The Xbox 360 was supposed to be the headlining act last holiday season, but the show was stolen by a little known publisher named Red Octane, and their smash hit Guitar Hero. Combining normal rhythm gameplay, a great peripheral, and an oldies’ station worth of classic rock tunes, it dominated parties, ate up our spare time; hell, even our parents played it. Ever since, we’ve been clamoring for an encore, and this week it arrived. Cue Guitar Hero II.
[image3]It doesn’t reinvent the guitar or come with a wah pedal (although that would have been pretty sweet), it just plain old rocks. The track list is sixty-four songs long, and scattered in there are classics like “Crazy on You” and “Carry on Wayward Son”; wicked metal monstrosities “Laid to Rest” by Lamb of God and “Hangar 18” by Megadeth; a few musical curveballs like “YYZ” by Rush, and “Misirlou” by Dick Dale, not to mention twenty four bonus tracks among which are “Trogdor", whose singer needs no introduction, and “Jordan” by some guy named Buckethead.
The rest of the game is much more predictable. The new features include a practice mode, a co-op mode, easier hammer-ons and pull-offs, and some new visual details like fire spewing from your fingers when you hit a really long streak of notes. Practice mode is something I was really excited about before I got the game, and I have no idea what I was thinking. Practicing sucks.
Don’t get me wrong, the mode itself works fine. You can isolate segments of the songs and play them at one of four speeds with a metronome, and that’s how musicians really practice. I know, I’ve played the violin for twenty-three years. Incidentally, I hate practicing that thing, too. Practice mode is every bit as tedious and awful as a Practice mode should be. Why is it that things that are good for you always have to suck?
The co-op play is another worthwhile feature that doesn’t so much enhance your enjoyment of the game, as allow you and another player to enjoy it at the same time. Songs are split into two parts: lead guitar and either rhythm guitar or bass. Both parts can choose separately from the normal four difficulties, and the lead guitarist pretty much plays the song as they would in normal solo mode. The rhythm guitarist will play most of a song’s normal riffs and some harmonies, but no solos, and the bassist, even on expert mode, plays very simple lines.
[image4]This is fun if at least one of the two players isn’t very good, and your cooperative interactions are limited to hitting star power – you both have to rock back at the same time. If both players are experts, you’ll never play co-op mode because even on expert, most of the backup parts are too easy. That’s fine though, because people of equal skill levels can always play Face Off mode. In that sense, co-op mode covers the rest of Guitar Hero’s two-player bases.
Easier hammer-ons and pull-offs sound like a minor gameplay tweak, but they make surviving nasty passages much easier. With just one strum, you can easily play four quick notes with your left hand. It’s a small detail, but a big improvement because Guitar Hero II is much harder than the first game. For example, “Freya” (by The Sword) is in the fifth of eight sets, and it’s probably harder than anything in the first Guitar Hero; it’s sweet.
Speaking of sweet, Guitar Hero II looks like a spilling package of Skittles, as various tastes of the rainbow pour down the screen and into your fingers. But when you catch a break or an easy chorus, you’ll look up and perhaps see some new rockers, much crazier stage set-ups, and visual flourishes that are, of course, synched to the music. It’s a good looking game.
It’s also one of few games where the video plays second fiddle to the audio. Guitar Hero II, donks and boinks aside, sounds like awesome music, and most of the tracks are covered very well. There are exceptions (Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” is worse than karaoke), but a few bad covers is nothing compared to the way the audio fluctuates. You’ll be playing a song and the volume will randomly decrease by half, even if you hit the buttons twice as hard. It’s especially bad in co-op play, where the game tries to manage two parts at once and occasionally seems to drop one. It’s not a deal breaker and doesn’t even happen often, it’s just really conspicuous in a game based entirely on music.
[image5]The only thing the game is really missing at this point is a narrative. Sure, you go from playing in gymnasiums to stadiums, each character has a little bio, and you play encores at the end of each set, but how about some actual stories? There could be a serenade for your favorite groupie, a funeral dirge for the drummer you accidentally killed, and then a victory solo once you out-rocked the last boss: Guitar Jesus
. Who knows? The point is, the game has no context, and it could use one.
Guitar Hero II sports a few new features, but the best one hasn’t changed: it rocks. We’re glad Harmonix threw in a practice mode, and the co-op play thoughtfully allows two people of different abilities to play at the same time, but more than anything it lets you experience rock from the perspective of the star, without all the practice and hookers and cocaine. Well, we have Practice mode covered, so here’s looking forward to Guitar Hero III!