After a world tour and a brief stint with Metallica, the plastic guitar phenomenon is back for another round of rock with Guitar Hero 5. With this notch on the belt come new songs, modes, and a socially-conscious re-upholstering of group play. The songs may sound as sweet as ever, but is it still all about the music?
It's good to see Guitar Hero 5 take a swing at one of its biggest criticisms leveled at the series right off the bat: the band experience. To this end, we see a number of new tweaks and modes solely focused on making group sessions quick, fun, and painless to set up.
The newly implemented party play sits at the bottom of the totem pole as the easiest way to jump into a song. If the game is left idling on the start screen, bystanders are free to hop on whatever track is playing on the game's jukebox-like rotation. If you don't like the song or difficulty, you're also free to change either one on the fly, or even just drop out entirely and let the song play on its own. The mode works exactly as advertised, and is great even when just left to run in the background.
Higher up the ranks, there's rockfest mode, which puts a creative spin on competitive play. Rules like momentum, which makes songs progressively easier or harder depending on your personal performance, keep things interesting and promote some intriguing variables to consider in head-to-head battles.
Career mode, long the series' mainstay feature, also sees some renovations. With a freer advancement structure, progression is a lot less stringent than in past games. And for a bit of extra challenge, players can dally into the optional song challenges, which include objectives like completing a track with only upstrums, for the chance at unlocking in-game bonuses. Extra band members, online and off, will now find it much easier to get into a gig, and the new band lobby feature makes switching between modes, difficulties, and instruments a far simpler task.
It all sounds well and good, but perhaps the best bit of news is that career mode is no longer necessary to unlock any of the game's 85 song list. Better still is that Guitar Hero 5 supports the importing of songs from World Tour and Smash Hits for a nominal fee. And if you'd like to take a crack at making your own, World Tour's music studio returns with more options than ever before. Though it's still not as user-friendly as some may like, if you're willing to learn the tools, you'll get a good deal out of it, as well as the new freestying GHJam option.
It doesn't exactly recast the formula, but Guitar Hero 5 hits the target with its attentiveness to the group experience. Its added support for importing previous libraries also keeps it competitive with its number one opposition, though with a DLC library that still pales in comparison to Rock Band's catalog, it still has a long way to go. It also doesn't have as much online content to speak of, apart from leaderboards.
Guitar Hero 5's song list casts a wide net with 85 master tracks, plucking songs and artists from every permutation of the rock genre. Acts like the White Stripes, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, and Muse round out a short list of talent joining the crew. And if the spread doesn't seem like enough, you could always look into the current set of DLC, which is forward compatible with the game.
Though the new assortment of challenges and rockfest modes enable different ways to approach songs, most of the fundamentals still hold true. Only this time, Guitar Hero 5 encourages scoring as a band. Star power that spills over your max store now distributes evenly among your teammates, and playing flawlessly as a group can result in a flashy and high-scoring band moment. Point totals can also now skyrocket, thanks to a cumulative band modifier, and if any of your companions should fall in battle, the band has to play as a team to bring them back from the brink. Players are certainly rewarded for doing well on their own, but in Guitar Hero 5, it really pays to play as a band.
Clearly, the group focus persists in Guitar Hero 5's gameplay, but there's also some focus on the individual-or rather, what the individual can bring to the party. Now, players can break away from the standard bass, lead, drums, and vocal setup and play with any combination of instruments of their choosing. It's a small triumph in the ongoing war of features, but a meaningful one nonetheless.
Though Guitar Hero 5's overall look remains essentially unchanged from prior next-gen outings, subtle shifts to its functional and aesthetic qualities keep things looking up to date. The selective use of haze, grain, and motion blur filters endow the backing visuals with a softer touch, and changes to the band UI make the intake of information a lot more intelligible in group play situations.
Players of the Xbox 360 version will get a kick out of seeing their Live avatars rocking alongside some true VIPs. Digital appearances from the likes of Carlos Santana, Johnny Cash, and Kurt Cobain give the game some star-studded appeal, but their likenesses ultimately play fleeting cameos, as opposed to something meaningfully integrated, as with the Beatles and Rock Band. Still, the slight bump in visuals is definitely felt, and the game's continued use of expertly mixed master tracks remains the centerpiece of the whole experience.
Though it can sometimes feel that the series is in a perpetual state of catch-up with Rock Band, Guitar Hero 5 strikes back with a considerable set of new features and improvements that truly count. The band experience is cohesive and party play is at its most effortless yet. In raw song count, it's still not quite as victorious in the battle of the bulge, but for a game that truly earns its keep at a party, Guitar Hero 5 definitely has it down.
Reviewed on Microsoft Xbox 360.