Review: One of the most popular brands on the PS2 makes its debut on the Xbox 360.
Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero II were extremely successful games on the PS2, as they combined a very interesting guitar controller with some inspired song choices and the inherent joy people get from playing air guitar to their favorite songs. Now Xbox 360 owners can get in on the action with a port of Guitar Hero II, which adds an exclusive new design for the 360 guitar controller, 10 new tracks, leaderboards, and the ability to download additional songs via the Xbox Live Marketplace. The entire package is fairly compelling, even to those with minor musical interests or talents, but a few noteworthy detractions somewhat sour what could've been a truly sweet experience.
Guitar Hero usually comes packed with a guitar controller (that is smaller than a real guitar), and the Xbox 360 version is no different. The white Gibson ?X-Plorer? guitar is definitely a lot more interesting to look at than the pedestrian-looking ax included with the PS2 game, and the 360 guitar seems a little more ?solid? in its feel and design. That being said, right off the jump, there have been widespread reports of guitars that are unresponsive or that have malfunctioning whammy bars. As of this writing, a patch has been issued that seems to resolve these problems (presumably with some sort of sensitivity tweak), although some claim this patch has introduced problems with the 360 system, itself. These claims have been somewhat acknowledged by RedOctane, but no official confirmation of this anecdotal evidence has yet to be tied to the update. Either way, it is somewhat disconcerting to have a $90 package that shipped with problems on both the hardware and software side.
The actual feel of the 360 Gibson X-Plorer guitar is pretty good, and you'll be able to easily place your fingers on the five colored frets of the guitar, all the while using your other hand to ?strum? the strummer switch and operate the whammy bar. Essentially, this guitar is designed to match up with the standard 360 controller, and the colored frets correspond with the face buttons, and there's a back and start button as well as an Xbox ?guide? button. It's actually pretty cool to be able to navigate the menus with the guitar, and the guide is still quite accessible with this peripheral ? there's even a headset slot for in-game chatting. The only downer with the controller is that you will eventually start feeling sore in the wrist and hand after using it for longer stretches, but this is really more because of the dexterity required to hit notes in quick succession over-and-over again. Any play session over a couple of hours seemed to provide a bit of discomfort, so it's probably advisable to not play this one all night, but everyone is different.
For the uninitiated, Guitar Hero II tasks you with having a finger or two pressed on the correct frets and then strumming the guitar so that you play the corresponding note or chord. Of course, the trick is that notes will by flying at you in a familiar rhythm scroll, and you'll have to quickly adjust your finger placement and time the strums so that you are hitting all of the notes and enhancing your multiplier. By hitting successive notes, the multiplier for your score will increase, and it can ? potentially ? get all the way up to 8x, but this is aided by the use of Star Power. By hitting specially marked notes (usually involving quick beats or long chords) and adding some flair with the whammy bar, you'll raise your star meter until it is full (or over a baseline which enables the Star Power to be used). At this point, you can activate the mode by hitting the back button or (for the wannabe rockers) tilting the guitar vertically so the neck is straight up. All of the notes on the scroll will turn blue and you'll be doubling your points in no time.
On the easier difficulties, GHII allows for copious amounts of showboating and isn't really all that taxing, even for those that think they won't be able to keep up. You only have to worry about three frets on the easiest setting, and most of the songs (no matter how they sound out of the speakers) are made up of long chords or the occasional group of notes. Of course, GHII manages to achieve that great sense of progression that many other rhythm games do (Elite Beat Agents comes to mind), and as you up the difficulty, you'll have to deal with more frets, hit more notes, and be much faster in your execution. But, just like Elite Beat Agents, you will likely often find yourself hitting notes that you aren't quite sure how you did, and you'll be increasingly adept at completing ?hammer-ons? and ?pull-offs? which allow you to slickly move your fingers from fret-to-fret and get multiple notes from one strum. These two techniques are quite challenging to master, but the game almost pushes you to subtly use them (more so on the harder difficulties), even when you don't think you can pull them off
Where the Guitar Hero series really works ? and this game is no exception ? is with its ability to create a feeling that you're rocking through some memorable songs and feeling like a part of the on-stage action. Even though a missed note results in the same canned feedback riff, the rhythm and pace of the songs still get you tapping your toes, swinging your guitar and generally having fun with the experience. Not all of the songs achieve this effect, but many do, and you'll often find yourself so engrossed in beat that you'll just be naturally anticipating some of the notes and fingerings, and having a really good time while doing so.
As for the songs included for Guitar Hero II, the game features all of the tracks from the PS2 release, as well as 10 exclusive tracks for the Xbox 360. In total, there are 74 total tracks in the Xbox 360 version, and 48 of them are from noteworthy artists (but most are cover versions) ? the remaining songs are from lesser known groups or are specialized songs (Trogdor!!!). As before, there are plenty of rocking songs such as Rush's YYZ
, The Allman Brothers Band's Jessica
, and Message in a Bottle
from The Police. Everyone's favorite Free Bird
by Lynyrd Skynyrd provides some encore love, as well. Some songs don't quite hit the mark so well, such as the poor vocals of Nirvana's Heart-Shaped Box
, the oddly chosen Deep Purple song, Hush
, or the slightly off pacing of The Foo Fighters' Monkey Wrench
. Regardless of these few exceptions, most of the songs work very well in representing a wide range of musical groups, all the while managing to give you plenty of guitar solos and showboating chords.
