Youâ€™ve got to give it up for Harmonix. Although the rhythm-game developerâ€™s last music-mixing title Amplitude didnâ€™t fare so well in stores, the Cambridge-based company bounced right back with a new game, one that requires a pricey, specialized controllerâ€”in the shape of a guitar, no less. So does their new title, dubbed Guitar Hero, offer enough to justify the steep price tag of the game and controller bundle? Despite the cost, and the initial gimmicky feel of the guitar controller, the deliciously addictive gameplay of Guitar Hero proves without a doubt that Harmonix is anything but a one-hit wonder.
Like Harmonixâ€™s previous games Frequency and Amplitude, Guitar Hero tasks the player with completing sections of music tracks via a downward-scrolling interfaceâ€”somewhat similar to Dance Dance Revolution. The big difference is that while the aforementioned games required players to complete entire songs track by track, Guitar Hero focuses on the guitar elements for a more streamlined experience.
On the surprisingly light guitar controller, players press in the five fret buttons on the neck, each color-coded to their onscreen equivalents. Notes are played by pressing in the corresponding fret button and hitting the â€˜strum barâ€™ on the wide part of the guitar. The controller also boasts a working â€˜whammy barâ€™ for adding effects to sustained notes, and Select and Start buttons in the shape of volume knobs. The controller, which is shaped in the style of a miniature Gibson SG, is durable and well crafted, so there are no worries of it failing during tricky solos.
Guitar Heroâ€™s presentation, from the loading screens to the menus, is saturated with a garage band feel. When starting a game you can embark on Career Mode, building your characterâ€™s band up in visibility and moving to higher-class venues while unlocking the next chunk of songs. Thereâ€™s also Quick Play for abrupt jam sessions, and a helpful tutorial for newbies, equipped with the requisite annoying narration. Lastly, thereâ€™s the two-player Multiplayer Mode for those lucky enough to have friends with another controllerâ€”and no, you canâ€™t play the game with the conventional DualShock2 or any other non-guitar input device.
Career Mode is where youâ€™ll spend most of your time, moving up the ranks toward superstardom through the gameâ€™s four difficulty levels. Although you canâ€™t customize your avatar as in past Harmonix titles, you can select a new character between songs if you long for a change. Also, completing tracks in Career Mode gives you money to spend at the store, with higher-rated performances garnering more cash. In the Unlock Shop you can purchase a few extra characters, new guitars, and guitar skins for your avatar, to add a little of your own personality to the show. Bonus songs can also be bought, with roughly 10 extra songs by small-time bands rounding out the main gameâ€™s 30 tracks. Lastly, you can also buy music videos and behind-the-scenes movies of Guitar Heroâ€™s makers hard at work.
When playing a song, the scrolling notes take up a large portion of the screen, yet thereâ€™s still enough room to see your rock star avatar jam out on the stage. Since the rhythm game engine doesnâ€™t require much processing power, the PS2 is free to devote power to the graphics of the rock show in the background, providing visuals that are pleasantly sharp and smooth. Your health meter lies in the bottom right corner of the screen, ending the song if you miss too many notes. Another meter on the left counts successive notes performed correctly, granting point-boosting multiplier bonuses for every ten notes completed. Just about the only gameplay wrinkle that hints at strategy is the Star Power meter. By completing strings of notes bearing star icons, a bit of juice will be added to your Star Power meter, and after filling it up halfway players can activate a double multiplier/health saver by tilting the controller vertically in the classic rock-out move, thanks to a motion sensor built into the mini SG controller. The interface is nearly perfect, if not for the lack of a progress meter. Most songs are pretty lengthy, and on more than one occasion this reviewer would be playing a song for about four minutes, reach the end and relax, then get hit with a blistering solo out of nowhere. Itâ€™s a minor gripe, but the simple addition of an extra meter would have alleviated this small issue.
Guitar Hero focuses heavily on classic and contemporary rock tunes, with the odd blues or ska track thrown in for good measure. Fans of good old rock will be delighted by the song selection, but even if rockinâ€™ and rollinâ€™ isnâ€™t your style the songs wonâ€™t detract from the fun of the experience. Unfortunately, all of the tunes are covers performed by anonymous musicians, and although a few are almost perfect imitations (the singer on Iron Man is a dead ringer for Ozzy), most are just serviceable, with a few noticeably off, like the placeholder singer for Incubusâ€™ Stellar.
Should you plug in a second controller, you can play the two-player mode. Oddly enough, thereâ€™s only one option for multiplayer, as opposed to the healthy choice of competitive modes in Amplitude. Regardless, two-player mode is great fun. Each player has to complete their own line of scrolling notes as they showdown in a battle, playing both alternating song parts and simultaneous power chords together. Each playerâ€™s guitar comes out of a dedicated speaker, making for an emphasized sense of immersion with regard to sound.
It may seem like videogame makers are trying to make gamers look silly, what with all the jumping on pads and rocking out with plastic instruments thatâ€™s going on lately. But as anyone whoâ€™s played such a â€˜gimmickyâ€™ game knows, the silliness of the playerâ€™s action is almost directly related to the enjoyment derived from its gameplay, and Guitar Hero doesnâ€™t deviate from this theory. With simple yet addictive gameplay, a unique input device, above-average visuals for the genre, and a carefully crafted aural component, Guitar Heroâ€™s hefty MSRP is the only obstacle in recommending this game straight out. Simply put, if you can get past the cost and, better yet, have a buddy armed with their own controller, you need to play Guitar Hero as soon as possible.