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Review: ‘Guitar Hero 5’

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What's Hot: Improved gameplay across the board

What's Not: Strange song-list choices; Fumbled backward compatibility

Crispy Gamer Says: Try

If you have multiple music games, you probably have "Rock Band" situated closest to your television. "Guitar Hero World Tour" is probably under a pile of other games, with the instruments shut in a closet somewhere. In terms of copies sold, "Guitar Hero" may have come out ahead, based on name recognition. But among aficionados, "Rock Band" is the game of choice. Now "Guitar Hero 5" changes that, bringing the franchise out of the closet. It might not knock "Rock Band" out of its place in the living room, but it's earned a place alongside it.

ACTIVISION MAKES YOU A MIX TAPE

In the ongoing war among music games, complaints about song lists aren't what they used to be. Song lists used to be ultimate weapons. Now they're just opening salvos. This feeling is reinforced by "Guitar Hero 5," which seems to be saving the big guns for later. Its scattershot assortment of songs has lots of variety, but there's something superficial about it. You can all but see Activision pretending it's not holding something in the hand behind its back, while extending this song list with its other hand. Fair enough, I suppose. These days, downloadable content is at least half the battle, and Activision has to do something to catch up with "Rock Band," which is rapidly closing on 1,000 downloadable songs. But I have to wonder at this wisdom of this approach. If Activision wanted to bring on board people who have invested in "Rock Band" songs, it needs a lot more "Smells Like Teen Spirits" in the core game.

The "Guitar Hero 5" song list has its share of oddities -- what song list doesn't? -- but it's got a broad, if shallow, appeal. Only two bands have more than one song. There are plenty of classics and enough alt-rock and metal to tide most people over. You could even argue that Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" meets the quota of token country songs. It's too bad Activision badly fumbled the backward compatibility with its earlier games, since this could have headed off a lot of obligatory song-list complaints. Whereas "Rock Band 2" allowed you to import all but three of the songs from "Rock Band," Activision managed fewer than half of the songs from "Guitar Hero World Tour" and "Guitar Hero Smash Hits," each for a separate fee. Odds are your favorite song didn't make it.

Then there's the issue of third-party music. The announced Rock Band Network is the equivalent of a full set of developers' tools for people who want to monetize their own music. Contrast this to the chintzy GH Tunes music studio that started with "Guitar Hero World Tour" and is supposedly upgraded in "Guitar Hero 5." I still have no idea how to use it and no interest in trying. And given the way copyrighted material isn't allowed, I have no interest in downloading any of the player-made tunes. In fact, browsing a list of the hottest uploads, there was only one thing that caught my eye: the Keyboard Cat tune. How appropriate.

AFTER THE TOUR

But enough about the wars. How goes the franchise? How does "Guitar Hero 5" compare to "Guitar Hero World Tour"? In terms of hardware, I was only able to see the updated guitar for the Xbox 360. It's got a new faceplate and a rubberized Xbox button. The touchpad at the base of the fret is mostly the same, but there are little colored indicators along the top of the fret in case, heaven forbid, you need to actually look down at the guitar to position your fingers. More helpful are tiny ridges on the red and yellow positions of the tap pad. It still has no gameplay implications, but it offers extra busywork for showboaters. And in the game, the weird purple rope is gone. I can't say I'll miss it, since it was putting undue pressure on me to figure out the tap pad. Now the notes just look a little different, so I can pretend they're like any other notes.

In terms of the gameplay, "Guitar Hero 5" is the "Guitar Hero" we should have had a year ago. This is partly because the series has advanced, but also because it's backpedaled on some of the choices made in "World Tour." The greatest change is what a wonderful party game this has become. Activision and the developers at Neversoft clearly intend "Guitar Hero 5" for more than just "Guitar Hero"/"Rock Band" wonks. Setup hassle has been minimized in a number of ways, which reduces fumbling around with things like signing into profiles, or swapping characters, or changing difficulty levels. In fact, in a sign of the new era of permissiveness and accommodating casual players, if you want two guitarists for a song, "Guitar Hero 5" is OK with that. Heck, if four people want to play guitar, they can. This isn't a nod to the pervasive cultural influence of Night Ranger so much as a decision that, hey, if no one wants to get stuck playing bass, that's cool. If the Open Strum notes don't do it for you, no problem. The same is true of all the band positions. Want four bassists? Want to be a drum squad? Go for it.

