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Guitar Hero
System: PlayStation 2 :: Rating: Teen :: Players: 1-2
Genre: Music :: Released: 01 November 2005

By Damien Wilkens
15 June 2006 I remember the first time I tried to learn guitar: it was 5th grade. The reason: Nicole Neslein. Her deadly combination of raven black hair, Minnie Mouse backpack and general disinterest in my existence were more than enough to leave me smitten. Sure, on the surface it looked like I had no chance, but she would be mine, oh yes, she would be mine as no girl could resist the charm of an unplugged performance of Van Halen's "Right Now".

Problem is, no one clued her in to this fact, and what resulted was an acoustic assault that sounded less like Eddie Van Halen, and more like Martin Van Buren. On that sad note (horrible pun intended), I decided to hang up the ax, putting an apparent end to my dreams of being a rock star... or so I thought.

Enter Guitar Hero, part video game, part guitar simulation and part window to my soul. Alright, perhaps that is a bit much, but it definitely is the stuff gaming dreams are made of.

Coming from Harmonix (Frequency, Amplitude), Guitar Hero definitely shares a lot of similarities with its predecessors. Notes scroll vertically down linear pathways, requiring an action corresponding to its position / color (in this case: green, red, yellow, blue and orange). What sets the game apart (besides its focus on just one instrument) is the inclusion of the nearly life-size guitar controller which comes as part of the $80 package, resulting in an experience unlike anything seen before on a home console.

The controller is designed to emulate the important features of a real guitar, while at the same time, simplifying everything for a much less musically gifted audience. There are five colored fret buttons (corresponding to the five in-game note fields) and a "strum bar" (used to simulate the strumming to, along with the fret buttons, activate notes). Also of note is the whammy bar, which allows for some pretty groovy sounds when holding those long notes, but as it is, really doesn't affect your score in a significant way. The only real criticism here is that it's made of a hollow plastic, which means that anyone who attempts a Skid Row-esque speaker-smashing celebration after a particularly gnarly set will most likely have to spring for a replacement. To the guitar's credit though, it stood up to long playing sessions and I can't personally name any time when the controller gave this gamer any problems.

A brief in-game tutorial allows you to get into the game rather quickly, provided you possess motor skills beyond those of a seven year old. Actually succeeding and, eventually, mastering the game itself is a bit more of a task although most gamers should have no problem clearing the first few sets of songs. In fact, on lower difficulty settings, the game may actually be a bit too forgiving. Since all the notes are worth the same point value, botching a solo isn't so bad, as long as you get the chorus down. I didn't actually fail a song until hard mode, and that was only after some soloing efforts that would make Jimi Hendrix do a postmortem cartwheel.

As for the song list itself, as with most games in the genre, it tends to be a mishmash of hits and misses. Most of the misses in this case come in the form of the 17 "bonus songs" (RE: not good / well-known enough to be in the main game) from such titans of rock as Freezepop, The Upper Crust, and um... Monkey Steals the Peach (don't ask). Fortunately, nearly all of the 30 main songs are from bands you know and / or love. Some of the song choices are a bit odd, ("Stellar" for Incubus, as opposed to something heavier like "Pardon Me") but really don't detract from the game, as any songs you don't like only have to be played once successfully to advance in career mode.

Ah... good ol' career mode. The meat and potatoes of the game is, in a sense, four games in one. There are four difficulty levels ranging from easy (only three frets are used, less notes to hit, slower scrolling) to expert (all five frets are used, more notes than you think you can ever handle, inhuman scrolling) and within each setting you'll have to unlock all the songs, whether or not you've already completed them in the previous setting. On the surface, it would seem as if it was simply a ploy to lengthen the game, but, in reality, the songs are changed so dramatically between each difficulty setting that it's almost like playing completely different songs. Now why, pray tell, would you want to beat the game on four different difficulties? To earn money for in-game shopping.

The Unlock Shop is a strange beast indeed, seemingly filled to the brim with cool stuff but at the same time, rather worthless. You can unlock new characters and guitar skins, but they're merely cosmetic not changing gameplay in the least. And unless you're superhuman, you won't have time to stare at your Grim Reaper avatar and snazzy flying V guitar, as you'll be spending too much time concentrating on the notes. Considering how many times you'll likely repeat songs on harder difficulty settings, it's not nearly worth the trouble for the underwhelming selection.

Not to say that there isn't a lot of fun to be had, because there definitely is. But after you've devoted a few hours to the game, and the initial feeling of "this is awesome" wears off, what you're ultimately left with is a unique but rather shallow experience. While Frequency and Amplitude had remix modes for added replay value, there's no equivalent here. Once you've seen all that Guitar Hero has to offer, it's unlikely that you'll come back weeks or even months later. The hefty price point doesn't really help matters either, as the guitar controller adds $20-30 to the cost.

In the end though, Guitar Hero is a short experience that will rock your socks off, frustrate you to no end and fool your friends into thinking that you have some shred of talent.

And hey, you never know, it might even help you with the ladies.

Pros
Unlike anything you've ever played before.
Attracts crowds when you play.
Great soundtrack.

Cons
Weak Shop items.
Limited replay value.
Unlockables don't carryover between difficulty levels.
Steep price.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being Lenny Kravitz and 10 being Metallica (circa Metallica), Guitar Hero gets an 8.5 out of 10.


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