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Guitar Hero

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Axes.  Thrashing.  Shredding.  Burning.  Melting.  What do these words make you think of?


If you said, "destroying things" or any kind of extreme sport, you're wrong.  Actually, these terms are merely a small part of the atmosphere you'll find in Harmonix Music Systems' latest title, Guitar Hero.  A combination of the concept behind Guitar Freaks and the approach of their own Amplitude, is it the next big thing, or will it be booed off stage?


Not quite the real thing, but close enough.


The first thing you'll notice about the game is the special peripheral you'll need to truly enjoy the game.  Guitar Hero utilizes a small mock-up of a Gibson guitar for gameplay.  It's decidedly smaller than a real guitar, but not too small to make it feel like a child's toy.  It's a nice, comfortable size, and decidedly sturdy to boot.  Five uniquely colored fret buttons sit on the neck; there's a strum bar for playing notes, a whammy bar for warping sustains, Start and Select buttons, and a gyroscopic sensor for using your Star Power.


Play is very simple, in concept at least.  As the colored notes scroll down the screen, hold the matching fret buttons and press the strum bar.  It sounds simple, and on the easier difficulties, it certainly is.  However, one of the game's strengths is the gradually increasing difficulty curve as you progress through the song list and across difficulties.  Everything starts mind-numbingly dull on the Easy mode (really just to get you used to the game, mechanically), where you'll use just three of the five frets. On Medium, you'll move up to four; Hard will set you up with all five.  Expert is similar to hard, but it uses more difficult patterns that effectively match the actual song, or at least as close as you can get.


Not just strumming made the cut, as far as guitar techniques are concerned.  You'll find plenty of chords and note sustains (holding notes for a longer sound) in the songs, and for those sustains, and whammy bar to warp the note to your heart's desire.  Just like a real guitar, holding down lower frets won't matter while playing higher notes.  Hammer-ons and pull-offs (advanced techniques for hitting series of quick notes with a single strum) are also doable, and while they can be challenging to learn for beginners, they'll definitely pay off when it comes time to start getting the best scores on the harder songs.  Once you start getting more skilled at the game, the sense of accomplishment increases as you go.  Because playing makes you feel so much like you're playing a guitar, finally hitting those really difficult parts will seem that much sweeter.  Finally beat one of those really difficult songs?  Nothing beats that feeling.


Hitting correct notes while you play will keep your Rock Meter (effectively your life bar) nice and high in the green, and missing notes will quickly lower the meter.  Fall too deep in the red and it's game over.  As you play, special star-shaped notes will appear.  By hitting an entire sequence or using the whammy bar on starred sustains, you can build up star power.  Tilt the guitar vertically to activate this ridiculously useful feature. If you're comfortable with the song, turn it on right before the solo, doubling your multiplayer, and allowing you to really rack up a nice score. On the other hand, if a specific part of the song is too much for you, turn it on, and just hit what notes you can.  While in star mode, hitting notes has a much more positive effect on your Rock Meter, allowing you to simple "brute-force" the hard parts.


Greatest hits (and more) list


Guitar Hero's soundtrack is quite impressive, featuring thirty licensed tracks, including "You've Got Another Thing Coming" by Judas Priest, "More Than a Feeling" from Boston, "Heart Full of Black" by The Burning Brides, and "Bark at the Moon" from Ozzy Osbourne, as well as twenty-five others.  Any fans of rock music in general will likely find it very difficult not to like at least a large portion of the list.  These songs aren't originals from the artists themselves, but instead are very well done covers by the Wave Group team.  Dedicated fans of the artists will likely notice that the songs aren't originals, but if you ignore the vocal portions of the songs, it would be nigh impossible, even for them.  The songs' instrumental parts have been almost perfectly replicated for the game, right down to often wildly difficult solos.


In addition to the impressive licensing work, Guitar Hero sports an additional seventeen songs from "indie" bands and staff bands.  While the songs featured certainly don't have the acclaim the licensed list does, players are likely to find several songs from the list they like.  Among them are Zakk Wylde's Black Label Society and "Fire It Up"; the winners of the "Be A Guitar Hero" contest, Graveyard BBQ, appear with "Cheat on the Church"; Harmonix favorite Freezepop has made a return with "Get Ready 2 Rokk".  These extra songs aren't covers, but are performed by the actual bands themselves.


Atmosphere so thick...


Rather than reach for technical perfection, the game focuses more on style with it's visuals and presentation.  The characters are more caricatures, each a distinctly unique guitarist personality, and each boasts a unique array of animations during gameplay.  Speaking of gameplay animations, when you're able to spectate, keep an eye on the guitarist.  You'll find that their hand positioning and strum motions are correct and in time with the song.  Even your band's bass player and singer follow the music very closely.  The drummer just does his thing the entire time, but the crowd will react to your playing, and the giant speakers will thump exactly when they're supposed to.  That is attention to detail.


The venues themselves range from a basement performance and a small club all the way to a concert hall and "The Garden", the biggest stage of them all.  There's typically something going on in each of them, and each has little touches that make them unique, like the basement's rugs on the wall, acting as sound dampeners. Regardless of where you play, your playing will affect how many people are cheering you on or booing you off the stage.  You start with an average crowd wondering what to expect.  Do poorly, and people wander off, unimpressed.  Do very well, and more people will come, and they'll make more than a little noise to encourage you.


The game's atmosphere extends to the menu system as well.  Many of the menus look like promotional concert posters, and the song list (and the instruction manual) are more than a bit similar to the composition books from your school days, including weird little drawings and notes.  Even the Quick Play high score list is unique.  High scores are scrawled on the wall above a urinal in the men's room.




Guitar Hero has a lot going for it, but it isn't perfect. A decidedly glaring omission is a practice mode.  While there's a basic training mode, it's just that- basic. It'll teach you the concepts and let you practice a bit, but little more than that.  To get good at the songs and techniques like hammer-ons, you'll just have to play the songs over and over, which can be a pain if you're just trying to master a specific portion of the song, like a specific note pattern, or even an entire solo.


Another "flaw" is the song list.  You can say, "Well, this song should've been there," or, "Why wasn't that song included?" from now until whenever, but it's really nitpicking.  Taking the song list by itself, it's hard to say that Harmonix didn't put together quite the soundtrack for their initial offering in what is hopefully a strong series in the making.


Showstopper or hopeless garage band?


Guitar Hero is, without a doubt, the best rhythm game to hit the market to date.  There is so little one can find wrong with this game, and when you look at the amazing presentation and atmosphere, the fantastic soundtrack, and just simply how fun the game is to play, you can't help but recognize that.  This might seem like a crazed fan raving about it, but Guitar Hero truly deserves the accolades.


Score: A


- Joel Barnett (Mallys)