With its easy-to-learn, tough-to-master gameplay that deftly simulated the act of playing guitar like a rock-and-roll god, and its incredibly good soundtrack, Guitar Hero easily put itself in the company of the best rhythm games of all time upon its release last year. Now a sequel has arrived in Guitar Hero II. If you think about the features you wished that the original Guitar Hero had, Guitar Hero II probably delivers on the bulk of them. New mode additions like cooperative play (with rhythm guitar and bass tracks to play), as well as a fantastic practice mode to help you break down and learn some of the toughest solos in the game, give the game a great deal of longevity past its lengthy and addictive career mode. On top of everything else, the game is a whole lot harder than its predecessor, with a greater emphasis on speedier songs and thicker, more ludicrous solos. This does ultimately make Guitar Hero II less immediately accessible to newcomers, but odds are that even a steeper level of challenge won't stop novices or veterans from getting their rock on.
Just in case you missed out on Guitar Hero, here's a quick primer on how it plays. The guitar controller features a strumming button, as well as five color-coded fret buttons on the neck of the guitar. Onscreen, notes color coded the same way as the fret buttons travel down the screen, and you need get your fingers on the correct fret buttons while strumming in time with the notes. Each hit note scores you points, and creating lengthy combos ups a score multiplier. Your progress is tracked by a "rock meter," and if you miss too many notes, you'll eventually hit the red and fail the song. Furthermore, every now and again you'll gain "star power" by perfectly hitting a section of notes. This star power feeds into a meter, and by tilting the guitar at an opportune time, star power will deploy, giving you twice as many points per note as you'd normally get. Oh, and there's a whammy bar.
That's a fairly technical explanation of what basically boils down to hitting the notes and making with the rock. As mechanically excellent as Guitar Hero was, a bigger factor in its appeal was its song selection, namely the fantastic emphasis on really memorable riffs. Guitar Hero II ups the ante by including quite a few more songs than the original game. There are 64 in all, with 40 of those being licensed tracks from major artists and the remaining 24 being unlockable bonus songs from lesser-known bands. The song list travels through several eras and genres of rock, from classic '70s to modern black metal. Just to name a few, songs by Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, the Rolling Stones, Nirvana, Guns 'N Roses, Rage Against the Machine, The Police, Megadeth, and Lynyrd Skynyrd all make an appearance.
While the song list might be bigger, it's not necessarily as memorable as the first game's was. There are some legitimate classics here to be sure, like every metal head's favorite love song, "Sweet Child O' Mine," or the Southern rock anthem "Free Bird." But there are a few odd choices here and there, as well. If you're going to get Aerosmith in your game, why would you pick a song like "Last Child" over any of their numerous bigger, just as solo-heavy hits? And is "You Really Got Me" really the best Van Halen song that could be dug up? Of course, even the oddball choices are usually still quite fun to play, and there are a number of fantastically fun songs that you probably never would have thought of on your own, like The Pretenders' "Tattooed Love Boys" or The Police's "Message in a Bottle." You also probably won't be able to shake the feeling that you'd rather be playing just about any other Van Halen song, though.
Save for a couple of original master tracks (Primus' "John the Fisherman" and Jane's Addiction's "Stop"), all the major licensed tracks are covers, just like in the last game. Guitar Hero's covers were occasionally a bit off, but largely fantastic renditions of the chosen songs. Guitar Hero II delivers a similar level of quality. Some of the covers in the game are legitimately tough to pick out as covers, such as the fantastically produced "Carry on Wayward Son" by Kansas and "Woman" by Wolfmother. Others are a bit more scattershot in quality. Some of the vocalists in particular don't come off much like the real-life singers. The fake Ozzy Osbourne and Dave Mustaine in GH II don't sound nearly as spot-on as the ones in the first game, and the guy portraying Zach De La Rocha in Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name" comes off like a bad rap-rock karaoke performance. Still, these less-than-stellar examples are more aberrations than the norm, and the vast bulk of the songs are excellent renditions, especially in the guitar parts; and in a game about playing the guitar, ultimately that matters most.
Playing Guitar Hero II isn't noticeably different from playing Guitar Hero, at least not in the first couple of difficulty levels. Easy and medium are comparably designed to the level of difficulty found in the first game, but once you switch to hard, you'll immediately realize that the cakewalk is over. For lack of a better term, there is no "I Love Rock N' Roll" in GH II--no song that is the perfect initiation into a new difficulty level. The first song in the game is "Shout at the Devil" by Motley Crue, and while it's far from the toughest you'll ever play, going from that song on medium to the hard version, or even hard to the expert version, is a noticeable jump. Experienced Guitar Hero players probably won't care and will likely blow through to the expert mode without much trouble. Newer players, however, may find the jumps a bit steep at times. There are a lot of songs in this game that are as tough on hard difficulty as many of the songs on expert in the first game were.
The newer, tougher difficulty seems to come from an overlying desire to emphasize speed and crazy solos in Guitar Hero II, as opposed to the greater emphasis on classic riffs found in the first game. That's not necessarily a bad choice--just a different one. Players that revel in speedy guitar playing and solos that look like they could kill a man will squeal with glee at the game's guitar-shredding insanity. Those who like their guitar playing a bit more tempered and focused on technique won't be left in the cold, as there are several classically noodly songs like the Allman Brothers' "Jessica" and the Stones' "Can't You Hear Me Knocking." But the vast bulk of the songs are geared toward rocking fast and hard. Very, very hard.
