The Guitar Hero franchise took a big leap last year with World Tour, incorporating vocals and drums and making a bid for Rock Band's multiplayer music game crown. While World Tour was a great debut, Guitar Hero 5 is a more refined, more accessible game that better fulfills the promise of a full band experience with the Guitar Hero name. A number of enhancements make the game more enjoyable across the board, and the new Party Play mode sets the standard for relaxed, social gameplay in the genre. The freestyle jam mode provides a fun creative outlet, and folks interested in recording their creations will have a much easier time thanks to the significantly improved music studio interface. While none of Guitar Hero 5's improvements are groundbreaking, they all contribute to this very entertaining, very well put-together package that is sure to please both aspiring and established Guitar Heroes.
The most significant new feature in Guitar Hero 5 is Party Play mode. When you start up the game, you see a brief intro animation, and then the game starts up a random song and a video of Guitar Hero characters performing. You can press the start button to call up the main menu, or you can press the yellow button to jump right into the song being performed. Your note highway appears, and after selecting a few options, you're playing the Guitar Hero you know and love. Up to four players can join this way, using whatever combination of instruments they want. Two vocalists, a drummer, and a bass player? Yes. Four guitarists? By all means. You can't fail in this mode, and changing difficulty, skipping the song, and dropping out are all easily accomplished through a little menu that only obscures your own note highway. The result is a casual play environment that is accessible, welcoming, and delightfully low key. You can jump in and out as you like, rotating in other players or just taking a break. The music keeps playing, and you can tailor your experience on the fly without any abrupt pauses or song restarts. It's a great way to entice shy friends to join in the fun, and it makes firing up Guitar Hero 5 at a party a more informal prospect. A way to exclude certain songs from the random play rotation would have been welcome, but you can temporarily interrupt a song to create a set list and then jump right back into the music. Party Play strips away anything that might impede your enjoyment of the game, and as a result, Guitar Hero 5 shines as an example of how to make music games accessible and fun for a wide range of players.
If you prefer more deliberate and finite sets, then Quickplay is a great place to go. Here you can construct a set list and play with up to four players, again using whatever instrument combinations you see fit. Quickplay also makes accommodations for more casual players, allowing only those playing on hard or expert difficulty to fail out. Previously, you could save failed bandmates only by using the star power you earned by nailing glowing notes. You can still use this method, but Guitar Hero 5 gives you another option. When a bandmate fails, a crowd meter pops up. If the rest of the band plays well enough for long enough, the failed 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 fails pile up. The crowd meter makes your band less dependent on star power opportunities that may or may not appear in time and also 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, each instrument, and each difficulty, so score-seekers of all levels can participate.
If earning rewards for your skills is your thing, Career mode once again provides a place where you progress through different venues, playing songs and unlocking new gigs. In Guitar Hero 5, 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 new element that helps keep 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 be either instrument specific (whammy for a certain amount of time as the guitarist) or band-wide (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 so difficult that only experts will have a shot. 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, Guitar Hero 5 features the likenesses of a handful of real rock stars. You unlock many of these stars just by playing through their songs successfully in Career mode (no boss battles here), while other stars become available only after you complete one of the aforementioned bonus challenges. Once unlocked, these stars can join Guitar Hero characters, your user-created rockers, and your Xbox 360 avatar onstage. This gives rise to some truly bizarre band lineups. Seeing Kurt Cobain perform onstage with three avatars is like watching a bizarre segment from Sesame Street, while watching four Johnny Cashes sing a song by Public Enemy is just ridiculous. Regardless of whether you find these strange pairings hilarious or utterly stupid, Guitar Hero 5 delivers improved visuals that you'll easily notice when you get a chance to look away from your note highway. 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 you'll notice them only at the beginning and end of your song.
One of the most improved aspects of Guitar Hero 5 is the music studio. 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 them. It still requires 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 playing music with your not-actually-musical instrument, and noodling around with some cooperative friends can be fun.
There's an extensive set list on the disc, and players can once again download user-created tunes as well as official downloadable content tracks. However, if you're looking to import songs from your copy of Guitar Hero World Tour, you're in for some disappointment. After entering the 20-digit Unique Owner ID from the back of your World Tour manual, you have to pay 280 Microsoft points to download digital copies of the World Tour songs to your hard drive. Worse, you get only 35 of the 80-plus tracks from World Tour. Though the 35 tracks have been updated to include stuff like band moments (a bonus for playing in unison) and expert plus drumming (with adaptor-enabled double foot pedal action), it's disappointing that a higher percentage of tracks aren't available.
There are a number of other sundry tweaks in Guitar Hero 5, but the core gameplay remains largely the same as World Tour. The new Rockfest multiplayer mode eschews item-based battles for more natural challenges, like nailing the longest streak of notes. Oddly, vocal star power can no longer be activated by tapping the mic, so singers have to keep a controller on hand if they want to use star power. Other than this change, and the disappointing song import options, Guitar Hero 5 improves upon its predecessor in almost every category. It's an easy buy for folks who bought World Tour, and it is a great option for those looking to see what this plastic video game rock craze is all about. It won't blow the roof off, but Guitar Hero 5 will definitely get your party rockin'.