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Shredding to new heights, minus the subtitles

I’m going to be perfectly honest; I was a bit disappointed by Guitar Hero World Tour. Don’t get me wrong, I liked some parts of it, like the new guitar and the track list, but a lot of stuff let me down. Maybe it was the massive hype surrounding the game, maybe it truly was inferior to Rock Band 2 (it is, believe me), or maybe I was just not as interested in music games as I used to be, I don’t know. The point it, the game to me was somewhat of a letdown. However, I did consider two things upon the game’s release last year. One, it took Rock Band two tries to get everything down almost perfectly, so maybe Guitar Hero could do better in another installment. And two, as much as I liked Rock Band 2, it wasn’t that different from Rock Band 1. Obviously GH 4 was different from GH 3 because it went from just guitar to full band, but how much different could another full-band Guitar Hero game be from GH 4? As I pondered on these, I was given a glimpse of the answer as details on Guitar Hero 5 began popping up. The game seemed to be packing all sorts of new features and fixes that would vastly improve the series, something I was interested in checking out. And after a shipping delay (that’s why this review is two weeks after release, in case your wondering), I finally got my hands on the game. So, does Guitar Hero 5 shred to new heights or fall flat on its fret board? Let’s find out.

First of all, I should mention that if you are going to get this game, you should probably do it before October. Up until then, if you purchase GH 5, you can get a free copy of Guitar Hero: Van Halen. It’s a bit more complex than that but the steps are all explained and really simple. Unfortunately, my review copy didn’t come with a receipt (which you need), so I can’t do it myself. However, I can tell you as a fan of Van Halen that they are one kick-ass band and their songs are basically made for Guitar Hero games, so I would definitely get on this. Plus, it’s free, and who doesn’t love free games?

So, starting up the game for the first time, the first thing you’ll notice is that the subtitles have been dropped.  I really hated the “World Tour” subtitle in GH 4 because it was gimmicky and ruined the continuity of the series (if you have no idea what I’m talking about, watch this).  It just makes the game feel a lot less, well, trying to state some sort of cliché statement, and that’s a good thing in my book.  But really, the first thing you’ll notice is that you can just jump into any song that’s currently playing on the games “video jukebox”.  From there, you can select your instrument, difficulty, and even change the song.  This is basically quickplay that you can get to without navigating through any menus, which helps get you into the game faster.  So already, without even going into the actual menu, the game is in good shape.  That’s pretty impressive.

Guitar Hero 5 Party Play

Party play is awesome

Going into the startup menu though, the first thing you’ll probably want to do is to go into career to unlock some songs. Well, much like the subtitles, the necessity of career mode has also been dropped. Right from the get go, every song in the game is available in quickplay, so you don’t even have to touch career if you don’t want to. But for those of us who like unlocking virtual guitars and outfits to customize our virtual rock stars, it’s still necessary, so you’ll probably find yourself going through it at some point or another so let’s look at the new career mode.

I should clear up first that while you have all the songs unlocked in quickplay, that’s not the case in career mode. If your given the opportunity to pick your own song, you can only choose from what songs you’ve played so far in career and what songs you’ve imported from other Guitar Hero games (which I’ll get to later). But anyway, on to the improvements. First of all, the lame anime story has been gotten rid of. It’s not like this was that annoying in previous installments, it was just really unnecessary. Secondly, the entire structure of career mode has been redone. Gone is the “non-linear” world tour mode of GH 4. Instead, GH 5 reverts to a system similar to the one used in Guitar Hero: Metallica, as well as the earlier Guitar Hero games. While I’d still rather see a fully executed world tour mode like in Rock Band, a well-executed setlist progression is still better than a poorly executed world tour mode, so GH 5’s career mode at least satisfies me. However, this isn’t the only change made to career mode. In fact, something else was taken out that has been a given in the series dating back to the first Guitar Hero, and even in Rock Bans: earning money. Yep, you no longer have to worry about earning money to unlock items. Instead, beating certain songs unlock certain items. This means that you don’t have to worry about not owning everything by the game’s end, which is a good thing. In addition, you now progress in career mode by how many stars you’ve earned, as in your ranking on a song (which now goes up to six stars, by the way, if you 100% a song). If you earn 10 stars for instance, this will unlock a new gig, with the next gig being unlocked after you earn another 20 stars. This means that you don’t have to play, let alone beat, every song in the game to finish career mode. This is a welcome addition because in an older version of the setlist system, you know your going to find a couple of songs you just hate listening to or playing, and as much as you want to skip them, you can’t if you want to beat the career. Thus, it’s nice in GH 5 that you can just skip them. Furthering this though, you can earn up to three additional stars by completing challenges linked to each song. Some of these are instrument specific while others require a band of at least two people, but they all involve completing a certain task. These can be anything from scoring a certain number of points to having a 4x multiplier for a certain amount of time. The challenges get progressively harder and unlock certain unique items if you complete them at a certain level (which are gold, platinum, diamond), so there’s definitely an increased replayability for each song, as well as an incentive to try these. The final aspect that’s changed about career is that it’s all one, big thing. There’s no individual guitar, bass, drums, or vocals career, further split up into individual difficulties, there’s just one career that you play through by yourself or with three other people on any difficulty. This reduces the waste of having to go through career four times and, if you want to play career with your friends, you have all your songs unlocked, as opposed to just which ones you have unlocked for any particular instrument, as was the case in GH 4. So overall, career mode is hugely improved.

