There's not much that can be said about the latest installment in Activision's overly-populated Guitar Hero franchise that hasn't already been said about its predecessor, Guitar Hero: World Tour. The latest in the series of rhythm action games that'll have you holding buttons and strumming (or singing, or hitting drums) in time with the prompts on screen, Guitar Hero 5 comes packing an impressive 85 songs, spanning several different genres. Unfortunately, this is where our first problem is.
As with all rhythm action games, how good the game turns out to be depends almost entirely on the music it features. Thankfully, GH5 has a better tracklist than GH:WT, but that’s not a difficult feat. From country legend Johnny Cash, to one-hit wonder indie whiners Vampire Weekend, through the minimalistic White Stripes and Metallica's long term rivals Megadeth, it does seem as though there's something for everyone, but that's where the problem lies - because they've tried so hard to appeal to everyone, the tracklist is actually so sparse that it doesn't really appeal to even the most hardcore of music fanatics. A quick look down the list and most people will spot 10, maybe 15 songs they even know, which is actually a remarkably small percentage of the 85 songs featured in the game – many of which you’ll be forced to play as you progress through the career mode.
Another pretty major letdown with the setlist is the fact that a lot of the songs have you playing an instrument that isn't a guitar on your guitar, which ruins the very illusion the game is trying to create - if you’re in a live band, surely you’d use a keyboard to play the keyboard part? A-Punk by Vampire Weekend has you playing a synth, Woman from Tokyo by Deep Purple has you playing a piano, and worse still Superstition by Steve Wonder even has you playing a trumpet. It's almost as though they simply picked songs from a hat marked "popular music", then worried about how they'd work in the game later.
Thankfully, they've finally removed the Guitar Battles that had plagued the previous three titles in the series, instead choosing to focus entirely on real songs instead of useless instrumentals written exclusively for the game.
Despite the lack of exclusively written tracks though, the franchise is still firmly reliant on celebrity endorsements. I've never understood the point of this, and I still don't get it now - how many thousands of dollars must they shed on likenesses - and who's going to buy the game just because it lets them play as a digital Shirley Manson? To make matters worse, the likenesses aren't exactly stunning - Matt Bellamy (the Muse vocalist)'s face looks nothing like Matt Bellamy's face, and it looks as though they got a 70 year old with no teeth to motion capture Kurt Cobain's lip-synching, it looks that unnatural.
As well as the ability to play as various real-life musicians, Guitar Hero 5 also allows you to play as your Xbox Live avatar. This sounds like quite a neat idea, but in practice, when you've got 3 normal(ish) looking people playing with one bloke with a massive head and a drawn on face, it looks pretty laughable. If all four players are using their avatars though, they can almost get away with it.
The biggest, exclusive new feature that Activision have been promoting is the Party mode - but in all honesty, the way they've implemented it makes it completely useless. Before the main menu of the game even comes up, the game chooses a song at random and allows you to press a button on your controller and drop straight into playing it, after first choosing your difficulty (it doesn't let you choose which hand you play with). Then, other players can drop in on the instrument of their choice, without having to sit around and wait for the song to finish or navigate through any tedious menus. The biggest flaw with this mode (aside from it being completely pointless) is that if you're running the game through a 5.1 system the Party Play mode loads up before the game has loaded your sound settings, so you drop into a song that you can't hear. Not very smart. Really though, unless you're playing the 15 minute long snore-fest that is Do You Feel Like We Do, any normal human being wouldn't mind sitting around until the song had ended for their chance to join in and play, and if Activision thought people wouldn't want to sift through lots of awkward menus, they shouldn't put so many awkward menus in their games. Activision have been babbling on about how the Party Play mode makes Guitar Hero more accessible in social situations, and indeed (as the name suggests), parties, but let’s be honest, how many parties have you ever been to where ANY rhythm action game has even been set up? I've certainly never been to one, and even if I had, I would still go into Quickplay, just so I'd be able to choose a song that I know I like, and can play in order to show off, instead of one of the 70 that I don't.
