Improved interface and new modes help Guitar Hero 5 stand as one of the best music games on the market today.
One major issue with Guitar Hero: World Tour was its interface. Setting up a game involved signing into profiles, selecting instruments and difficulties, and all around making getting into the fun more of an ordeal than it was worth. Guitar Hero 5 fixes that entirely. The biggest remedy is the Party Play. Immediately after loading up, the game will show different characters on screen playing to a random song. A player can then simply press a button, select their difficulty setting, and they're instantly ready to rock out to one of the 85 already-unlocked songs. While hardcore players may ignore this feature, those who simply want to play locally with friends will find it spectacularly improved from the clumsy menus of World Tour. Party Play streamlines the setup of a game, even including a "no-fail" mode to keep casual players going even through the harder sequences. It won't make a huge difference to the Guitar Hero veterans who want to rock out through Career mode or competitively online, but the Party Play is one of the best improvements seen in this struggling franchise in a long, long time.
Guitar Hero 5 takes the better parts of past games like World Tour and Metallica, all while mixing in a few nuances that actually add some variety to the long-used formula. Career Mode is the core mode, with up to four players (with any combination of instruments) being able to play different songs in multiple venues. As in Guitar Hero: Metallica, no longer are you required to trudge through absolutely every song to progress. Instead, it's all based on your earned stars. You can earn stars by traditionally performing well on your respective instrument, or you can take a different path and stand up against the many instrument-specific challenges. With challenges, different songs will prompt one or more of the instrumentalists to abide by a specific task, like whammying for a certain amount of time for guitarists, nailing bass steps for drummers, or keeping a 4x multiplier for vocalists. These could've used a small bit more variety throughout, but they do add a new incentive to return to certain songs. While these inclusions may not sound like much, they stand as a huge improvement over the slim Career Mode of World Tour.
However, the gameplay, for better or for worse, remains mostly unchanged. You're still watching circles fly by on the note highway, and strumming, tapping, or singing along to the songs. One problem that I found with the vocals is that you need to press one of the face buttons on the Xbox 360 controller to activate star power. This makes performing the vocals feel distracting, limiting the whole "rock-star" vibe. It is definitely more responsive than the tapping of the microphone like in World Tour, but it still feels limiting. The rest of the instruments work great in Guitar Hero 5; Neversoft even cut out the touch-pad ties, making the solos much less gimmick-based. Overall, you're bound to find the gameplay to be mindfully familiar, though thoughtfully accessible.
The soundtrack of World Tour was a controversial topic; despite having some amazing tunes from bands like Nirvana, Tool, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, there were always a few tracks that felt out of place or just weren't fun to play. I loved playing and singing "L'Via L'Viaquez" by The Mars Volta, but I'm pretty sure that not everyone did. This problem, unfortunately, persists in Guitar Hero 5. Clocking in at 85 songs, Guitar Hero 5 possesses the quantity to keep many music fans going for sure; the setlist has many unique sounds and subgenres to explore. While it's definitely great that we can play hits from iconic musicians like Bob Dylan, Megadeth, and Blur, the inclusion of so many obscure, up-and-coming bands are sure to leave many underwhelmed, yearning for the less-scattered songlist of earlier Guitar Hero games. In addition to the huge selection of on-disc songs, Guitar Hero 5 is compatible with nearly all of the DLC of Guitar Hero: World Tour. You like that Bruce Springsteen Track Pack or the rockin' instrumentals of "Panic Switch" by the Silversun Pickups? No worries. Also, for a small fee, you can import a selection of songs from Guitar Hero: World Tour or Smash Hits' on-disc library. Sadly, though, you can only import 35 songs from World Tour and 21 from Smash Hits, and you don't even get to pick which ones. The slim importing options are a disappointment, and on the whole, it's very difficult to see what kind of audience the soundtrack of Guitar Hero 5 is aimed at. It really is all over the place. Either way, there are a lot of songs to play through in Guitar Hero 5; you probably won't like them all, but there is enough variety in the soundtrack to keep you coming back.
Aside from the Career mode, Guitar Hero 5 includes some other modes, some familiar, others new. The traditional Quickplay lets you dive into a song with all of the Guitar Hero traditions in tact, Training lets players practice through songs and tutorials, and the music studio is mildly improved and easier to manage. The local multiplayer is great, and the new competitive modes have cool new twists, like Momentum, where the difficulty changes depending on your performance, on Elimination, where the lowest-scoring player is eliminated after a period of time. These are really fun to play, even as a lone player. Of course, there's always the archetypical Score Attack in Pro Face-off mode. Overall, the mode count in Guitar Hero 5 has some missteps (the music studio still demands a ton of time and effort to master), but it manages to keep the modes interesting and functional, all the while removing a great deal of the problems found in its predecessors.
The presentation is a strong improvement over World Tour. The performances are full of visual effects; bright bloom, expressive animations, and awesome lighting demonstrate a presentation that actually looks like a genuine concert video. Sure, the characters' faces can be a bit weird at times, but it's safe to say that the overall performances have stepped up beyond its predecessors. The inclusion of real-life music personalities like Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and Garbage's Shirley Manson is an odd choice, especially once you select them to play other songs. World Tour and Metallica both used real-life musicians' likenesses in-game, but there's a surreal vibe when you see Johnny Cash start belting out to Weezer. The inclusion of avatar support is even stranger. It's cool seeing your 360 avatar likeness rocking out on guitar, but alongside the more realistically-designed characters of Guitar Hero, it feels forced. It's a cool force, but it's still forced.
+ The accessible Party Play removes the guess-work in starting a game
+ Soundtrack is varied and comprehensive
+ Improved presentation makes performances look great
+ Variety of modes offers plenty of reasons to return to the stage
- Soundtrack has some spotty inclusions
- Some gameplay changes aren't for the best
- Overly-selective song importing
With Metallica and Smash Hits already out and Van Halen on its way later this year, Guitar Hero 5 would be expected to sink into its already thick mountain of brothers and sisters, never to be acknowledged by the gaming crowd. Thank goodness that's not the case, because Guitar Hero 5 is a major improvement not only over its predecessor, but the entire Guitar Hero catalog. By removing the annoying login barriers and introducing a unique and easy-to-follow Party Play, Guitar Hero 5 is the most accessible and hassle-free music game on the market to date. A better presentation and collection of modes are excellent inclusions, expanding the standards of the music game genre. The only seriously-problematic factor in Guitar Hero 5 is its spotty soundtrack, which is bound to not satisfy everyone. The song importing is also pretty lackluster compared to the game's market counterpart, Rock Band 2, and the DLC still isn't up to par. But if you're looking for a new music game based on gameplay improvements instead of music improvements, Guitar Hero 5 is easily the prime contender. It's absolutely astounding that despite having nearly over-saturating the market with Guitar Hero games this year, Neversoft has finally made a truly great one. Guitar Hero 5 surpasses past installments in nearly every way, and while it's not flawless, it possesses enough content and flair to be worth a serious look. Now, go out there and rock on!