Speed is one thing, but the developers also decided to trip up experienced players a bit by throwing in three-button chords. The idea of having to hold down three buttons instead of the usual two for chord sections might not sound too hard, but when they start flying at you fast and furious and alternate with two button chords and short, single-note sections, even the most experienced players may find themselves a bit flustered initially by how crazy these new chords tend to make certain songs. On the flip side, one area that has been improved a bit to make the game easier is hammer-ons and pull-offs. These would be the techniques used to quickly play short, fast progressions of single notes, usually within solos. The timing with this technique was a little broken in Guitar Hero, but here it's relaxed some, giving you a bit more leeway. However, even with these adjusted techniques, you're still going to have a heck of a time getting through some of the game's borderline psychotic solos.
It's good that there's a practice mode this time around, then. Since you aren't able to play through songs in quickplay or the career mode without being tied to the rock meter (and potentially failing before you get to the end), the new practice mode lets you play through any of the songs without fear of failure. What's more, you can play any specific section of a song you want, at the speed you want. Songs are broken down piece by piece, and you can pick any starting and stopping section you please. When you complete songs in the quickplay or career modes, you can access detailed stats that depict exactly how well you did on each individual section, so it's not tough to figure out where you need to improve. Three slower speeds are included, letting you slow a solo to a crawl so you can identify just how crazy that solo is. It's an incredibly useful tool for figuring out ways to best some of the game's peskier parts, and it's very easy to use. There's even an option to jump right into practice mode from the options menu that pops up when you fail a song in one of the other modes. Unfortunately, this mode doesn't show star-power sections, nor does it give any indication of how close you might be to failing a song. Not letting you fail is good, but some kind of indication to see just how badly you're screwing up would have been nice. And being able to figure out where best to use star power would also have been good, since often you can only survive some of these crazy solos with well-placed star-power usage. The mode also lacks any sort of loop feature, meaning each time you complete a section, you'll have to reload it to play again.
The basic play options are largely the same this time around. Career mode is where you'll spend much of your time initially as you work to unlock the game's many songs. The career progression works much the same as last year, with four sections broken up by difficulty. As you play, you'll unlock a bunch of new songs, as well as earn cash to spend in the game's store. New characters, costumes, guitars, guitar finishes, and yes, even songs can be purchased here. There are some truly fantastic axes to be unlocked, most of which are licensed Gibson guitars, but a few of which are so comically bizarre that you can't help but love them. Viking guitar, anyone?
The multiplayer section of the game has seen the biggest overhaul, though it still lacks online play. Regardless, the offline multiplayer options have tripled. On top of the same competitive mode from last year, where you and a friend would trade off playing sections of a song, there's a new version of that same mode that lets you both play through the entire song together. If you're one of those people that got tired of hearing your friends whine about how you got to play all the easier parts and they got stuck with the impossible sections, this should be a welcome addition.
The other option is cooperative play, and in this mode, only one of you can play lead guitar. The other player gets to pick up the rhythm guitar, or bass, depending on the song. When playing lead and rhythm guitar together, the game splits up the guitar parts you've been playing in the single-player in such a way that you realize you've often been playing two guitar pieces mashed into one all along. There are times when rhythm sections are actually more challenging than the lead sections, though they're also decidedly lacking in solo action, for the most part. The split between guitar and bass is more pronounced. Bass is, after all, a more repetitive instrument, and some of the bass parts in the game are flat-out boring. But a good number of them are also extremely fun, especially in any song where the bass is a more pronounced instrument within a band, such as Primus or Rush. Perhaps the scattered level of quality of the secondary parts is why these aren't available for play anywhere else in the game besides here and practice mode. Still, you could easily argue that in a band like Primus, the bass is practically the lead instrument, and not being able to play the bass in even quickplay is a bit disappointing.
What's weird about the cooperative mode itself is that you don't always get the sense that you're playing with someone, so much as playing next to another person. Obviously, the different instruments play into each other within the song, but there's something slightly mechanical about the way the two instruments play together in this mode. This is less a problem with rhythm guitar tracks and mostly an issue in bass songs that aren't crazy in the way that the Rush or Primus songs are. Basically, it's frequently hard to hear the bass guitar, even with the bass audio cranked up as much as it is, so it's tough to gauge how much effect you're really having on the song when playing bass. Seemingly, the developers realized this and tried to give the mode a bit more oomph by tying both players into a single rock meter and combo multiplier. So if your friend is really tanking on their part, you'll both lose your combo buildup and potentially fail the song. You even engage star power by both tilting your guitars. While that could be potentially disastrous if you're playing with a less-experienced player, the game mercifully lets you select individual difficulty levels for each part in this mode.
Though Guitar Hero's graphics weren't exactly the most impressive out there, the game had an explicitly goofy and decidedly rock-and-roll in-joke visual style to it that just worked. Guitar Hero II improves the technical visuals a bit, but upgrades the style even further to make another great-looking game. A few new guitarist characters join most of the main troupe of metal heads, punkers, and classic rockers from the last game, the most memorable of which is Lars Umlaut, a hulking Norwegian death metal guitarist with a fancy for elaborate costumes and breathing fire. Onstage, the sets have gotten much more elaborate, with more flashing lights, more pyrotechnics, and big cutouts of the grim ripper fighting a giant octopus monster, among other things. Granted, most times your eyes will be squarely focused on the fret board and the notes flying at you, but even if you're just catching stuff like this in the periphery, it's great to see.
Without a doubt, Guitar Hero II brings to the table an impressive package. The new multiplayer modes are plenty of fun, the song list is gigantic, and the practice mode is going to very much come in handy as you navigate the trials and tribulations of metal songs with 11 guitar solos and nine-minute rock epics. The only thing that makes GH II inherently less impressive than the first game is simply that its track list doesn't make the same incredible impression that the first game's did, even with these songs' greater level of challenge. Of course, even without the ultimate rock-and-roll mix tape of a soundtrack, Guitar Hero II is bound to provide hours of fun to any fan of the original, and perhaps it will even win over a few converts that missed out the first time around.