There are also a flurry of new competitive multiplayer modes in GH5, which all sound very exciting and enjoyable, but for some reason, I haven't been able to find anyone online to match make with. Even when I searched for players on any difficulty, no-one seems to be playing it.
Outside of the poor multiplayer mode, the career mode's the main attraction of the game, which lets you form a band with three of your friends, and play through a “World Tour” of gigs in different countries. The gigs usually consist of a mixture of two or three pre-determined songs from the game’s setlist (which can be something of a problem, when you’re presented with several setlists crammed with songs you either don’t like, or that were just rubbish selections for the game in the first place), which at least helps the game to get a fair amount of mileage out of the large setlist. Oh, and if you’ve played Guitar Hero: World Tour, you’ll be pleased to know they’ve removed the pointless setlists you had to “pay” for with your in-game band’s earnings.
The biggest new feature in the career mode are the challenges that each song now has attached to it. Completing a songs challenge, and you can earn prizes, such as new clothes, new instruments, or cheats. This is a nice touch in theory, but it’s been spoilt by the fact that whoever came up with the challenges obviously didn’t have that much imagination. Consisting of things like “hit this many notes without missing”, or “hit this many hammer-ons”, there are only about 4 or 5 different guitar challenges, and around 30 or 40 songs that use the same 4 or 5 challenges. Certain song challenges are also only possible on certain instruments, so if people want a specific unlockable, they’re basically forced to step out of their comfort zone and play a different instrument or sing in order to get it – if they actually own the instrument to begin with. If you only own a guitar, you’ll effectively have half of the challenges – and therefore unlockables permanently locked.
In another frustrating decision, Neversoft have also included Full Band challenges, which require you to play the song with 3 other people - which, if you don’t have any friends with instruments who can come over for a few hours, forces you to play online - which doesn’t work, as I mentioned earlier, as you can never find the people to play with - and even if you do eventually manage to find three other people in proper band formation (which is actually a physical impossibility, EVERYONE playing GH5 online plays the guitar), you statistically won’t be the band leader, so you’ll have to play whatever song they choose. This will almost always be Do You Feel Like We Do, and you can’t drop out of it because it’s a rubbish, boring song, because they’ll then all give you negative feedback. So while the challenges are a nice touch, like everything Activision/Neversoft seem to do with the Guitar Hero franchise lately, they’ve been incorporated in the complete wrong way.
Even though Guitar Hero 5 still isn’t a patch on it’s competitors (The original Rock Band still beats it on nearly every level) it’s still a much more composed and organized effort than it’s predecessor, and despite the fact that the challenges are poor, and the online mode is impossible to work, it’s still an alright game. But unfortunately, that’s all it is.
Don’t buy it for the celebrity endorsements, because they’re not even that good. Don’t buy it for the challenges, because they’re feeble. Don’t buy it for the online, because it’s awful. Buy it if you like rhythm action games, and you’ve already got Rock Band. But if you haven’t already got Rock Band, you’re better off getting that. It’ll undoubtedly be cheaper, too.
It's starting to feel a bit like Guitar Hero's suffering from something of a condition - we'll call it Guitar Hero-itis. This is what happens when a game sets out with the best of intentions, but through either poor implementation, or rubbish song choices, manages to mess things up.
Take the challenges, for example. I play guitar left handed. One of the challenges involves using a whammy-bar for a certain length of time during a song. For me, this is nigh on an impossibility. When I play guitar, the whammy bar's located above the strum bar, so I actually move it with my wrist. This is uncomfortable for the few seconds I usually manage it - yet alone when there's a challenge for doing it for a few minutes. And it does seem more than a little bit daft that certain songs have challenges on certain instruments - which blocks out people who don't own those instruments.
I guess whenever you see a game that lists the artists in the game, rather than the songs they're performing, you know to worry, but some of the song choices are beyond ridiculous. Peter Frampton - Do You Feel Like We Do is nearly 14 minutes of live voice box solo - which you play on a guitar. It's clearly a song that doesn't work with a Guitar Hero game - so why was it featured?
With better song choices, and a better, more refined career mode, this could have been much, much better.