Moving on, some other big improvements you’ll also notice are in the gameplay. The full-band gameplay features weren’t really grasped that well in GH 4, at least in my opinion, but GH 5 fixes everything, as well as adding some new features entirely. There are three obvious improvements you’ll notice right off the bat. One, you have your own star power meter, as opposed to one pool for every band member. This was a much-needed improvement, especially coming from a person whose friend likes to play the guitar with the controller tilted up all the time. Two, if one person fails, not everyone does, and the person who failed can be saved. This is also a much-needed improvement for obvious reasons. However, this works differently than in Rock Band as in Guitar Hero, the rest of the band needs to play well to bring back the person. On the other hand, this can be done as many times as necessary, so there is still a level of challenge without the nuisance of failing a song because someone failed three times. And three, you can now pick what characters your band mates are when your playing by yourself. It’s a small addition but a meaningful one that I personally liked. After all, it’s always been a dream of mine to have my Xbox Live avatar (which you can use as a character in this) rock out with Carlos Santana, Johnny Cash, Kurt Cobain (who all are playable characters), or a Devil-esque character I made in the rock star creator (not really though). And no, Guitar Hero is not ripping off Rock Band; these are almost mandatory improvements that make for a much better game…a much, much better game. Seriously, the fact that any of these three features were missing from GH 4 was my main problem with it, so a job well done on adding them.

Guitar Hero 5 Star Power Boost

Thank God you can now bring back bandmates who have failed

But moving on, GH 5 also brings to the table some new gameplay features, in addition to all the old standards. As always, you can have four people playing the game at once. But, did you know that you can all be playing the same instrument? I cannot tell you how many times at parties I’ve heard “I want to play guitar!” and “Do I have to sing?” and, of course, “I just played the damn bass, let me play something else!”…ugh. GH 5 fixes that by allowing you to play guitar, bass, drums, and vocals in any combination of five people. So having two guitarists and two drummers is just as fine as having a vocalist and three bassists. In addition to that though, everyone can play on a different difficulty. Yes, this is already in the game, but not when two people are playing cooperatively on the same instrument, let alone four. So if I want to shred it up on expert guitar, my friend can play the same song on guitar on easy and it’ll work seamlessly. Hopefully, something like this will become a staple of all music games to follow because simply, it’s brilliant.

GH5 Play anyway you want

The best part of Guitar Hero 5, by far, is the ability to customize your band options to such a great extent

Furthering the list of new features, there are also some new multiplayer modes and tweaks. It terms of competitive matches, all the old staples return. However, there are some new modes as well. One I’ll mention is Momentum, which increases the difficulty of a song if your doing well, and decreases it if your not. Most of these new modes are pretty fun, but you may just want to stick to pro face-off for a simple, unbiased, head-to-head test. Another new thing is Party Play. This is basically quickplay, except that anyone can drop out without ending the song for everyone, change their difficulty or instrument, and you can keep changing and skipping songs to find one you like. The mode works great, and definitely makes things flow more smoothly. As far as other new features and improvements go, there’s Band Moments (which are basically star power for the whole band that affects your band multiplier and not you individually), an improved music studio, and new clothes and instrument parts in the rock star creator. Lastly, the online multiplayer still works great, if not better so, between all this, GH 5’s features and improvements create one of the fullest and most well executed music games to date.

The setlist, on the other hand, is a bit more mixed. This is odd, because the setlist is usually the thing that stands out. GH 4 had an awesome setlist, and that’s pretty unarguable in my book, so what’s the deal with GH 5? Well, from what I can tell, GH 5’s setlist tried to do two things, be made up of a wide variety of genres and have as few songs in common with other music games as possible. To both of these, the setlist succeeds, spanning a wide list of songs from country to death metal and has only one song in common with Rock Band 2’s on-disc setlist (the DLC, on the other hand, is another story). However, trying to do both of these comes at a price. Your definitely going to find songs you really like on here, but the diversity of genres means your going to find many more songs that you hate than in previous games. And while not having a lot of songs in common with other music games is good, it does mean that you may get some less-renown or even less fun songs. But let’s take a more in-depth look at the setlist, shall we? There are definitely some good choices on here. Some big names, like The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, and Rush make appearances, but there are also some good songs by some not as famous bands. In addition, there are some songs on the setlist that I thing should’ve been in a Guitar Hero game long ago, like Dire Strait’s “Sultans of Swing”, Queen & David Bowie’s “Under Pressure”, and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Plus, GH 5’s setlist also features the longest song ever in a music game, Peter Frampton’s “Do You Feel Like We Do” (live of course), clocking in at almost 14 minutes, which I think is pretty damn impressive. Then, there are some odd choices. For instance, is Bob Dylan’s version of “All Along the Watchtower” really better for a game like this than Jimi Hendrix’s version? And is the ESRB really that strict that it’s necessary to sensor the words “…to kill” in Iron Maiden’s “2 Minutes to Midnight”? I mean, if your going to have songs in a game, try to choose ones that you don’t have to sensor too much. And finally, there are some really odd choices. Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”…I mean it’s a great song but I don’t really know how much that fits into Guitar Hero. And when you have to resort to piano solos on a Jeff Beck song, you probably should’ve picked another song. Of course, if you’re distraught with the setlist in GH 5, you can always look through an expanding DLC library. It’s nowhere near as big as Rock Band but it’s still pretty massive and definitely will have something you’ll like. And, if all else fails, you can import songs from GH 4 and Guitar Hero: Smash Hits into GH 5. The problem with this is that most of the songs from either of the games aren’t importable to GH 5, especially some of the better and more challenging ones (you can’t important “Through the Fire and Flames”, are you kidding me?!). Nevertheless, it’s still a worthwhile effort that should be commended. It’s just too bad that with all the great new features, the setlist has to be one of the things that drags this game down. But hey, at least you can play as Carlos Santana, Kurt Cobain, and Johnny Cash…yeah, it doesn’t work as well or mean as much as something like The Beatles: Rock Band, but it’s still cool I guess. But 360 owners get to use their avatars, which is actually kind of cool (that’s a surprise).

GH5 Santana Jamming close-up

Santana joins the list of rockstars who have sold their likeness to Guitar Hero for money…God damn it

I guess the last thing I’ll touch on quickly is the graphics because frankly, the game looks fantastic. GH 5 still retains the cartoonish style that has come to define the series but unlike previous entries, it looks a bit more realistic. That, or the graphics are just much sharper than they’ve ever been. Either way, the game is the best looking Guitar Hero game ever, and certainly up to par with Rock Band 2, if not better looking.

So how does GH 5 stack up? Well, it’s superior in almost every way to GH 4 and, without a doubt, it’s the best Neversoft-developed Guitar Hero game, even being up to snuff with Guitar Hero 2 (at least in my opinion). But against its main competitor, Rock Band, that’s a different issue. And I don’t mean The Beatles: Rock Band, as that’s an entirely different game all together, so the two are really not comparable. I’m talking about Rock Band 2. GH 5’s setlist isn’t quite as good as Rock Band 2’s setlist, and the DLC available for GH 5 and the number of songs you can import to the game from previously entries are also a much smaller number than Rock Band 2’s DLC and importable songs. Plus, the career mode in GH 5, while good, shouldn’t take the place of Rock Band 2’s world tour mode, it should be in addition to it. Nevertheless, GH 5 packs all the essential improvements this time to compete with Rock Band 2 gameplay-wise, as well as some features Rock Band 2 doesn’t have. Having up to four people play the same instrument on any difficulty is genius, the party play mode works fantastic, and the fact that career isn’t necessary to unlock all the songs speeds things up. All this and more solidify GH 5 as a valiant game in the music gaming genre and all point to one thing, Guitar Hero isn’t really playing catch-up to Rock Band anymore (at least in terms of features and gameplay, its still got a ways to go in DLC). As far as I’m concerned, the series has caught up and we’ll have to see next year if Guitar Hero can finally overtake Rock Band critically as well as commercially. For now, if you’re going to buy one Guitar Hero game this year, hell, if you’re going to buy one music game this year, buy Guitar Hero 5. GH 5 proved to me that a gamer that hardly touches his other music games anymore can still find fun in shredding the crap out of a plastic guitar, when such a great entry in the series is released. But more importantly, GH 5 proves that, with enough ingenuity, music gaming can still improve.

+ A great list of new features and gameplay improvements solidify GH 5’s place in the music gaming world. And no gimmicky subtitles!!!

– However, a rather lackluster setlist and a career mode that, while good, shouldn’t take the place of a well-executed world tour bring this game down a notch

9.2 Ninja Heads out of 10

Ninja score 9 out of 10