Reviewed: November 7, 2006
Released: November 7, 2006
I doubt that Harmonix, RedOctane, or most of the world would have predicted the explosive success of last year’s smash hit, Guitar Hero. This unique title has literally taken the world by storm, or at least here in the U.S. where, even up until this past week you’d be hard pressed to find a retail copy of the game in a store. And don’t even think about finding this game in a secondhand shop – nobody is parting with their Guitar Hero.
So, on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the original, Guitar Hero II is finally upon us, bigger, better, louder, and more hardcore than we would have dared dream. GCM was fortunate enough to get a copy a few days before stores so we could shred some sick tunes and report the good news just in case you had any doubts that you weren’t already going to buy this game.
As the score might indicate, you are probably better off running out to get in line for your copy rather than reading the rest of this review, but just in case you need to bask in our glowing praise, read on…
So, Guitar Hero II arrived on a cold and wet Indiana Friday. Mat “Guitar” Houghton, and myself were playing some “other” game when it arrived. The box sat there taunting us for several hours - once opened, inserted, and turned on, life, as we knew it, would be over. About 11pm the temptation was overwhelming and we plugged in the shiny new red Gibson that comes with Guitar Hero II and the black one from the original and dove into the game.
Guitar Hero II doesn’t really need to improve on the gameplay. The original nailed it from the very beginning, so what the designers did was simply enhance the content by offering a lot more music and some creative ways to play it including new practice modes and three multiplayer variations.
There are 55 music tracks in this sequel, many from independent bands, and the rest performed by cover bands that can easily be mistaken for the original artist. There are two of three possible guitar tracks (Lead, Rhythm, and Bass) for each song, effectively doubling the gameplay right out of the box, although you can only access the non-lead guitar in practice mode or multiplayer.
Cooperative is where it’s at this year and that is where we started, at least until we had blazed through the first two track sets. Then we had to create a band and go on tour to unlock the rest of the sets and earn enough money to purchase the vast library of songs in the Guitar Hero Store, along with new guitarists, costumes, and some cool behind-the-scenes videos. If I had any single complaint about Guitar Hero II it would be the lack of a cooperative career mode.
If you don’t play well with others you might want to try the Versus mode, which can either be last year’s Face-off mode where you trade off on parts of the lead track, or the new Pro Face-off where you each play the full lead track. We tried all these modes but ultimately agreed the cooperative was the most fun and rewarding, plus you don’t get those odd sound dropouts when the audio shifts channels. There is also some added challenge in co-op play in that you have to work together to build and initiate Star Power by tipping your guitars at the same time.
Also new for this year is the Practice mode where you can pick your song, skill level, the guitar track you want to practice, and then go as far as to pick the section of the song (intro, verse, chorus) or just play the whole song. Finally, you get to pick your practice speed, which really saves your bacon when you are trying to learn Freebird on Expert. Choose from Slowest, Slower, Slow, and Full speed as you gradually increase the flow of notes and master the song.
The Career mode is where you will need to spend much of your time, at least until you unlock everything and earn enough bank to buy the rest. There are more sets in this year’s game and now when you meet the requirements to end each set the crowd will demand an encore. You are free to decline, but you’ll miss a lot of extra cash and probably eight of the best songs in the game. Plus, earning five stars on the encore songs gets you bonus guitars.
The core gameplay is straight from last year’s game. Colored “notes” stream down the neck of the on-screen guitar and you must hold the corresponding fret and strum as these notes pass through the circle. As the difficulty level rises and you go deeper into the career song selection, there are many more notes, often in chords (2-3 buttons at the same time) and they move a lot faster.
All of your favorite guitar heroes from the last game are back with a year’s worth of technical cosmetic surgery to polish them to stylish perfection. Even the Reaper got scarier, if that was possible. Then we add three new aspiring musicians, 50’s rocker, Eddie Knox, the sexy Casey Lynch, and overweight KISS wannabe, Lars Umlaut to round out the cast.
You’ll see some of your favorite clubs, revamped with a stylish new look, along with some new venues like The Vans Warped Tour and Stonehenge – yes the one in England. It’s great fun to start off in the high school gym in a classic Battle of the Bands, then move into a basement club with rats and chicken wire, then to a groovy venue with black lights and funky stage art. There is even fun travel animation as you move around the country in a vehicle that upgrades with your success.
