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E3: Guitar Hero 5

Five is the magic number?

Another year, another sequel, but no matter how smoothly the hit factory churns them out, it's not hard to suspect there could be a problem with Guitar Hero 5. Not with the track listing, of course: Activision's signed as judicious a line-up as it ever has, with a mix of family favourites and chic esoterica. And not with the note-tracking either - by now, Neversoft's nearly every bit as sharp as Harmonix at transferring squealing arpeggios and thumping power chords into tight neon chunks of scrolling light.

It's not even with compatibility, as the company's wisely foregone the option to have its offices surrounded by lynch mobs, letting you use all your Guitar Hero World Tour DLC purchases on the new game, ensuring that you've got a fairly staggering wealth of songs at your disposal from the word go. So the potential problem with Guitar Hero 5 isn't with the Guitar Hero bit at all. It's with the number at the end.

There are few game developers who don't find themselves struggling a little when it comes to the fifth instalment: the big ideas aren't new anymore, the kinks have been worked out, and it's hard to see where to go next. With the crucial instruments catered for - no, keyboards aren't that crucial - all the fans of the series really need at this point is more DLC, and possibly an appearance by Prince, who still won't sign up. That puts the developers in a tricky position: they have to come up with something clever to make people want a new version of a game they've probably already got a couple of times, without making it look like they're resorting to abject gimmickry.

With the clutter of different streams on-screen, the caricatured rock shows taking place behind them become increasingly invisible.

From what we've seen, however, Guitar Hero 5 is aging with grace. Neversoft's strategy on this outing is to embrace social gaming, which initially seems like a fairly redundant idea, as World Tour was hardly a title exclusively targeted at bookish hermits and crippled introverts in the first place. This time, however, the developer's aiming to hit you right in the party gland, with an exploded range of band line-up options, and a new competitive multiplayer mode.

If you're an early adopter or a completist, and thus find yourself with a half-dozen plastic guitars stacked in your closet, Guitar Hero 5 is going to make you feel a little less of an idiot, then. Flexibility is the key to the game's approach this time around, with the new Party Play mode allowing you to plug in any bizarre permutation of instruments you fancy. Three guitars and a drummer? For sure. Four singers and no backup? Barbershop yourself blue. Nothing but drummers? You're a freak, but you'll also find yourself entirely accommodated. Proudly supporting "zero to four players", Party Play is more than happy to let you plug in no controllers at all and just use the system as a kind of jukebox, leaping in with two drummers and two vocalists when you finally hear something you want to join in on.