One thing you might not know about my PE days (that's Pre-Eurogamer, as opposed to physical education, just to stave off any potential lawsuits/general confusion) was my pretensions to be a guitar hero. Ok, fair enough, Macbreth never made the cover of NME, but our manager (aka my dad) did once get savaged by John Peel's hounds and told to 'piss off' when he turned up at the late DJ-legend's Suffolk farmhouse one cold day in 1992. Frankly, his valiant efforts to get our EP played were good enough for me. I was always a bass man myself, but that was only because all my mates had been playing lead or rhythm since they were about ten. I wasn't bitter or anything. Ok, maybe just a little miffed that I was arguably in the least sexy position in our indiepop band of champions, but it was still great to chunga-chunga through the set and pogo around during end of our set stomper 'Take Me Up'.
So, imagine my surprise/delight when I opened up a huge package on Christmas Day and found that Tom had bought me a copy of Guitar Hero. A present of ultimate justice that not only enabled me to relive past axe-wielding glories, but amuse/wow onlookers for the entire festive season as I threw shapes, wobbled the whammy bar and indulged in fret-busting, finger-killing action in an attempt to become the ultimate videogaming rock god. Albeit 14 years too late.
Coming complete with a scaled down replica guitar peripheral (surely the best add-on videogaming has ever witnessed) Guitar Hero is essentially another rhythm-action game that tasks you with matching the five fret buttons with the coloured shapes scrolling rapidly down the fret on the lower portion of the screen (while the band do their thing on the upper half). Much like Harmonix's previous lauded efforts Amplitude and Frequency, your role is to embellish the backing track - only this time it's all about adding the guitar licks, as opposed to building virtually the entire song like before.
Smell the glove
But stripping down the gameplay to merely matching the colours to the appropriate fret buttons and hitting the 'strum' button at designated time hasn't diluted the gameplay one bit. In fact, focusing the gameplay down to one instrument has given Harmonix the opportunity to test the player in other heroic ways, and utilise the guitar peripheral in ways that make it feel more and more like you're wrestling with the real thing.
To start with, you'll probably dip into the game's career mode and plough through in on Easy mode to familiarise yourself with the various songs, as well as getting to grips with co-ordinating your fingers in slightly unfamiliar ways. Broken down into various 'venues', the idea is to clear four out of the five songs in each 'set' in order to move onto the next bigger and better venue, and gradually improve your rock star status along the way.
On such a lowly setting the game's still reasonably challenging, but sticks to simplifying chords down to single button presses that even the most ham-fisted of players should be able to manage one-fingered. Even better, it reduces most of the playing to the first two or three buttons, meaning you won't have to worry about having to look at the fret board while you work out where the tricky fifth button is. When you move onto medium difficulty and above (up to the fourth, Extreme), Guitar Hero starts throwing ultra-nimble changes at you, off-beat time signatures, and evil chord progressions that quickly work down to the filthy fourth and fifth buttons (and back up to the first), tying your hands up in knots in the process.
It helps, of course, if you already know the songs inside out, and in some cases that'll be a given. All-time classics like Deep Purple's Smoke on the Water, Queen's Killer Queen, ZZ Top's Sharp Dressed Man, Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, Hendrix's Spanish Castle Magic, Franz Ferdinand's Take Me Out and Joan Jett's I Love Rock N Roll ought to be familiar to most players (of a certain age, admittedly), but the majority of the 30 songs that feature here are either lesser songs from well known artists or from artists that most outside of the US will struggle to hum along to, never mind strum along to. Given that Guitar Hero is currently only available in North America, we shouldn't really complain, but the lack of international star quality about the roster of songs and the absence of the original artists is perhaps the only thing that may detract from the package from an importer's perspective. In terms of song recognition, it's no Singstar - put it that way.
Nevertheless, Guitar Hero is one of those games where familiarity isn't such a big deal, as once you start pushing on with it you'll soon fill in the gaps and be instantly able to remember when those tricky solos kick in (and impressed with how well the cover versions match the original). As much as anything it becomes a bit of a pattern-memory game - much like playing a tricky bit on a real guitar. Eventually practise makes perfect and you can start throwing the sort of embarrassing shapes that smug, show-off rock stars do.
In fact, thanks to the addition of a tilt sensor and a whammy bar, there's a bona-fide reason for such histrionics, with the game often throwing in special chord sequences that contribute to filling up your 'Star Power' meter. Once you've done that you can tilt you guitar controller up to unleash a crazed frenzy of rock moves that wows the crowd and doubles the points you can earn. If you keep missing the chords, however, your Rock Meter starts to diminish, the crowd starts to get restless and eventually boo you off the stage unless you turn things around quickly.
Cry cry cry all the way home
Keeping an eye on the score becomes equally important as you progress, with your overall rating judged on your points tally. While getting through the song might be good enough to earn you a three-star rating and a $100 in your back pocket, four- or even five-star reviews grant you even more, allowing you to purchase a host of unlockables from new guitars and new skins to new characters and even new songs. Sadly, the plethora of 'Bonus Tracks' appear to be from entirely unknown acts, so there's slightly less incentive to buy them than there would have been if they were genuine rock classics. As a package, it's superb, but you can't help but feel that it would have been truly amazing with a better track list. The potential is staggering, but for a small publisher like Red Octane a big licensing budget presumably wasn't available. Let's hope Sony or someone of significant stature can license it for Europe and provide the kind of set list the game truly deserves.
One other thing we ought to mention is the game's awesome multiplayer potential. Clearly we didn't have the capacity to test this out ourselves with just one controller, but we're hoping to source another one soon, and will be sure to report back with our adventures when we do.
Inevitably, there's a massive degree of novelty value attached to a game like this, and it's probably fair to note that it's only a fairly basic rhythm-action title at its core. But that's a bit like saying that Singstar's only a game that you sing along to, Eye Toy's only a game to wave your arms to, or Dancing Stage is only a game you dance to; all of that's true, but the core appeal of Guitar Hero is the superb controller, and its ability to make everyone who plays or witnesses it dissolve into a gigging/giggling lunatic.
There's perhaps only a limited amount of fun to be had playing something like Guitar Hero on your own, but as a party game to goof around with some mates on a drunken evening it's set to go down in gaming legend. Anyone who can clear all 30 songs (and bonus tracks) on Extreme mode should clearly have no problem playing the real thing like Hendrix himself. Just don't set fire to the guitar afterwards, eh?
In summary? I know it's only Rock and Roll, but I like it.
Goes to 11, certainly (what did you expect?). Out of ten, the serious beardy rock critic says: