2009 will be a big year for Activision's Guitar Hero franchise, as the publisher is set to spin the franchise off into a pair of new titles bearing the Hero moniker. Later this month, it will release DJ Hero, a game that takes the familiar note-matching formula and adapts it for the hip hop and electronic scenes by way of a brand-new turntable controller. It'll quickly follow that up with Band Hero, a game that sticks far more closely to the Guitar Hero experience, but with an aesthetic and tracklist skewed toward a younger audience. We recently spent some hands-on time with a preview build of Band Hero to see what's in store when the game is released next month.
We should start by calling a spade a spade. From a gameplay perspective, Band Hero is a nearly identical experience to Guitar Hero 5. With the same multi-instrument configuration and no noticeable changes to the way you play songs in the traditional modes, Band Hero is functionally the same as the most recent entry in the Guitar Hero series--mostly. We'll get to that one difference in a bit. But right off the bat, you'll notice an entirely different look, with the hard rock imagery of Guitar Hero replaced by bright blues and pinks in the menu screens, as well as venues that are more shopping malls than dingy clubs. There are also a few new characters added to the usual stable of GH rockers, such as the dapper, clean-cut Quincy Styles and the adorably pink-haired Midori.
When you scroll through the menus, you'll find the usual array of gameplay modes. There's a full band Career mode that lets you swap instruments and difficulty levels on the fly. There's a Studio mode that lets you record and share your own songs, as well as multiplayer modes that include the full suite of RockFest challenges from GH5. Then there's Party Play, the terrific addition to GH5 that let you jump in and out of songs on the fly, play any instrument combination, and change difficulties without starting over.
But when you hit the blue button from the main menu, you'll jump into a brand-new gameplay mode unique to Band Hero. This is where Band Hero deviates most from the established Guitar Hero gameplay formula. It's a karaoke mode called Sing-Along, and it's a bit different from the act of playing a song in Quickplay or Career as a vocalist. Rather than having the lyrics displayed in a small area at the top of the screen with the words coming in from right to left, the lyrics in Sing-Along are displayed in much larger text toward the bottom of the screen as the words change from white to blue to match the progression of the song. Those lyrics are all you see on the screen besides your band performing in the background. It's just like regular old karaoke; there's no scoring or failing out. It's just you singing the words on the screen with some action going on in the background.
Then there's the tracklist. While the cheery look and the inclusion of a karaoke mode combine to add a bit of a unique feel to Band Hero, the songs are really what make the game different from its Guitar Hero forebears. There are a few songs in there that wouldn't feel out of place in a GH game, such as those by Cheap Trick, Pat Benetar, and Styx. But for the most part, these are modern Top 40 hits accompanied by classic sing-along hits. You'll find such artists as Hilary Duff, Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, and Robbie Williams, plus the infectious melodies of Jackson 5's "ABC" and The Village People's "YMCA." (You can find the most recent tracklist right here.)
There are also some features unique to the Wii and DS versions, but our experience was limited to the Xbox 360 version. You can expect to see more on those Nintendo versions as we get closer to Band Hero's November 3 release.