Guitar Hero E3 2005 Hands-On Impressions

RedOctane and Harmonix are teaming up for a new music rhythm game that's simultaneously fresh and familiar.


After hearing murmurs on message boards about a unique new music game from Harmonix--the developer responsible for Frequency and its sequel Amplitude, as well the highly successful Karaoke Revolution series--being shown at E3 2005, we ventured down into the depths of Kentia Hall. There, in a small meeting room near the back of the hall, we found ourselves in the close company of Harmonix and RedOctane reps, who were there to show off Guitar Hero and a new guitar-shaped PS2 controller, respectively. Though both products were still far from being finished, the promise for something special--and extremely rocking--was quite apparent.

At first sight of a music game that uses a special guitar controller, our brains made a mad dash toward fond memories of Konami's highly enjoyable Guitar Freaks series, of which Guitar Hero is quite obviously a derivative. The Harmonix reps were quick to acknowledge the similarities, but it was just as apparent to us that this title is unique in several significant ways--not the least of which is the fact that, unlike Guitar Freaks, Guitar Hero will be getting a proper US release.

Currently, the game uses an interface that appears to be stitched together from pieces of both Amplitude and Karaoke Revolution. You're shown what buttons to press--and when--by a scrolling bar at the bottom of the screen, while the upper half of the screen is dominated by your avatar rocking hard in front of screaming fans. The main game interface isn't much to look at right now, though we definitely liked the whole high school doodle look of the game's front end, complete with small jabs at the PMRC. From the look of it, if Guitar Hero could wear a jean jacket, it would.

As is the case with most rhythm games, Guitar Hero is more concerned with being heard than seen. The E3 demo that Harmonix cooked up featured only six tracks, but they were all real keepers. At the top of the list was Boston's "More Than a Feeling," followed by Jimi Hendrix's "Spanish Castle Magic," Megadeth's "Symphony of Destruction," ZZ Top's "Sharp-Dressed Man," Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Higher Ground," and The Donnas' "Set It Off." Though none of these songs were performed by the original artists, the sound-a-like hired guns that Harmonix brought in were doing a commendable job of nailing the overall production sound of the original songs. It was just a taste of the roughly 30 songs that Harmonix is promising for the retail version of the game, and we definitely found the overall tone it set to be quite agreeable--and, of course, extremely rocking. The final playlist isn't set, but we're keeping our fingers crossed for plenty of Journey, Foreigner, Styx, and perhaps a song or two featuring the fiery fretwork of a certain Sir Edward Van Halen.

RedOctane had a working prototype of the guitar controller it is building especially for Guitar Hero on hand, and already it seemed responsive and quite sturdy, though from the chipped paint and the missing features, we could tell it still had a ways to go before it would be ready for store shelves. Like the Guitar Freaks controllers, buttons on the neck of the guitar correspond to onscreen cues that are triggered by moving a wide, flat level, located where you would normally be strumming. But rather than having just three buttons on the neck, RedOctane's guitar controller has five buttons, which allows for more complex patterns and takes the game's challenge level through the roof. We found the easy setting to be manageable, but once we had to start using our pinky finger to hold down buttons in the medium difficulty setting, we were dead in the water. When we did find our groove, though, the game gave a strong feeling of actually playing guitar--much closer to the real thing than any of the Guitar Freaks games--and the desire to put our foot up on a stage monitor and just rock out was tangible. The game was challenging, but it was a challenge that we're definitely looking forward to taking on again.

Aside from what we were actually shown of the game, it sounds like RedOctane and Harmonix both have some heady plans for Guitar Hero. More music is being secured, as well as other relevant licenses. RedOctane is working on adding a working whammy bar to the controller, and in an even bolder move, a mercury sensor that would add some crazy reverb effects when you moved the guitar around, encouraging some rock-god stage antics.

After our half hour visit with RedOctane and Harmonix, we came away feeling like Guitar Hero is going to rock, hard. We're eager to see what other songs will be included in the final product, and if RedOctane is able to deliver some of the headier features it is working on. GameSpot will most definitely have more on this totally sweet rhythm game.

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