Strange things are afoot at Activision, specifically in the money making sequel division. Up until recently the Guitar Hero franchise, under the guidance of Neversoft, has been over the top both in both design and execution. Previous games had the player trading licks with the devil himself, competing with the god of rock, following Metallica around in what is still the best installment, and most recently rescuing your heavy metal patron from a lost underwater city. Oh, and there was music, too. The Guitar Hero franchise, as a whole, is much more fantastic and fanciful than its competition. Venues were impossibly located and overly complex. The guitarists were cartoonish caricatures, with faces and movement that would make Jim Henson call his lawyers, if he were still alive. None of these things, including note charts that border on physical abuse when played on expert, are a bad thing. They made Guitar Hero a refreshing alternative to the calmer Rock Band: both are music games, but perhaps for different audiences. Rock Band was always more friendly to the non-gamer. Guitar Hero 5 has its sights set firmly on the more casual demographic, and in doing so has lost some of what made it unique.
I cannot blame anyone, especially Activision and Neversoft, for suffering from Guitar Hero fatigue right about now. Guitar Hero 5 is the third of five releases in the franchise this year, assuming the upcoming Band Hero counts. From the moment the game is turned on it is obvious that, at least superficially, things have changed. After the initial load a random song is picked and anyone can simply hop in and play, giving things the feel of a juke box, or a very cruel karaoke machine, take your pick. While this sounds like a good idea, just playing a random song gets old, so aside from a quick demo this is a feature that will seldom be used. Things go back to normal after this, until you realize that everyone can play the same instrument at the same time if they want to. Again, as funny as it might be to see four people playing drums all at once, I can’t really ever see it happening because the total number of players is still limited to four. Eliminating the bass player for another vocalist is an idea, perhaps, but playing bass has gotten more interesting with the addition of the open note, and finding just one singer that isn’t painful to listen to is hard enough as it is, much less two.
Career mode is still where the meat of the game play hides, but since all songs are available for quick play from the very beginning all that is left are characters, outfits, venues and cheats to unlock, and only the cheats really do anything. In contrast to the newbie friendly feel of the rest of the game, actually getting the rewards has been made more difficult. Each song has an added, instrument or band specific challenge along with the usual five (or six, if you are really good) available stars. These challenges range from simply scoring a set number of points to wammy-ing for a full minute and a half, something that I still haven’t managed to pull off. Each challenge has three levels, and the top levels of some are not possible on anything but expert, so it can take a lot of work to accomplish, but at least it is something more to do. They create an incentive to move beyond your instrument of choice and actually try to sing a few bars; as funny as it would be to have a singing challenge for Du Hast, it’s not there, so stop worrying about it.
As trite as it seems to complain about the look of a music game, it is still a very important part of how the game works. Take Guitar Hero Metallica as an excellent example of what to do, and Rock Rebellion as an example of what not to (just trust me, don’t play it for yourself). Guitar Hero 5 looks more like Rock Band 2 than any of its predecessors, and I do not mean this as a compliment. Everything has a very soft, almost washed out look. Characters still look wild, but it is a tempered, family friendly wild. Concert halls are for the most part physically possible, with much more subdued encore theatrics when compared to the old games. This is like Kiss without the makeup: it still rocks, kinda. This is not meant as a criticism of Rock Band 2, I just liked my plastic guitar games different from one another and they are starting to look more and more alike. I would say that Neversoft has sold out, but Guitar Hero is the dominant franchise, so I am confused as to why they are changing what is not broken in the looks department.
Strip away the now faded face paint and slightly less revealing costumes and this is still a game about hitting circles falling down from the top of the screen at the right time. Guitar Hero 5, here at least, has not changed at all. Neversoft note charts have been different from Harmonix note charts ever since Neversoft took over on Guitar Hero 3. They are more elaborate, sometimes over done, and always more challenging than their counterparts. Songs that have shown up in both franchises play differently; Guitar Hero is always, always the more difficult of the two. I site read all but a few songs on expert, but the ones that tripped me up I may never conquer. Peter Frampton’s ‘Do You Feel Like We Do?’ is fourteen fucking minutes long. That’s a really long time to play and fail out on in the last minute to over-charted meedlies. Jeff Beck’s ‘Scatterbrain’ is right up there with the hardest tracks I have ever played, including ‘Through the Fire and Flames’ from World Tour and ‘Jordan,’ for those of us who remember the second Guitar Hero. There are other tracks that may be too difficult for their own good, but that is what I expect from this series, and I am okay with that.
Guitar Hero 5 would be better all by itself. Instead it falls chronologically right after Guitar Hero’s Metallica and Smash Hits and right before Guitar Hero Van Halen and Band Hero, to say nothing of Beatles Rock Band which is sitting on my desk as I write this. The track list and guest stars don’t help much, either. World Tour had Ozzy, Sting and Ted Nugent, among others, for cameos. Guitar Hero 5 has two dead guys, some guy I don’t know from Muse and Shirley Manson. Yes, this has absolutely no effect on how the game plays, but the feel of the game is just not the same. I like my Guitar Hero’s gaudy and obnoxious with a side of non sequitur; Ozzy singing La Bamba in Time Square from World Tour is a perfect example of this. I laughed so hard I had to restart. Twice. While Guitar Hero 5 has a few excellent tracks, especially those from Tom Petty, Dire Straights and Iron Maiden, much of it feels far too safe and is missing the ‘wow’ moments of its predecessors. The core of the game has not been broken, but everything else in Guitar Hero 5 is just a shadow if what has come before it. I will not condemn Activision for milking the franchise; on the contrary, Guitar Hero Metallica was easily the best game that Neversoft has produced, rivaling Guitar Hero 2 in quality, but it also appears to about as good as they are going to get. Guitar Hero 5 is a lot like Aerosmith after they got out of rehab: okay but forgettable, and it may never be as good as the old stuff again.