The Guitar Hero franchise just doesnít quit. Coming off the stellar Guitar Hero: Metallica and the so-so Guitar Hero: Smash Hits, Guitar Hero 5 is the third of five planned releases in the franchise for 2009. As the culmination of the seriesí clout and continual refinements, the latest installment provides a newcomer-friendly experience that focuses on polish over progression.
The days of a hesitant music industry content with dabbling in gaming are long gone. The fifth installmentís robust track list of 85 songs by 83 artists is a testament to the rise of the rhythm genre and its influence in popular culture. Acceptance isnít the only change that time has brought, and fortunately much has changed for the better. The social aspects -- local and online multiplayer -- have been refined, but itís really been menu navigation, clunky with the introduction of the instrument set in World Tour, that has seen the most improvement in Guitar Hero 5: you have more stuff to do with others but with less headaches. There are still lingering issues throughout, but the more egregious issues have been addressed to make them much more manageable. The title might not be the groundbreaking Ďití game of its heyday, but its polished presentation and delivery make it a strong release in an increasingly crowded genre.
For the few out there who are just now jumping into the series, you couldnít have chosen a better release. As the singer, lead guitarist, bassist, or drummer for a created or generated band, you and your AI- or player-controlled band mates will jam along with licensed tracks and guest musicians. Colored circles representing notes fall down a guitar neck, the gameís ďhighway,Ē in one of five set lanes towards a base line of corresponding notes. If you time your actions so that you play the falling note as it reaches the base note, the instrument you are controlling will play in the song; if you miss a note, you will not only hear the slip-up in the song, but the crowd will begin to turn against you as well. The longer you are able to hit the notes properly, the more points you earn, with every tenth note adding a multiplier to your score. If youíre particularly hot, then youíll increase your star power and eventually be able to activate it to unlock an even greater multiplier. Your performance is graded per song, giving a list of stats and a ranking of between one to five stars. There are also challenge tracks, which will allow you to earn more than five stars if you accept the appropriate instrument and rise to the occasion. Additional songs are unlocked as you progress, and eventually new venues are unlocked with new set lists whenever a set amount of stars are earned. Itís simple to get into, as a bit more involved Simon Says, but highly addictive once you start going for higher ratings and tackling the tougher difficulty levels.
If youíre going into Guitar Hero 5 expecting the same kind of evolution as Guitar Hero World Tour, then youíre going to be disappointed. Instead of taking a giant leap, Neversoft was content to take what worked from the previous two titles, polish them up, and dump them into a game overflowing with tracks. The menus are noticeably streamlined, and while still a little cumbersome, they are far better than any post-Guitar Hero 3 title; getting into the game is much easier overall, with a song playing right from the get-go, which can be attempted or skipped to go to the main menu. Players can also use the same instruments, so you can finally shred with friends or see if that barbershop quartet idea could ever pan out. Star power is also tracked per player while Band Moments are included to offer a full-band experience, the split increasing the demands on both solo and group performance.
If youíre jumping over from World Tour, then you will get the benefit of two titlesí worth of improvements. One of the most noticeable improvements is in switching between instruments while logged in: I hit a syncing issue every now and then, but it is much, much better than before. Some things make their return, similarly refined or streamlined, such as the music store to download new tracks and the GH Studio to create some tracks of your own. An improvement for the better is the dropping of the strange storylines from previous titles; no fighting the rock devil or a kraken here, just you with a created or selected rocker (the old roster is back) tearing up the track lists and venues. The barebones approach ended up working out quite well, and quickly became my preferred method, as the previous stories were all forgettable and just got in the way of the band getting onstage. A few new characters will find their way onto the roster, however, including your 360 avatar, Kurt Cobain, and Johnny Cash. Seeing real musicians sing songs by others and so far outside their genre is much stranger than you would think, especially if you take the musiciansí personalities into account. Itís an understandable progression for the series, but a little weird all the same.
With so many tracks, far more than previous releases in the series, there are bound to be a few less desirables in the bunch. I found more than a few tracks and bands that I wanted nothing to do with and would break my plastic guitar rather than hear, much less pretend to play (looking at you, 3 Doors Down), the songs. Maybe I was spoiled by Metallica, or the download packs, but the vast track list can be downright erratic at times with giants like Bob Dylan and David Bowie next to The Sword and Brand New, or some Neversoft originals. I know there are bound to be some weak links, but there are so many bands that Iíve never heard of with very few winning me over that I found myself pining for some genre-specific set lists. Metallica was such a treat in that the music and bands, even if slightly unknown, were solid, but going back to such a wide-reaching list is pretty jarring. Music might be a sensitive subject, and with good reason, but regardless of how forgiving or accepting you are, prepare for a frown or two whenever a new venue opens up. I also found that the notes werenít quite as good as Metallica, with heavy repetition really dragging down many songs.
Many of my complaints are primarily with the Career mode. Itís odd, though, that what I didnít like in Career is largely fixed throughout two other modes: Quickplay and Party Play. Quickplay allows custom set lists to be created, which alleviates the frustration surrounding the randomness of Career, allowing you to cherry-pick preferred songs or choose a pre-selected list by genre; the only downside I found is that only one custom list is available at a time. Party Play offers an easier way to switch instruments, but it also offers a great casual experience: immediately jump into and out of songs, no-fail mode, and all songs are unlocked for play. It would have been nice for a little more customization within Career mode, splitting the positives of the other two modes, but the presence of the options elsewhere is a start.
For those without three friends at the ready whenever youíre looking to take up the plastic, you can always jump online with the click of a button. Supporting four players locally or eight over Live, you can play as a group in co-op or go at each other in Competition. RockFest mode includes several different rule sets for multiplayer, including low-score players eliminated every 30 seconds, points for the player with the longest streak, and players having to sit out the rest of the song if they miss three notes at any time. An interesting addition to the series is the new ability to Ďreviveí a band mate: if someone is performing poorly, the rest of the band can now revive them by winning back the crowd. Before you tackle any opponents, you can also check out the tutorials and try your hand at a few practice sessions as well. There are plenty of modes to choose from, so itís really up to your musical taste as to just how much you get out of them.
Guitar Hero 5 isnít the same leap forward as Guitar Hero World Tour, but it is the culmination of several releasesí worth of refinements. Diehard fans will appreciate the improvements, but might crave a little more; newcomers will enjoy the relative ease of band and character creation, and jumping headfirst into the game. While there are still some lingering issues, such as heavy note repetition and a menu system that could use one less layer, Guitar Hero 5 manages to leave the series on good footing and makes for a fine addition to the franchise.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)