For those of you who have managed to master the original game at the Expert level, you will be pleased to know that Guitar Hero II achieves new levels of insanity, not only with the song selection, but also with two added career sets and an Expert setting that makes last year’s Expert look merely Hard. And don’t overlook those bonus tracks. Just because they aren’t from A-list performers doesn’t mean they don’t rock just as hard, if not harder than the core set lists.
The designers also did a fantastic job of creating a realistic sequence of notes from each piece of music, so you actually feel like you are playing the song regardless of bass, rhythm, or lead variations. The notes match the beat or tone and move up and down the simulated scale with predictable logic. Some songs have more agressive bass tracks while other songs have rhythm tracks that dwarf the lead guitar. You never know what you are getting or which guitar is easier or harder until you try them all.
If you like to study stats, you can now view a massively detailed report card of your previous performance that shows your success rate during all parts of the song. It's impressive that they can do this but I found no real use for the information.
Graphics are better than last year, thanks to totally redesigned venues, more detailed character design, and much smoother animation. The lighting, special effects, and cinematic camera angles, including some nice handheld camera shots simulating a bootleg tape in progress, all blend together to create a perfect night at a club or concert arena. Even the opening screen where you enter your new band name on the SAT answer sheet is a great touch.
Unfortunately, you’ll have to keep your eyes on the hundreds of notes streaming down the neck of your guitar, but at least you can pick your guitar and even skin it with fresh designs that you can purchase in the store. And you can even change costumes for the heroes this year in case you prefer feathers to leather.
Star Power erupts with awesome stage antics and thunderous crowd reactions, and there are wide shots of the crowd dancing and waving lighters. And I won’t give away the ultra-surprise ending after the final song of the final set, but it’s a whopper.
Harmonix even went the extra mile to support my “fancy pants HDTV” (their words, not mine), by including progressive scan support and widescreen, which really helps in multiplayer. And in case you are suffering from audio-visual lag when running in hi-def, there is a built-in calibration utility that will smooth things out for you.
If you are playing this game in anything less than the supported Dolby Pro Logic II mix you can’t imagine what you are missing. These covers are amazing, not only in their uncanny likeness to the original artists, but also in overall sound quality. There is a great clarity and discernable separation of the channels and even the various venues are taken into account when creating reverbs or ambient effects.
Of course what you all really want to know is the song list, so assuming you haven’t already found it online and have been sleeping with it under your pillow for the past few months, here it is in its entirety, all eight sets and the bonus tracks. The final song in each set is the unlocked encore:
It took Mat and myself about 6 hours of alternating solo gameplay to go from Shouting at the Devil to diving into the 9-minute epic known as Freebird at the Medium skill level. Freebird is not to be trifled with even at the Medium skill level, and the game even prompted for three separate confirmations before allowing us to play it at Stonehenge.
There were about 8-10 songs that we didn’t get a five-star rating on and I remedied that the next day. But that was just one pass on the core songs with one attempt at each for the sake of opening everything up. Now the work really begins.
Mastering Guitar Hero II will take months, years, possibly never, but at least we have a practice mode to help us learn. Some of the chords and patterns on the Hard level send my fingers running for the Ben Gay jar every time. I can’t imagine casting my eyes on the awesomeness of Expert mode, or even watching somebody else do it, although some freak certainly will, and I use the term “freak” with affection.
So, expect 8-12 hours to unlock the content and 8-12 months to master it. By then, it will be time for Guitar Hero III and the insanity can start anew.
Lightning does strike twice and Guitar Hero II is 1.21 gigawatts of blazing electric guitar gameplay with a perfect track selection, perfect gameplay, perfect multiplayer, and perfect fun that will start the day you open the game and last until the day you, your PS2, or your guitar dies. Thankfully, two of those can be replaced so you can keep on playing.
As for the score; last year we honored the subtle nod to Spinal Tap with an 11 instead of a 10, and this year Spinal Tap actually got a song in the game. Plus, if you look at those audio options in Guitar Hero II, they all go to 11. And since we love Guitar Hero II as much as Spinal Tap, and 11 really is the new 10, and we don't dare score this game lower than last year, we once again give Guitar Hero II our highest ranking...which is a 10, but being shown as an 11.
Now why are you still reading this…your copy of Guitar Hero II is being sold out from under you right now…get outta here.