Just two months after the release of Guitar Hero 5, Activision has rolled out Band Hero. These two games are functionally the same, so Band Hero benefits from all the improvements that made Guitar Hero 5 so great, including the excellent new Party Play mode. However, Band Hero is aimed at a more specific demographic than GH5, and this is reflected in the main difference between the two games: the songs. Band Hero's tracklist reads like a setlist for a DJ at a middle school dance; there's a lot of pop and Top 40 rock, with some R&B and oldies thrown in for good measure. Many of the songs are fun to play, though nostalgia and guilty pleasure are just as likely to play a part in your enjoyment. Despite the variety, the scope still feels a bit limited, and the censored song lyrics that concerned parents will likely appreciate may not go over as well with others. Still, there's no denying that there's a lot of fun music here, and even if you're not a big Taylor Swift fan, you'll still have a rockin' good time with Band Hero.
The new Party Play mode introduced in Guitar Hero 5 is in full effect in Band Hero, and it's just as great. When you start up the game, it begins playing a song. Then, with the push of a few buttons, you and your friends can join in without missing a beat. You can use any collection of instruments you like, so if three of you want to sing along to "Heard It Through the Grapevine" while a fourth lays down the bass track, that's A-OK. Should you want to change the difficulty, skip the song, or throw together a quick setlist, you can do so using a little menu that only obscures your own note highway. There's no failing in Party Play, so even if you're at the bottom of the red zone, the screen won't flash red and you won't hear any awkward clanks unless you're actively playing the wrong notes. You can jump in and out as you like, rotate in other players, or just take a break. The music keeps playing, and you can tailor your experience on the fly without any abrupt pauses or song restarts. The result is a casual play environment that is accessible, welcoming, and delightfully low key.
If you prefer more deliberate and finite sets, then Quickplay mode is a great option. Here, you can construct a setlist and play with up to four players. Again, you can use whatever instrument combinations you see fit. Quickplay also makes accommodations for more casual players, allowing only those playing on hard or expert difficulty to lose their note highways. Your bandmates can restore your highway and prevent band failure by activating their star power, but Band Hero also offers a more flexible way to come to a friend's aid. When a bandmate fails, a crowd meter appears onscreen. If the rest of the band plays well enough for long enough, the lapsed bandmate is revived and the band keeps on rocking. There is no limit to how many times you can revive a bandmate, though it does seem to get harder as the number of dropouts increases. The crowd meter makes your band less dependent on star power opportunities that may or may not appear in time, which means you don't necessarily have to save your star power for a flagging fellow rocker. Quickplay is also a good place to make a bid for a spot on the extensive leaderboards. There are high-score categories for each song, instrument, and difficulty, so score seekers of all levels can participate.
If you like to earn more substantial accolades for your performances, Career mode once again provides a place where you progress through different venues, playing songs and unlocking new gigs. In Band Hero, you earn up to five stars for each performance, and the more stars you collect, the more gigs you unlock. This mode will feel very familiar to Guitar Hero veterans, but there's one element that prevents it from going stale. Each song has a bonus challenge associated with it that allows you to earn up to eight stars per song instead of the usual five. These three-tiered challenges (one extra star per tier) can either be specific to an instrument (whammy for a certain amount of time as the guitarist) or apply to the entire band (maintain a 4x multiplier for a certain amount of time). This variety encourages you to mix up the instruments you use or to play with a few friends, and there's a handy onscreen meter that tracks your progress throughout the song. Some of these challenges will be easy for confident players, while others are much more difficult, though in general, the songs in Band Hero aren't as difficult to play as those in Guitar Hero 5. Earning a few extra stars is nice, but completing challenges can also earn you bonus unlockables, including new outfits, sponsored equipment sets, cheats, and new playable characters.
In addition to franchise standbys like Axel Steel and Judy Nails (who have gotten serious makeovers for their Band Hero appearances), you can choose to use the likenesses of a handful of real rock stars. You unlock many of these celebs just by playing through their songs successfully in Career mode. Once unlocked, these stars can join Guitar Hero characters and your user-created rockers onstage. Because you can use characters to fill multiple band roles, you could rock out with a veritable clone army of Taylor Swifts. Xbox 360 owners can add their avatars into the mix, making for some truly ridiculous situations. If you replace three of the members of No Doubt with avatars, you've got something that resembles Gwen Stefani hosting The Muppet Show. Regardless of whether you find these strange pairings hilarious or utterly stupid, Band Hero's visuals are slick and lively. Character animations are more fluid, and lip synching looks good, even on the avatars that are just cycling between a few different mouth icons. The crowds still look like a patterned mass of clones, but the lively performance camera angles ensure that they only seem odd at the beginning and end of your song.
Band Hero also features the much improved music studio from Guitar Hero 5. The overhauled interface makes it much easier to lay down tracks, and you can learn more about the different options simply by holding down the fret button you would use to select those tracks. It still requires a lot patience and skill to make a decent song, but the barrier of entry has been significantly lowered. If you're not at the composition stage yet, you can flex your music muscle in the new jam session mode, which allows you to choose a background loop and play over it to your heart's content. This feature makes it much easier to experiment with your not-actually-musical instrument, and noodling around with some cooperative friends can be fun.
There's a substantial setlist on the disc, though Band Hero's 65 licensed tracks don't seem like much when compared to Guitar Hero 5's 85 tracks. Players can download user-created tunes, as well as official downloadable content tracks, though not all of the tracks in the downloadable catalog are compatible with Band Hero. The game also censors lyrics more vigorously than Guitar Hero 5, which can lead to some odd and disappointing silences. Apparently, in order to earn an ESRB rating of E10+, the word "whiskey" was nipped out of Don McLean's "American Pie," so those "good old boys were drinking…and rye." (Spoiler alert, kiddos, rye is alcohol too!) Band Hero also charges you if you want to import songs from your other Guitar Hero games and will only transfer a limited number of songs. Paying to play songs you already own is a bummer, and you can't use your celebrity characters in imported songs.
Aside from new celebrities, songs, and venues, Band Hero isn't that different from Guitar Hero 5. You can compete online in a number of different modes, and vocalists now have to use a controller to activate star power. Like Guitar Hero 5, Band Hero is a well put together, robust rhythm game, and Party Play mode is a great way to entice shy friends to join in the fun. There's a lot of good stuff here, unless, of course, you already own Guitar Hero 5, in which case it is little more than a full-price track pack. But if you're looking for more songs or interested to see what this plastic video game rock craze is all about, Band Hero is a great option. It may not blow the roof off, but it will definitely get your party rockin'.