E3 06: Guitar Hero II Hands-On

We throw up the horns in Kentia Hall with the two-player co-op mode in Guitar Hero II. Also, they got nachos down there!

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LOS ANGELES--It's safe to say that going into the Electronic Entertainment Expo 2005, a little-known guitar-based rhythm game by a little known publisher of random peripheral-based rhythm games was just about the last thing on anyone's to-do list. It wasn't until we stumbled upon RedOctane and veteran music game developer Harmonix's Guitar Hero almost on accident last year that we first realized that this was more than just a Guitar Freaks knockoff, delivering a challenging and satisfying gameplay experience like few other rhythm games ever had before. It was a critical and fan favorite, and simply one of the best games of last year. So it was with no level of surprise that from the moment Guitar Hero II was announced earlier this year, it became one of the most hotly anticipated games of the year. Well, we've had our chance to get our hands on Guitar Hero II straight from the E3 2006 show floor, and we can say with no level of uncertainty that yes, it does indeed rock.

Recently, RedOctane announced the first few of the reported 55 tracks to be included in the final game, including cover renditions of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs," Reverend Horton Heat's "Psychobilly Freakout," Rush's "YYZ," Van Halen's "You Really Got Me," KISS' "Strutter," and the Butthole Surfers "Who Was In My Room Last Night," as well as an official tune by GH bonus song mainstays Drist. However, color us surprised when we happened upon the game at the show, only to find that not only were those songs available, but also another previously unannounced song, that being Primus' "John the Fisherman." Notice we didn't say "a cover of" the song, either. It's actually the original Primus track, which is pretty excellent.

It makes perfect sense that Primus would find their way into the game, since one of the big focuses of the sequel is to provide co-op play for two players with one player on lead guitar and the other on rhythm guitar or, in the case of Primus (as well as certain others), bass. The same competitive lead guitar multiplayer from last year's game will be featured this time around too, but now you and a friend can simultaneously play through entire songs and be playing entirely different parts. We spent the bulk of our test time trying this feature out, and frankly, we had a blast with it.

Bass and rhythm-guitar parts aren't nearly as easygoing as they might initially sound. Contrary to popular belief, bass players and rhythm-guitar players don't have it easy. Some of the bass and rhythm parts we came across during our playtime could be called markedly more difficult than even the lead parts. So don't think you're just going to have a breezy time of it picking up the bass or rhythm guitar--unless, of course, you choose a lower difficulty level than the lead part. Yes, you can select individual difficulty levels for co-op tracks, so your rock-deficient buddies can warm up on easy bass parts while you shred on expert like the rock god you think you are.

The mechanics of playing co-op are sort of a crossbreed between the first game's single- and multiplayer modes. You're both tied to a single rock meter, a single star-power meter, and a single combo counter. So now, when you've got a perfect streak going, your jerk of a friend can screw it all up for you with one wrong note. For that matter, you can lose in co-op if your rock meter dips all the way to the bottom. Good think you're holding a blunt object in your hands already. Also, once your star-power meter is filled, you both have to tilt your guitars at the same time to enact the star power. We can only hope and pray that this leads to more people designing classic ZZ Top-inspired guitar flipping routines.

Apart from the excellent co-op play mechanics, not an awful lot has changed in Guitar Hero land. For presentation, the game is near-identical to Guitar Hero, with similarly designed venues to play in and many of the same characters returning. There is a new rockabilly character in the game, however, complete with black T-shirt, big hair, and tattoo sleeves on his arms. The one new gameplay thing we did notice is the addition of three-button chords. These seemed reserved primarily for big finishes, but yes, there are times where you'll have to hit three buttons at once, and yes, it's wicked hard to pull off.

We won't sit here and individually go over every single song in the game and how it plays, but we will say that we, by far, had the most fun playing "War Pigs." It was just the most satisfying of the available songs, and incidentally, also the longest. We'll also freely admit that both "YYZ" and "Psychobilly Freakout" totally kicked our asses on hard difficulty. We're kind of scared to imagine expert level with those songs.

After spending a good bit of time with Guitar Hero II, we're as excited as ever for this sequel. Make no mistake, this is very much the same brand of single-player game that you experienced the last time around, but the co-op play adds a significant new dimension to the multiplayer experience. And dude, Van Halen! How kick ass is that?

We'll be sure to bring you much more coverage of Guitar Hero II before its November release date. Stay tuned.

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