Reviewed: September 2, 2009
Released: September 1, 2009
Raise your hand if you are tired of all the music video games yet. I would, but my arm is in a sling from playing Guitar Hero 5 for the past 96 hours. Seriously, it’s hard not to get a little bit jaded with the whole social music game scene. Last year we got World Tour and Aerosmith and this year we’ve already gotten Metallica and Smash Hits and that’s just Guitar Hero. When you factor in that other band game, all the downloadable content for both franchises, as well as upcoming titles like Rock Band Beatles, DJ Hero, and Band Hero you just have to wonder just how long it will be before the entire genre collapses under its own bulk.
Somebody saw me playing Guitar Hero 5 the other day online and asked me how it was. Without even thinking I typed backed – “Best Guitar Hero game since Neversoft took over the franchise”. I’ve been thinking about those words long after I hit the Send button on that message and they pretty much sum up my feelings about this game and the entire genre.
Until now the only “good” thing to come out of Neversoft’s acquisition was the wireless guitar back in 2007 with Legends of Rock. Since then the franchise has seen a quirky taste in character design, visual presentation, and questionable music choices. But they’ve slowly been redeeming themselves starting with Metallica (for gameplay) and Smash Hits (for music choices), and now Guitar Hero 5 comes along, and while it’s not exactly reinventing the genre, it is certainly making a few bold steps in the right direction.
The new changes for Guitar Hero 5 are apparent after the opening splash screens where you are immediately shoved on stage to play a randomly selected song, even before the menu appears. A single button tap will take you to the familiar menu where you can immerse yourself in the traditional gameplay modes as well as a few new surprises.
As with past Guitar Hero games dating back to World Tour you can have up to four players playing guitar, bass, drums, and a vocalist. Create your own custom character or choose from the pre-built ones – all your old favorites are back with new wardrobes and accessories and you can now even use your 360 Avatar, which turned out to be surprisingly cooler than I ever imagined. It really personalizes the game, especially when you head online to start playing with friends and strangers. If you’ve spent any time at all developing your avatar on the 360 then you will certainly appreciate this small addition.
The big change to gameplay takes place outside career mode. You now have the ultimate freedom to rock the way you want in Party Play, Quickplay, and RockFest modes by assembling any collection of musicians you want. Four drummers, two drummer and two singers, three bassists and a singer…you get the idea. And what’s really cool is that in the new Party Play mode you can have people dropping in and out of the game, even in mid-song. Just tap a button on your chosen instrument and your “note highway” will appear and you are ready to rock. Party Play is a “no fail” mode, so you can experiment with difficulty levels you would never try during your career. You are scored merely on how well you do for as long as you play, and can even switch difficulty levels during the song.
While nobody has come close to matching Rock Band’s tour mode, Guitar Hero 5 gets pretty close with an amazing selection of 14 venues, each with their own unique and incredible visual design, special effects, guest performers such as Matt Bellamy (Muse), Johnny Cash, Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), and Shirley Manson (Garbage), and venue-specific song lists that includes one or more wildcard slots where you can choose your own song best suited for the challenge.
The biggest change to the career mode however is the new star ranking system and song Challenges. Much like before, as you play a song a progress meter builds up. When it fills you get a star. You can get up to five stars if you do really well and if you don’t miss a note you can get a bonus sixth star. Stars are used to mark your progress through the game and unlock new venues. Each song now has a specific Challenge associated to it. Some require two or more players to complete while others are instrument specific. Each Challenge comes with three tiers of success, Gold, Platinum, and Diamond.
Your guitarist might need to whammy for 15/30/40 seconds or your drummer might need to hit his snare 322 times on a specific song or your bassist might need to up-strum 300 notes. These challenges not only offer a great incentive to replay the various songs in the career mode, but usually earning a Gold record will unlock designer wardrobe and licensed guitar skins in the customization store.
