Guitar Hero (PlayStation 2)

by Cutriss, 26 November 05

With the advent of Dance Dance Revolution in the United States, it was only a matter of time before other music-oriented games started coming to the US. Some have been Japanese imports, such as Vib-Ribbon and PaRappa The Rapper, while others have been domestically grown, like Karaoke Revolution and FreQuency, both developed by Massachusetts-based developer Harmonix.

Now, RedOctane brings us an entirely new franchise with its first entry developed by Harmonix, called Guitar Hero. Some folks will immediately draw comparisons between this series and Guitar Freaks, and that's understandable, but they are different to a significant degree. Let's delve a little further.

For those unfamiliar with how Guitar Freaks works, the concept is relatively simple, especially if you understand how a guitar works. Guitar Freaks has three buttons on the neck of the guitar to represent frets where you would hold your fingers against the strings to play notes. In Guitar Freaks, you hold down the fret buttons corresponding to the scrolling pattern, and hit the strum control to trigger each note, so pushing/releasing the buttons has no effect, but simply determines whether or not you're triggering the proper chord when you hit the strum control.

Guitar Hero works similarly in principle, but behaves in a more realistic fashion for the most part. For starters, let's focus strictly on single-string notes. When playing single notes, the game treats the string as a real guitar - no matter how many fingers you put on the string, the only thing that matters is how short the vibrating part of the string is, so there's no need to release the lower buttons. This can make it a lot easier to play short note runs, since you don't have to be worried about releasing the proper buttons all the time.

On the other hand, when playing an actual chord (two or more simultaneous notes), the game is more discriminating, and so you'll need to make sure to be holding only the proper keys when you strum. This generally isn't a problem at lower difficulties, but on harder patterns for harder songs, you'll need quite a bit of skill to manage moving from chord to chord at fast speeds.

Further, Guitar Hero also has a form of freeze notes. Unlike freezes in most dancing games, however, you don't have to worry about holding one note while striking another. What you can do, however, is to work the tremolo bar, just like on a real guitar. It doesn't actually affect your score (not directly, anyway), but it's fun to do, especially try to recreate the sounds you're used to hearing in your favorite songs.

There's one more component to the gameplay that sets it apart, and that's the Star Power meter. As you play your a song, longer note combos will increase your score multiplier, all the way to x4. Some of the notes on the note chart will appear to glow electric blue - these notes are charged with Star Power. Hitting these notes correctly will fill up your Star Power meter. You can also build Star Power by working the tremolo bar on long notes that are also charged. When the meter is at least halfway full, you can hit the Star Power button on the guitar controller to activate it. When Star Power is active, hitting correct notes will fill your life gauge much more quickly, and your score multiplier will be doubled. This means that if you've got your score multiplier maxed on x4, Star Power will double it to x8, which can be a huge boost. Star Power can also save you if you're doing badly and need to recover your life gauge.

The songs themselves are the real draw to Guitar Hero. GH features a bunch of classic grunge rock songs combined with some newer songs and indie bands from the Boston area. The result is a pretty good songlist that lasts quite a while. Stuff like "I Love Rock And Roll" and "Killer Queen" doesn't get old very fast. Also present is Boston's "More Than A Feeling", and you don't even need an e-ano to play it. The music list overall could be a bit more fleshed out - I was kinda surprised not to see anything by Eric Clapton or Peter Frampton. Some people might say that Guitar Hero lacks some of the charm of the Guitar Freaks discography, but since the theme of Guitar Hero is rock, rock, and rock, this is hardly a point that can be set against the game. Simply put, some people will like the songlist, while some hardcore Bemani geeks won't think it's "Japanese enough".

The indie songs aren't that bad either, regardless of the lack of name recognition. I like punk rock, and quite a few of the unlocks are punk, so I was happy to see them there. Harmonix even had a few of its members write the theme song for the game, "Guitar Hero", which is actually one of the best tracks in the game, and a challenging one to play even on the medium difficulty level, with a lot of chord movement and a fast beat.

The difficulty of Guitar Hero is one of the best aspects of the game, in my opinion. In Guitar Freaks, songs generally derive a lot of their initial difficulty by simply making you hit notes very fast. Where a lot of songs in DDR have difficulty by virtue of being stamina-drainers, Guitar Freaks, in my experience, tends to lean heavily on burning your thumb out. Guitar Hero, on the other hand, derives a lot of its difficulty from making you play challenging chord patterns. Since Guitar Freaks only has three buttons, there's no chord movement, whereas on Guitar Hero, you have more buttons than fingers, and so you'll have to actually move up and down the neck on more difficult songs.

The game itself is utterly loaded with charm. It's chock-full of references to rock culture and just generally feels highly polished. For example, the song loading screens feature an amp with three dials, all of which go to 11, a reference to the well-known This Is Spinal Tap joke (one of the loading screens also references this, saying "Eleven IS louder than ten"). The characters all have their own style of crowd-entertainment, particularly during Star Power usage. Johnny Napalm will swing the guitar around the back of his neck and play it there, while Axel Steel will swing it around in the air. You can unlock extra characters and guitars and skins for the guitars too, as well as videos and featurettes about the development of the game. One disappointing aspect of the unlock system is that unlocking a song on, say, medium difficulty, doesn't unlock it on the other difficulties, at least in Career Mode, so if you've bought you'll have to repurchase it . You can still play the songs you've unlocked on any difficulty in Quick Play, though.

The guitar controller itself is, of course, critical to the core gameplay, and for the most part, it feels really solid. The neck buttons are low-profile and so you can easily slide your fingers across them to move between chords, and the tremolo bar is adjustable so that you can easily use it without moving your hands off the strum control. I could see it causing problems for southpaws, of course (and yes, the controller does, amazingly enough, support lefty play). There were two problems I had with the controller itself, though, and I can't say whether they're pandemic or isolated. The first is that the tremolo bar didn't always respond favorably, especially if I had the bar turned inward to let me use it more readily. Sometimes the bar itself would bend instead of rotating the control dial, which would absorb most of the motion.

The other problem is more significant, and I suspect probably more prevalent in other controls as well. In the process of gripping the neck to hold the controller, it is possible to compress the plastic slightly, inhibiting the movement of the fret buttons. I really only had a problem with the second button. At first, it would get stuck halfway depressed, which wasn't a big problem since it wasn't triggering the button, but on harder songs, it started becoming more prominent, and would cause me to miss some chords because the extra button was being pressed. I suspect some extra metal framing in the neck would be a good idea to help reinforce the controller so that the buttons always have room to move freely.

Those issues aside, the controller is well-designed. It has standard guitar-strap pegs so that you can use your own if you like, and it's lightweight and comfortable. The strum control responds in both directions, much like the Guitar Freaks controller, so you can hit faster notes more easily if you prefer to strum in both directions.

All in all, the game is very, very well done. The inclusion of a lot of well-known and recognized songs will hopefully contribute to its public adoption, much like the success that Karaoke Revolution has garnered from the non-Bemani crowd. It has earned to praise of both Penny Arcade and MTV's Video Music Awards, so that should be enough indication for anyone that the game can please anyone, but if you're still a holdout, take my word for it that this game deserves to be on any Bemani fan's shelf.