As for the Xbox 360 exclusive tracks, most end up adding something to the game, and some are downright fun. The aforementioned Hush
and My Chemical Romance's Dead!
are probably the weakest additions, but they are more than made up for by entertaining ditties such as Rick Derringer's Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo
and The Trooper
by Iron Maiden. Overall, the additional songs are a welcome supplement to the original sets from the PS2 version of GHII, and they help add even more value to the overall game.
Visuals aren't really what matter in a game like this, but it is nice to see that the existing sets, characters, and guitars have all been sharpened up and optimized for the Xbox 360's HD visuals. The notes are clearly defined and easy to read, and you'll really notice the effects for the whammy bar and Star Power jumping at you when they are activated. In fact, after watching plenty of notes scroll by for a few hours, you may even experience a levitating effect for many of the menus, and everything will just sort of float because of the constant motion you've been witnessing ? a trippy effect, indeed. Sure, it would've been nice if there were more variety in the design, animations for the characters or effects for the sets, but what is there still does the job. And in all honesty, most people will be too busy rocking out to really give character models much thought. That being said, the future release of Guitar Hero III is likely to have some upgraded visuals, so presumably there will be some more substantial visual flair in that release.
Going through the career mode for GHII basically involves playing at increasingly populated venues and completing the various set lists at each place. You'll start out at gymnasiums and bars, but eventually you'll be playing at huge venues or even Stonehenge. The higher the difficulty level for the career mode, the more songs you will end up having to play in a set, and you'll certainly have trouble keeping up with the added demands the songs will put on you. What really adds to the career mode over the PS2 release is the inclusion of leaderboards. It is one thing to be able to track how you're scoring in each song, but it's another to be able to stack up your scores against others in the world, but specifically to your friends. You can compare individual song scores or your entire career score, and the boards denote what difficulty a song was completed on so you can call someone out if they cowardly used the easy setting to compete with you. Leaderboards have added some value to many other Xbox 360 titles, but in GHII, they really add some serious longevity to the already substantial track list. On top of the leaderboards, you can use ?cash? earned in the career to unlock new character skins, extra guitar models, additional sets, and the extra songs from indie artists. Achievements will also enhance your playtime with GHII, and you'll be rewarded for completing the songs on various difficulties, playing co-operatively with a friend, unlocking the final Stonehenge stage, and for hitting insane note streaks.
There are a couple multiplayer modes in GHII, and they consist of a face-off mode and a co-op mode. The face-off allows you and another player (extra guitar required) to play through a song in an attempt to get the highest score. You can play on the same difficulty setting if you wish, but you can also handicap it so someone can play on easy while another plays on hard, thus giving both skill levels a chance to win. The co-op mode enables the two players to play through a song simultaneously, with the second player strumming away on the song's base guitar track. Admittedly, the base tracks aren't always that exciting, but this is still kind of a neat way to include both players. The main gripe for this content is that it can't be played over Xbox Live, and this is really unfortunate. It's been said that Guitar Hero III will include online multiplayer (and it's been hinted that it may be patched into this game), but the omission remains disappointing, regardless. Clearly there are technical limitations for Guitar Hero games online, especially with the frenetic nature of the gameplay, but you'd think the developers could find a way to make it work with only two people involved.
The other real issue with Guitar Hero II on the 360 comes from an area that many thought would be one of its strengths: Downloadable content. It was boasted that GHII would have the most robust offering of content on the Marketplace, and that said content would be fairly priced. Of course, the assumption was that all of the original Guitar Hero tracks would be released, plus additional, new songs ? this doesn't seem to be the case. It seems that only original Guitar Hero songs will be released, and they have been offered in overpriced 500 MS point bundles with three songs per bundle (with only nine songs in three bundles at this point). The major issue here is that each song is costing over $2 in this format, and that there's only about one noteworthy song per pack. In this scenario, the user isn't given the choice of which songs they want, and they are saddled with having to pay way too much because the songs are valued too high to begin with, but also because they have been carelessly bundled for maximum profit. Again, this is another case study within the Marketplace that demonstrates just how something good can go sour. People want good content from the Marketplace and they are willing to pay (Live Arcade games, most Oblivion content, and ? arguably ? HD movies provide fair value), but MS seems unwilling to be flexible on some of the more questionable tactics of some developers. It's already agitating that MS insists on using abstract ?points,? but when they let companies like EA (and now RedOctane) have their way with the service, yet hinder Epic Games from releasing something they feel should be free for free, it comes off as bad all around. Some users may be happy to pay this price and that's their prerogative, but the outwardly negative response towards this pricing should indicate to MS and to future developers that people aren't willing to be gouged for everything. This is more of an argument of principle, as the content pricing isn't so insane that it makes people flat out not buy it, but people need to use their voices in situations such as this, as consumer tolerance still seems to be getting tested, even 18 months into the console's lifecycle.
Putting aside the lack of online multiplayer, frustrating DLC structure, and lack of wireless controller, GHII still merits recommendation for most users. Price is going to be a barrier for some, as $90 is getting up there, but there is plenty of enjoyment to be had on your own, with a friend, or with a group of friends all rocking out. The core game is a lot of fun, here, and anyone who likes rhythm games or some of the songs involved should really look into this one.