Other smaller changes include new individual Star Power meters. No longer do you have to share the blue juice with your band mates, but if you do fill your meter and continue to earn more Star Power it will spill over to the other players. You also have Band Moments where notes catch on fire and everyone in the band needs to nail those notes for special bonuses.
Guitar Hero 5 includes all the great local and online multiplayer modes of the past and enhances the competitive experience with the new RockFest mode for four players locally or up to eight online. RockFest includes addicting multiplayer games like:
While I’m not a huge fan of every song in the library I enjoyed about 70% of the music. The one thing that really annoyed me (and this is no fault of the designers since they don’t know my musical tastes) is that as I neared the final three or four venues in career mode I found only two or three songs I remotely cared for, thus my enjoyment of the game plummeted about 75% through the game simply because of organization. Thankfully, you have those wildcard slots so you can always replay something you like.
In addition to the built-in music you also have access to 150 downloadable songs at launch with more music coming to the online store. You will also be able to import select songs from World Tour and Smash Hits allowing you to experience those songs in the new modes like Party Play. And then you have the music from Guitar Hero: Van Halen on the way.
When you have mastered all the built-in music and DLC you can dive into the GHStudio and create your own music or download music that others have created. Introduced in World Tour, the new redesigned Studio is light-years beyond the original with new and better sound samples and a much more intuitive interface. It can still be a bit daunting and only hardcore musicians and those who like to tinker with digital samples will likely spend much time here.
Getting technical for a moment, Guitar Hero 5 is probably the best looking game in the entire series. While the names are the same the pre-built characters have seen such a remarkable transformation in quality and detail you would barely recognize many of them and the actual real-life performers like Matt Bellamy, Johnny Cash, Kurt Cobain, and Shirley Manson are nearly photorealistic. The venues all have awesome themes with killer stage design and awesome lights and pyro effects.
The sound quality is excellent, but I was surprised the game defaults with Dolby Digital set to OFF. I played for nearly an hour thinking how flat the game sounded, not to mention I had to turn my volume up to 70 versus my normal 59 or 60. Once I discovered the cool mixing board option I was able to toggle the Dolby Digital on and the soundscape opened up and the volume levels corrected themselves. I do love that mixing board that lets you fine-tune every audio element of the game, so if your singer sucks you can adjust accordingly.
It’s also worth noting that I had and continue to have periodic sound dropouts on the Xbox 360 version. The entire audio will just hiccup with a millisecond of silence, usually triggered by stage effects or the sound effect of Star Power being engaged. Sometimes it won’t happen for two or three songs and other times it will glitch three times in the same song. It’s totally random but it happens every time I play…eventually. It’s purely audio – the notes continue to scroll by silky smooth.
I’d also like to take a moment to commend Neversoft for allowing you to customize the lag settings per gamer profile. Unlike Rock Band where one setting dictates the lag for everyone, each performer can tweak the audio and video lag to his or her own tastes and save those settings for future jam sessions. Another much-appreciated Guitar Hero exclusive is the preparation countdown when resuming a song after a pause, so you simply aren’t thrust into a note stream totally unprepared.
My final technical comments actually relate to gameplay. The new note streams are much more realistic than anything we’ve seen in the past and make you feel like you are really playing your chosen instrument. There also seems to be a slight bump in difficulty, as Medium now seems to be much closer to Hard in speed and number of notes only without that annoying orange fret. Let’s just say that Guitar Hero 5 has a nice “feel” to it for gamers of all skill levels with plenty of room to grow as you hone your skills.
A lot has happened in the music game genre since November 2005 when RedOctane and Harmonix launched a simple little music game and a plastic guitar on an unsuspecting PS2 public. Guitar Hero 5 isn’t the best game the industry can offer but it has made huge leaps, and for once, this time, they are all in the right direction. Flex those fingers, clean that waxy build-up off your frets and get ready to rock. Guitar Hero 5 has enough to offer to make this a definite purchase and is guaranteed to keep you busy until the next installment comes along.