March 19, 2006

Review: Guitar Hero (PlayStation 2)

With the North American release of Dance Dance Revolution for the PlayStation in 2001, Konami changed the gaming landscape. No longer were rhythm games considered a niche market, and no longer would games with odd accessories be limited to arcades. Guitar Freaks introduced a guitar-shaped controller that allowed gamers to feel like they were actually playing the instrument. Konami neglected to bring it to the United States, allowing Harmonix to improve the formula with their own take on the genre. Guitar Hero spectacularly recreates the feeling of rocking out onstage and is one of the best rhythm games to date.

The success of Guitar Hero lies in the included guitar controller. Featuring five fret buttons, a strum bar, and even a whammy bar, the plastic instrument looks like a toy but feels amazing when plugged into a PlayStation 2. You won’t think it’s a toy when you’re nailing the solo in Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” on expert. Never before have I seen a game attract both gamers and non-gamers alike. I’ve seen drinking parties get transformed into dorkfests with the push of a button. The physical and emotional aspects of playing guitar combine to create this sensation, something that Dance Dance Revolution cannot replicate.

Using the guitar controller is fairly simple. There are five riff buttons, each with a different color. When playing the game, a colored note will come down from the top of the screen. When it hits the bottom, you’ll hold the corresponding riff on your guitar and hit the strum bar. If there are repeated instances of the same note, continue to hold down the riff button and hit the strum bar as many times as necessary. If a chord pops up (two different notes at once), simply hold down the two riff buttons and hit the strum bar. If a line follows a note, continue to hold the riff button after strumming until the line ends. While holding a note, you can use the whammy bar to distort the sound, which will also give you more points.

Throughout the song, you’ll see small strings of star-shaped notes. If you can nail the entire string, you’ll charge up an on-screen meter. Once the meter is half-way full, you can activate it by turning the head of your guitar vertically. Yes, the guitar has a motion sensor. And yes, it knows when you rock out. While subtle, I find this to be one of the more amazing aspects of the game experience. Using the star power will amplify your score and help keep you afloat if you’re struggling. An audience indicator tells you how well you’re doing; let it go all the way to the left and you’re finished.

Of course, killer gameplay would be pointless without killer songs. Luckily, Guitar Hero delivers with a varied selection of rock hits from the last few decades. If you’re into classic rock, you’ll swoon at songs made popular by Queen, Bowie, Boston, and Ozzy. If you’re into the more modern stuff, look for tracks from Incubus, Audioslave, and Franz Ferdinand. I say “made popular by” because none of the 30 main tracks are performed by the original artists. Guitar Hero had a low-profile while in development, and Harmonix couldn’t afford the original recordings. Worry not, as most of the sound-a-likes actually sound… a-like.

Thirty songs may seem a bit slim, but there are handfuls of bonus tracks to unlock via Career Mode. A total of seventeen tracks are available, all done by the original artists. Of course, other than the Zakk Wylde song, you probably haven’t heard any of them. By the time you’ve played the major songs twenty times each, you’ll be itching for something different anyway. If you eventually tire of every song, don’t discard the controller! RedOctane recently announced a handful of sequels and song packs that should be out by summer of next year.

A game like Guitar Hero screams for multiplayer, and in this aspect, the game comes up a bit flat. Only one mode is available, where you largely switch off, playing different parts of one song. Whoever performs the best wins, but it’s largely unexciting. I would have preferred having both people play the entire song and see who is better overall. My friends and I had more fun switching-off in the single-player mode, watching as we each nailed our respective solos, or fail in the process. The lack of great multiplayer doesn’t damage the game, as our improvisation has proven. I would expect to see more options in future sequels, though.

Guitar Hero isn’t just one of the best rhythm games on the market, it’s one of the best games released for the PlayStation 2. At $69.99, the price is a bit more than your standard game, but it’s a wise investment for any gamer. There is plenty to do in Career Mode, and playing among friends is a grand experience. My only other wish for a sequel would be the inclusion of a practice mode of sorts, where you could jam like with a real guitar. It may seem like a silly request, but after playing Guitar Hero, you’ll be itching to rock out. Real guitars have nothing on my shiny, plastic controller.

Grade: A

(Amusing: I'm using three different grading systems for my reviews. On my blog, it's a letter grade. On 1Up, it's a 10-point scale. On Static Multimedia, it's a four-star scale. Oh well. It'll let me get familiar with all. On 1Up, I'll be giving this a 9.5, and on SM, it'll get four stars.)