I walked six miles in order to get my hands on an American copy of Guitar Hero this time last year. Despite having THREE separate pre-orders, the damn thing was so scarce at launch that come November 8th, 2005, I was completely lacking in miniature Harmonix-branded plastic guitars. I had to wander for an hour in search of a mysterious import shop in some creepy suburb, which had a sole unreserved copy left under the counter. Of course, now Guitar Hero is all popular, obtaining the sequel was an absolute breeze - two different copies made their various ways to my door before the game was even out. This is not how it should be. We should all have to walk six miles across some Godforsaken corner of Dorset at the beginning of November without a coat on, but nooo - now any old person can wander into a shop and buy eight copies of Guitar Hero, thanks to its tremendous and entirely deserved success.
Of course, six miles isn't even very far, and being able to buy Guitar Hero practically anywhere in Britain is an Extremely Good Thing, and I should probably shut up about having to walk about for a bit when I know someone who actually went to America for Guitar Hero, only to come home empty-handed because airport Customs men seem to fear tiny plastic guitars. However, it is important to note that although obtaining Guitar Hero 2 will be relatively easy for eager importers, completing it will be extremely hard. Guitar Hero 2 is excellent fan service - it caters superbly for top-end players, rewarding their dedication with a larger, faster and considerably more difficult selection of tracks and re-adjusted gameplay that seems specifically designed to bring those ridiculously fast solos just within the realms of human possibility. There is more of an emphasis on shredding rather than memorable riffs, which will please some tastes more than others, but considering the vastly improved multiplayer and the addition of a Training mode to offset the increase in difficulty, it really is difficult to complain. Guitar Hero 2 recaptures the exhilaration and obvious passion of its predecessor and, with the help of what must have been a much bigger budget, houses it within an altogether better framework.
The changes to the gameplay are subtle; most only make themselves apparent on the Hard and Expert difficulties. Though Easy and Normal are about as challenging as they were in the original, Hard is a notable step up - it's only slightly less difficult than Expert used to be. Although this does upset what used to be a sublime learning curve, the step-up from Normal to Hard will be of little import to dedicated players, and the Training does ease the frustration of getting stuck halfway through songs. It quickly becomes apparent that the only way to get through many of the later stages of Hard and most of Expert is by learning to abandon the strum bar, and thankfully the hammer-ons and pull-offs have been tweaked enough to make even two-handed tapping entirely viable. The timing is more lenient and it is no longer necessary to hold down the preceding button whilst attempting them, which effectively means that Guitar Hero 2 feels even more like playing an actual guitar than its predecessor did - you can actually slide up and down the fret buttons, and indeed doing so is often the only way to pull off some of Expert's more evil chord transitions. There's also the three-button chords, which only ever turn up about twice in Hard, but make more frequent and even more unwelcome appearances in the middle of particularly cruel sequences in Expert.
There are more obvious differences, too. Instead of being readily available, the last song in each group has to be unlocked via an encore, keeping some of the track list a secret for anyone who has managed to resist poring over it online for the last few weeks. The uniquely, ah, 'irreverent' visual style has been tweaked a bit and expanded upon; the crowds and stages are more interactive and the animation is slightly better overall. The most significant difference, though, is definitely the multiplayer. Uproarious though the first game's two-player mode could be with two equally matched players and the volume turned up to max, the ability to play bass or rhythm alongside a friend's lead and to select different difficulties makes things altogether more inclusive. Completing Hard mode even unlocks Pro Face-Off, which pits you note-for-note against an opponent as opposed to trading sections.
Unfortunately, though, it's not all quite as incredibly brilliant as it sounds when you actually test it out with friends. Multiplayer matches are still only remotely competitive or genuinely impressive between two top-end players, as if you're playing Medium beside a friend on Expert you can't help but feel a bit superseded; it's like you're playing alongside someone rather than actually playing with them, which can be very frustrating, and even on the higher difficulties one or two of the bass lines are unbelievably boring. All things considered, though, it is hard to see how this discrepancy could possibly have been avoided without putting notes in that don't actually exist in the song, and when both players really nail their parts it sounds and feels fantastic regardless of who's playing at what level.
The only other genuine issue with Guitar Hero 2 is the track list, which simply isn't as varied or all-encompassing as the original's (although it is arguably just as enjoyable to play). It's still an exceptionally good selection, and the cover versions maintain their quality, but the balance leans more towards the metal end of things and it hasn't got as many standout favourite tracks as the first Guitar Hero. Unless you are impressed by super-speed guitar playing to the point of actual sexual arousal, there is nothing here that will make you involuntarily drop to your knees like More Than A Feeling could on a particularly emotional night (except perhaps Carry On My Wayward Son, but even that's pushing it a bit). In catering so superbly for top-end players, Guitar Hero 2 also seems to somewhat leave behind the inept friends and vaguely embarrassing male relatives who used to want nothing more than a quick bash on Take Me Out on Easy after a few hours in the pub, which is a bit of a shame. For me, Guitar Hero's real genius was its universal appeal, its ability to cater for any taste and any ability with its varied track list, infectious enthusiasm and unique immediacy, and that inclusiveness is - arguably, I must stress - not quite so present here as it was before.
In every other way, though, Guitar Hero 2 is a better game, and it has clearly benefited massively from its predecessor's success. It still really and truly makes you feel like a rock star, and it still captures and conveys the incomparable joy of making music better than any other rhythm-action game out there. The Xbox 360 version's downloadable track selections and general customisability may yet prove it to be an even better option, and the first game remains the best introduction to the series thanks to its less severe learning curve and more accessible track selection, but as an established fan in search of a new challenge this is everything I could have hoped for in a standalone package.
It still gets an 8, then. But it's a really, really high one!