Activision further acknowledges that not everyone wants to muck around with Career mode. So you can play any song in Quickplay without having to unlock it first. Do you hear that, "The Beatles: Rock Band"? But by far the friendliest casual-friendly feature is the new Party mode. From the main screen, a single button-press plays through the song list at random, almost like a screensaver. At any point, you can press a button on a controller and jump in to play along in no-fail mode. This is one of those "why didn't you do it this way before?" features, and it makes "Guitar Hero 5" the ideal plastic rock party game. Plus, it's not bad as a sort of videogame jukebox with a visualizer.

STAR POWERED

The gameplay throughout Career mode is a simple matter of accumulating stars. You mostly do this by playing well at any difficulty level. However, accomplishing a bonus goal in each song can earn you additional stars. This nod to power gamers is almost like a quest system, or missions from "Call of Duty," or built-in Achievements. Special goals include things like accumulating a certain amount of time in Star Power, reaching a certain streak of continuously hit notes, or achieving a certain band multiplier. Because they're all associated with a particular instrument, or with band play, the bonus goals encourage completionists to vary what and how they play, with special unlockable rewards as an additional incentive. It adds a lot more variety than simply trying for five stars.

The weird socialist Star Power system from "World Tour" is gone. When playing with a band, all your Star Power used to be pooled, available for anyone to use, or misuse. You had the one guy who kept accidentally rocking out too hard on his guitar and popping off Star Power when he didn't mean it (I'm not saying I was that guy, but I'm not denying it either). Socialism doesn't make for good gameplay, and it leads to sloppy rock 'n' roll. So now the wealth is no longer distributed. Your Star Power is yours alone. No one gets his hands on that. You are now entitled to the sweat of your brow and the fruit of your fingerwork. Furthermore, all of the Star Power info in "World Tour" was shoved off to one corner of the screen, where there was no way you could pay attention to it while rocking out. Now each instrument has its crowd meter clearly displayed, and its own reserve of Star Power.

By the way, it seems that Star Power is a more precious commodity in "Guitar Hero 5." On the difficulty level I play, there are fewer gimmes. You have to work your way through a long string of notes to earn Star Power. This makes it much more valuable, and it adds more strategy to the gameplay.

STAR-CROSSED

Similarly, there's a new approach to failure. In "World Tour," the rest of the band could keep a terrible player afloat. He wouldn't fail until he dragged the entire band down. Now he gets a time-out while the band builds up enough crowd approval to bring him back. You can extend to him a Star Power bailout to bring him back, which is the way of "Rock Band." But you don't need to burn your Star Power to do it. As long as you maintain a favorable audience rating, your bandmate will eventually be restored.

Also new is the display of scores when you play as a band. Now you can get the recognition you deserve for playing at harder difficulty levels, where you might get a lower percentage than other players. A simple flip of the page will reveal the true picture. Yeah, sure the bassist on easy got a 94 percent. But when he sees how few points he earned while you were guitaring on Hard and only got an 84 percent, he won't be quite so full of himself. Oops, wait, did my competitive streak just show?

The coming months will be crucial for "Guitar Hero 5." Does Activision have enough DLC in store to follow up on this minor reboot of the "Guitar Hero" series? Will it bring more of the older Guitar Hero content forward? Because bringing "Guitar Hero" back into the living room is just the first step. Keeping there is going to still take some work.

This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.

COPYRIGHT (C) 2009 CRISPY GAMER. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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