Guitar Hero II Exclusive Preview - The Set List and More

RedOctane and Harmonix's shreddin' sequel is almost here, and we ripped through the latest build.

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Sometime in 2005, a brave little rhythm game called Guitar Hero came along and rocked our socks off, becoming the most widely acclaimed music game in a long while. A lot has happened since then. RedOctane and Harmonix, the two companies responsible for the game, have both been acquired by gigantically huge corporations (Activision and MTV, respectively). An Xbox 360 version has been announced. "Other-musical-instrument Hero" jokes have been made ad nauseam. All the while, Guitar Hero has been sitting high atop the charts, racking up sales with word of mouth and a rocking gameplay model that sells itself. The little rhythm game that could has become a bona fide phenomenon.

Oh, and somewhere in there, a sequel was announced. We've been strumming away on a new and kinda-sorta-almost finished build of Guitar Hero II (the final track list is still in flux, thanks to RedOctane's unflagging drive to cram in as many songs as it can) to see what the developers have changed or improved on. As you might have guessed from our previous coverage, so far it's looking a lot like Guitar Hero with a new coat of paint and a whole bunch of new songs, which is pretty much exactly what we wanted when we finally beat "Bark at the Moon" on expert.

A new cast of eclectic, over-the-top axe-men will join the crew of shredders from the first game.
A new cast of eclectic, over-the-top axe-men will join the crew of shredders from the first game.

We've already detailed the big improvements to the gameplay--three-button chords, a two-player mode that lets you play lead guitar and rhythm or bass at the same time--but aside from the technical improvements, this is the Guitar Hero you know and love. The biggest differences are in the song selection, and RedOctane has been slowly fleshing out the game's track list over the past few weeks (expect a full-list announcement soon). The first game leaned a little heavily on classic rock, but we're finding the sequel presents a more eclectic mixture of contemporary tunes and some just plain strange selections.

How about Dick Dale's "Misirlou," perhaps better known as "that surf rocky song from Pulp Fiction"? Or who played the first game without thinking "Sweet Child O' Mine" should have been in there? And of course, there's "Free Bird," about which nothing more needs to be said. Alice in Chains, the Pretenders, Spinal Tap, Cheap Trick, the Stones, Nirvana, the Police, Van Halen--there's a lot of big names in here. Some of them lent more than their licenses, too. Like Zakk Wylde in the first game, Primus handed over the original master recording for "John the Fisherman," so you don't just get an authentic facsimile of Les Claypool's trademark nasally vocals and aggressive bass slapping--you get the real thing. RedOctane promises more news on songs with the original master recordings soon.

Guitar Hero was primarily great because it was so fun to play, but it also excelled at small-time band humor--with exaggerated guitarists, a bunch of stylized axes, amusing loading-screen text, and so on--and the sequel amps all that up a notch. The first venue you'll hit is a high school gym decked out for the Battle of the Bands competition, and you'll eventually progress to a massive English stage modeled morbidly after Stonehenge. A bunch of new guitarists join the motley cast from the first game, such as rockabilly strummer Eddie Knox and our favorite, the portly GWAR reject Lars Umlaut. There seems to be more of everything in here--more guitars, more characters and costumes, more unlockable videos (including a new tour of Gibson's US guitar factory).

Expect more guitars, more songs--more of just about everything.
Expect more guitars, more songs--more of just about everything.

We've also played around some more with the training mode that we broke a few months ago, which lets you play different sections of a song discretely and at different speeds. We're pretty darn thankful for the inclusion of this mode, because frankly, a lot of the songs in Guitar Hero II are hard. It seems like whoever's designing the note patterns for these songs is aware that many players will come to this game confident in their abilities, and they have crafted the new songs accordingly. Then again, with the very inviting practice mode on offer, you know it's only a matter of time before we see some YouTube video of a perfect expert run through "Misirlou" (we only made it to around 18 percent).

RedOctane and Harmonix seem to have taken the tack of not fixing something that wasn't broken to begin with. Guitar Hero II will be immediately recognizable to anyone who fiddled with the first one, but the subtle gameplay improvements and towering track list ought to make it deliver in the long term. We're excited about some of the notable tracks yet unannounced in the game, but you'll get the full rundown directly from RedOctane soon. In the meantime, try to rest your fingers.

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