version of GH2. And with the extras in this new Xbox 360 version, there can be little denying that this is THE quintessential guitar game.
Of the ten new tracks for the 360 version, you've got a real mixed back on your hands. Possum Kingdom and Rancid's turgid Salvation both crop up in the first set, so they're pitifully simple. Moving down the list, Alice Cooper's Billion Dollar Babies is something of a highlight and Rock And Roll, Hoochie Koo is an unexpected gem, while a middling Pearl Jam track and Hush (the Deep Purple version) just sort of lilt along inconsequentially. Things are a lot better towards the end, with My Chemical Romance's rather splendid Dead! falling just shy of The Trooper, the Guitar Hero debut by obvious choices Iron Maiden. And sure enough, it's one of the best tunes to play in the game and you couldn't ask for it to fit the feel of the game any more perfectly.
But even just levelling up your skills to a degree that would make Slash blush won't be enough to reap all of Guitar Hero II's Achievements. Sick play is appropriately rewarded, sure, with points for perfecting a song, getting a 1,000 note streak and the ultimate challenge that is clearing Buckethead's frankly insane Jordan on Expert. But to really clean up, you'll need the help of a similarly skilled shredder as co-op mode is home to some similarly tricky goals - if one of you messes up, those GamerPoints go out the window, which is sure to start plenty of fights. Due to latency issues that could cripple the game online, the only Live aspects right now are downloadable content (which, we're assured, will be more plentiful than for any other 360 game so far) and of course leaderboards, where your new high score is thrown up against the world's finest and turns out to be a bit rubbish. This is great for pushing yourself that little bit further, with the offline versions of the game only offering up to five stars for good score, it's always good to see how your best runs fare on a global scale. It's gonna be pretty competitive on there, that's for sure, so if you want to see your name in lights, better start practicing now. And if we're good boys and girls, who knows what kind of extra modes could be made available through Live...
If you wanted to engage nitpicking mode, there are a few areas which could have been done slightly differently. Leaderboards for one only really allow Expert players (or the odd perfect Hard run) to achieve global fame while those on lower setting will just have to work towards it rather than enjoy some small victory from a leaderboard for each difficulty level. Secondly, half of the new songs are a bit naff so the extra twenty pounds of the asking price is basically covering the potential for expansion via downloadable content. Which, naturally, is huge but if you're one of the few without Live or already have the PS2 version, it's worth taking into consideration. We've also come across a few complaints about the new guitar, some for the awkward shape, others for the slightly smaller scale (shorter, thinner neck and smaller fret buttons) and a couple about the fiddly whammy bar. With a little acclimatisation, though, you'll be rocking out like a pro in no time - there's nothing really to whine about on the axe front. We do miss the cheats from the PS2 version a little too, as Hyper Speed and Performance Mode (which remove all of the HUD including notes) made great challenges for high level players.
Petty gripes aside, this is still the definitive version of the greatest music game on the planet right now and as such is an essential purchase for anyone with even the slightest interest in guitar music. You don't even have to like the songs on offer as the first game proved, successfully making Boston exciting and Franz Ferdinand a little bit less irritating. Here, though, you've got even more songs to choose from, learn and master with the tunes from the first game on the way too through the Live Marketplace. And with the improved mechanics of the second game, the old songs work even better - Bark At The Moon's once nigh-impossible solo is now made a hell of a lot easier while Frankenstein goes from being a chore to an absolute delight. Pricing for downloadable tunes is still unknown but from what we've seen so far (three packs of three songs), it'll be worth throwing a couple hundred of points in Harmonix's direction whenever a new pack goes up. You can never have too much of a good thing and as far as good things go, Guitar Hero II is right up there with cakes and funny looking animals. For those about to rock... we salute you.
9 / 10